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Tigray Crisis: A Conversation With General Tsadkan Gebretensae, Tigray Defense Force Central Command

9 min read.

Will the ceasefire between Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government’s bring lasting peace to Ethiopia?

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Tigray Crisis: A Conversation With General Tsadkan Gebretensae, Tigray Defense Force Central Command
Photo: TesfaNews

Editor’s note: Gen Tsadkan Gebretensae is a key member of the Tigrayan Defence Forces Command and widely regarded as one of Africa’s best military thinkers and strategists. He was a former top Ethiopian army general. He is widely-regarded as one of the masterminds of Operation Alula which in late June 2021 led to major reversals for the Ethiopian army in Tigray. In this interview, conducted in Tigray on 6 July by The Elephant, Gen Tsadkan spells out his views on peace and the way forward for Ethiopia.

The Elephant: What is the context of what is happening in Tigray?

Gen Tsadkan: I don’t need to go back to the horrendous atrocities that have been committed against the people of Tigray by invading forces of Isaias and Abiy, but after the offensive, after what has happened recently, the Ethiopian government is in my opinion living in an illusion. It is an illusion that has been created by themselves. They tried to deny the reality on the ground. They tried to cheat the world by saying they have declared a unilateral ceasefire while they have been defeated. We decimated two brigades of their forces which were running away from Mekelle, so this nonsense of unilateral ceasefire is a drama that has been created by themselves. Instead, they should recognize the realities on the ground and come with a realistic solution. You cannot have a ceasefire at a time when you have already blocked every movement of goods and services. Ethiopian Airlines is not flying to Mekelle, there is no telephone, there is no internet, there is no power, there is no road transport, humanitarian aid has been blocked. He cannot talk about any unilateral ceasefire while trying to strangle the whole people of Tigray.

So, I think I would like the international community to understand the situation we are in. We have been very much restrained because we don’t want to be seen as if we are not accepting a political solution. The whole problem is not only in Tigray but in the whole of Ethiopia. We know the Government forces are almost finished but at the same time we are restraining ourselves for a realistic political solution to the whole problem. I would like the international community to understand this situation, that is the message I have now.

The Elephant: You were a part of the group that mediated between the PM and the TPLF before war broke out, what led you to break off that role?

Gen Tsadkan: You are right, myself and a group of prominent political individuals in Ethiopia have been trying to mediate. The basis of the interaction we had was to accept the existing Constitution of Multinational Federalism and resolve any other issue apart from it. In my interaction with the PM, it was very clear that he was looking for; (A) dismantling the Multinational Federalism, which brought Ethiopia together and (B) he was looking for a solution that is not a political peaceful solution but preparing himself for war. That was very clear for me in our last meetings. So I had to make a choice. I knew that the political solution to Tigray would not come, in my interactions with him. I was interacting with the President of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael. On the part of Tigray, I saw willingness to resolve the issue, as long as the Multinational Federal Constitutional Arrangement is respected. That was not the case with Dr Abiy Ahmed, so I had to take a position. And at the same time, there was no other choice. The Ethiopian Government invited foreign forces to invade our country, so the choice was either to surrender to foreign forces or Abiy’s forces, or join the resistance. I chose the latter.

The Elephant: Those final meetings you had with the PM, when was that, 2019 or 2020?

Gen Tsadkan: I think it was 2020. It was not 2019. We had several, we had some meetings earlier, precisely around three major meetings, but the last one was in 2020.

The Elephant: When did you specifically join the armed resistance?

Gen Tsadkan :It was after November.

The Elephant: Could you explain the relationship btw the TPLF, the TDF, the Government of Tigray and your position now?

Gen Tsadkan: The TPLF is the ruling party, the TDF is a word that has been coined, not in a negative sense but in a positive sense, during the resistance. The whole resistance is led by the Government of Tigray, not the TPLF, as a ruling party it might have its say but the resistance is led by the Government, the duly elected Government of Tigray. The Government of Tigray has established a Central Command which decides on all issues related to war and peace, all issues: political, diplomatic, military, economic issues, this body is chaired by the President of Tigray, Dr. Debretsion, and the military effort is one aspect of the resistance. I serve as a member of the Central Command in the structure that I have described, so the TPLF is the ruling party, the Government of Tigray is the one leading the resistance, through a structure called the Central Command that decides on all issues related to peace and war. The TDF, the Tigrayan Defense Forces, is an element in the whole structure that is being commanded by the Central Command. Below the Central Command there is a structure called the Military Command, the Military Command specifically directs and commands operations in the army. This is the arrangement.

The Elephant: Were you expecting to win control of Tigray so soon or even at all, did it come as a surprise to you?

Gen Tsadkan: No, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. In fact, I am on public record even before the war started telling people, you know, of all regions, the Region of Tigray is a region which shall not head for war but at same time is not scared of war. I know the history, I know the potential, when this thing started it was very clear that the most senior, most highly experienced commanders are from Tigray, which has been the backbone of the Ethiopian armed forces for the last thirty years, highly experienced because most of them have gone through two major wars, I very much know the military tradition of Tigray, so when you combine those two elements, highly experienced and skillful commanders and a society with a very deep military tradition, it only takes a short period of time to reorganize and regain control. That’s exactly what happened.

At the same time, this has been facilitated by the atrocities committed by the enemies of Tigray, that created a widespread opposition and dedicated of the youngsters to finish all this within a short period of time. When all those things came together, given the experience we had, we had to organize the fighting units, train the fighting units, and it was clear for us that when we get some time, we will create a very formidable fighting machine, and that’s what has happened.

The Elephant: how many POWs do you currently have?

Gen Tsadkan: I might miss some of the information, the latest information I have before five days is around more than 8000, the prisoners of war kept increasing, they might have increased a little bit. But that is the figure I know.

The Elephant: Do you want to say about plans for treatment of these POWs?

Gen Tsadkan: No, I don’t think there is anything in particular, I know my colleagues are in touch with the ICRC, and will handle them according to international law.

The Elephant: What is the current humanitarian situation? What actions are you hoping the International Community will take?

Gen Tsadkan: As has been described by the international media several times and by UN Agencies, the humanitarian situation is extremely dire. The Ethiopian Government is trying to aggravate this by blocking any connection with Sudan and any other corridor. Even they have blocked air communications. So the Government of Tigray and the Central Command have decided, I think it has been communicated, we are ready to accept any humanitarian assistance, ready to facilitate anything that the U.N. or any humanitarian assistance agencies would like to have, security, we will provide security to the areas we control, more than 90 percent of Tigray, we will comply with their requirements, so my message is, there is a huge need for humanitarian assistance and we are ready to accept any assistance, if the international community means business, let them come and do what is required to save lives in Tigray.

The Elephant: what will happen if the PM continues to refuse humanitarian access to your region?

Gen Tsadkan: Not only resisting humanitarian assistance to our region, but if he continues to do the way they are acting, that is, strangling Tigray, blocking power, electricity, internet, air transport, land transport, not only humanitarian assistance but to civilians as well, I think the Government of Tigray and the resistance in Tigray will be required to break its restraint, restraint from military activities, we know we have the capacity, we have increased our capacity, we know we can do what it takes to pressurize the government so if they continue behaving like the way they are doing, playing games, and trying to deceive the world with their illusions, the first consequence will be continuation of operations. We will be left with no other alternative except to resolve it militarily. We would like it to be resolved peacefully but if there is no other choice, then the next choice will be, try to resolve it militarily, and we know we are capable of doing that.

The Elephant: What is your timeline for that option?

Gen Tsadkan: No, I’m afraid to comment on this. We are watching the situation seriously.

The Elephant: are you prepared to negotiate peace with Abiy and with the Eritrean leader Isaias?

Gen Tsadkan: I think that’s an issue that we have to deal with when it comes. We have made our points clear on the last declaration of what we mean by a negotiated ceasefire, we have clearly indicated that we are for a negotiated ceasefire. In a negotiated ceasefire, issues are raised and we discuss to resolve them, but the process has to start.

The Elephant: Do you have anything to add to the conditions for the negotiated ceasefire that TPLF released on Sunday?

Gen Tsadkan: No, I was part of the Central Command that drafted that list and I’m happy with it.

The Elephant: Do you have any message for Ethiopians as a whole?

Gen Tsadkan: I would like to say it’s very sad that our country Ethiopia is in such a situation. We were forced to act the way we did, because of the Central Government in Ethiopia, is in our opinion directed by Asmara, by Isaias, Isaias’ security forces, intelligence forces are operating in Ethiopia day and night. I hate this kind of situation to prevail in Ethiopia, but at the same time, it is sad to see that Ethiopians are just accepting the behavior of the Central Government, but I would like to say that even though so many atrocities have been committed, it’s not led to resolve our issue peacefully and politically. So, when Ethiopians come out of the illusion that the Prime Minister has created, the reality on the ground is completely different, let Eritreans get out, not only from Tigray, but from all of Ethiopia. Let Ethiopians set their own trajectory themselves.

Eritrea has a heavy hand, heavy presence not only in Tigray but in Addis Ababa and all over Ethiopia as well.

The Elephant: What are the battlefield developments, status of Western Tigray?

Gen Tsadkan: It’s very clear that Amhara forces are in Western Tigray, it’s obvious that they are preparing to face us. So, we’ll handle it the way they would like to handle it.

The Elephant: Does that mean you are waiting for them to act, you’re not going to push it?

Gen Tsadkan: No, I didn’t say anything, it is a military situation and we will see the situation and act according to what is warranted militarily for us

The Elephant: have the ENDF and Amhara forces retreated to other side of Tekezze River?

Gen Tsadkan: They have already blown up bridges, it is very clear that it’s a continuation of the policy of Abiy Ahmed to strangle Tigray and take away a Constitutionally recognized geographic region of Tigray to another area. So, they are preparing themselves across the river. That, we know.

The Elephant: Do you see the capture of Mekelle as a turning point that will lead to a speedy end to conflict or is it opening up a new front in the war, in the north and west?

Gen Tsadkan: It all depends upon the central government of Ethiopia and its partner Isaias, it could be, it’s very clear that they cannot win the war. The capture of Mekelle and the defeat of the Ethiopian army clearly shows if there was any doubt, that they cannot win this war. On the other hand, the people of Tigray have been under huge atrocities of all kinds, have stood and resisted. The war will continue growing. Even the military experience and the political nature of the just cause of the war, it will keep on growing. So the capture of Mekelle would signal a huge political message to Abiy, to come to his senses and then resolve the political situation not only in Tigray but in all of Ethiopia peacefully, sooner. It has signaled that he cannot get his way by force, that is what he wanted, he could not, he mobilized not only his forces but other forces as well, he mobilized all of the army of Eritrea, he mobilized the technological capacity of the UAE, that did not work. So, for us, we were not craving for war. We wanted a peaceful solution from the very beginning. And it is now after the defeat of Abiy’s forces we are saying, let’s have a negotiated ceasefire. But Abiy and the Amhara elites can resist this, can say no, we’ll have our way by military means, if that is their choice, we’ll see. So it all depends on how they will react. The sooner they come out of their illusion that they have created, that they are riding victory after victory, it will be better for all of Ethiopia and Tigray as well. As long as they live with that illusion, and trying to mobilize innocent peasants and bringing them as cannon fodder to the new fronts that have been created in southern and western Tigray, then the war will continue.

The Elephant: Are there any splits within TPLF, on any topics such as engaging the government, or are you pretty united?

Gen Tsadkan: Pretty united. Obviously, there are different opinions on how the political situation should be resolved, and resolved once and for a durable period of time. But that is for Tigrayans to discuss among themselves and resolve. That is the situation. On the issue of you know defeating the invaders, and coming to a lasting political situation, there is complete unity.

The Elephant: is there anything you would like to share about journey of your life, as someone who fought against Dergue and toppled it?

Gen Tsadkan: I would like to say that I am a product of the people of Tigray. The struggle and the pain that the people of Tigray have went through have created people like me, not only me, several like me. So, when all these things are done, I hope some people will have a lot of time, I will have time as well, to go through all this. But for the time being, as I said, I am the product of the struggle and the pain of the people of Tigray.

Thank you very much.

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Hilary Ng’weno: Apostle of Press freedom and Pro-establishment Figure

Hilary Ng’weno was the founder of the respected Weekly Review which became the standard-bearer for political news reporting in Kenya and the region.

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Hilary Ng’weno: Apostle of Press freedom and Pro-establishment Figure

In the space of two months, Kenya has lost two of the better-known pioneering newspapermen in post-independent Kenya: Philip Ochieng and Hilary Ng’weno. They were contemporaries who died within weeks of each other aged 83. Both were archetypal print journalists – with a distinctive editorial style and intelligent and passionate about how they presented the news.

Both had a flair for the English language, both were pro-establishment journalists and both largely made their imprimatur during the one-party state of Daniel arap Moi. Both were stylish in their attires: one favoured Saville Row-type suits, the other preferred free-style dressing, almost informal, and spotted a scraggly beard that grew white with the years.

As talented print journalists, both were naturally inclined to the literary word – one even penned fiction, the other wrote a journalistic treatise, examining and locating the pitfalls of the Kenyan media scene in a specified time-span. Both cherished their private spaces and both could have been described as loners.

Hilary Ng’weno came back to Kenya from studies in the US at an exciting time in Africa. More than 15 countries attained their independence in 1960 alone. In East Africa, Tanzania and Uganda became independent in 1961 and 1962 respectively, to be followed by Kenya in 1963. Pan-Africanism. A little utopia. Five-year development plans were ambitiously written. With the newly independent African states bubbling with enthusiasm, nationalism and optimism the 1960s were an interesting time to be in Africa

In Kenya, Paa ya Paa (The Antelope Rising), the oldest Pan-Africanist Arts Centre, was established just after independence in 1965. In the many years that were to follow, it became a place of pilgrimage for art lovers stopping in Nairobi for whatever reason. The Pan-Africanist Art Gallery was the Mecca of cultural re-connection for performing artists, painters, writers, journalists, publishers and Africanists from Africa and the Diaspora.

The Paa ya Paa gallery was founded by a group of young, ambitious, artistic and creative men and women. On Fridays, Hilary Ng’weno and his wife Fleur, Mr and Mrs Pheroze Nowrojee, Terry Hirst, Jonathan Kariara, James Kangwana, Dr Josephat Karanja, and Elimu and Rebecca Njau, would meet at Rebecca’s house to discuss the one thing that was common to them all: media and artistic expression.

It is Kangwana (the unsung poet) who came up with the name Paa ya Paa at one of those Friday meetings. The young men and women were already established in life: Rebecca, who would later become an acclaimed author, was the first African headmistress of (Moi) Nairobi Girls.

Paa ya Paa gallery at Sadler House on Koinange Street was officially opened by Prof Bethwell Ogot.

Elimu, the Tanzanian-born Pan-Africanist painter and sculptor from Moshi had already shot to fame in 1959, when he became the first African artist to paint the mural of a Black Jesus that today adorns the Anglican Cathedral in Murang’a (then Fort Hall).

Kangwana was the first African Director of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and the Harvard-educated Hilary had just become the youngest ever editor-in-chief of the Daily Nation, the Aga Khan’s flagship daily in East Africa that styled itself as a nationalist newspaper that had championed Kenya’s independence from British rule in its editorials and news gathering.

Kariara, one of the finest poets to come from this part of the world, was just emerging as a poet of note. With a PhD in History Dr Karanja was soon to serve as the first Kenyan High Commissioner in London. He was later to become the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nairobi.

Pheroze was a radical young Pan-Africanist lawyer scaling the legal heights as a human rights lawyer and political activist.

Terry Hirst, the illustrator-intellectual, had just landed from England to find Kenya savouring its new status as a newly independent state.

Before moving on to Rebecca’s, the group’s Friday meetings had been taking place at Elimu’s House at Maua Close in Parklands when he served as the Director of the (Captain Marlin) Sorsbie Art gallery.

Elimu put up a temporary studio at the back of the house in Parklands where he remembers inviting Ng’weno and Karanja to discuss art and even paint. “Hilary would do landscape painting and occasionally strum the guitar,” said Elimu nostalgically, recalling those heady and exciting days.

When the Sorsbie gallery closed in 1965, the Friday group finally found a permanent home in September of the same year: Paa ya Paa gallery at Sadler House on Koinange Street was officially opened by Prof Bethwell Ogot who was then Director of the East African Institute of Socio-Cultural Affairs based at Uniafric House. Paa ya Paa was domiciled in the city centre until the late 1970s when it moved to a five-acre piece of land in the Ridgeways residential area off Kiambu Road.

It was at this time that Ng’weno started his flagship weekly political magazine, the Weekly Review. By sheer coincidence, the launch of the weekly coincided with the announcement of the murder of JM Kariuki on 5 March 1975. The mutilated remains of the populist Nyandarua North MP had been “discovered” in Ngong Forest.

From then on, The Weekly Review became the standard-bearer for political news reporting in Kenya and the region. If you didn’t read the Weekly Review every Friday, you didn’t know what was happening in the country politically. So much so that a retired Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) official — now a mzee in his 80s who started working for the bank in 1966 when Duncan Ndegwa was appointed the first African governor — told me that senior staff were provided with the magazine so that they could keep abreast of political developments in the country. So important was the Weekly Review that it was considered the country’s political barometer.

So when Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a contemporary of Ng’weno and Ochieng, accused Ng’weno and The Weekly Review of “malicious” and “speculative” reporting on his detention in 1977, it provided Kenyans who read the weekly with a viewpoint that had not revealed itself before.

“I might here also as well mention the press hostility led by the Hilary Ng’weno group of newspapers and especially The Weekly Review,” wrote Ngugi in his prison memoir: Detained A Writer’s Prison Diary. “I was hardly out of prison when Hilary Ng’weno sent one of his reporters to interview me. But he had given her suspiciously leading questions and also instructions on how to go about it.”

If you didn’t read The Weekly Review every Friday, you didn’t know what was happening in the country politically.

Apparently, Ng’weno had written questions for the female reporter to raise with the author. “I looked at the questions and asked the reporter why her employers were interviewing me by proxy. I refused to be interviewed by proxy. She there and then conducted her own interview.” But Ng’weno was not yet done with Ngugi: “And when at long last, the whole interview was published, it was accompanied by the astonishing accusation that I was the only detainee who had not said thank you to the President for releasing me.”

Ngugi said, he “could not understand the source of this post-detention hostility, especially coming from a group of newspapers I had always supported because, despite their pro-imperialist line, I saw them as a hopeful assertion of a national initiative.”

In the diary, Ngugi accused Ng’weno of pursuing a speculative agenda on him: “What’s surprising is that The Weekly Review saw it fit to repeat the speculation even after my release!” The speculation being referred to here is that Ngugi had been detained because “of the Chinese and other literature found in his possession at that time of the police search in his study.”

“The aim of such speculative journalism as in Newsweek and Time magazines,” wrote Ngugi, “is to shift the debate from the issue of suppression of democratic rights and the freedom of expression, to a bold discussion and literary posturing about problems of other countries.” Ngugi said Ng’weno described him as an “ideologue” rather than a “writer”.

The Weekly Review of 9 January 1978 published that:

During the past year or so, Ngugi has acted the part of an ideologue rather than a writer. And has done so with increasing inability to relate in the limits of the sphere of an author’s operation which is possible in a developing country in areas where ideas, however noble, can be translated into actions which have far-reaching implications to the general pattern of law and order.

In the years that Ng’weno practiced newspaper journalism he styled himself as an apostle of press freedom and even though he was pro-establishment, he still got into trouble with Moi’s government.

In a memo he wrote to his staff on 19 October 1979, Ng’weno stated:

As we all know, we are having problems with the government at the moment. Most parastatal organisations have been instructed not to advertise with us anymore. As a result, a lot of advertising has been cancelled. We have not been told why this is being done and all efforts by me to get an explanation have failed so far. I do not know what the intentions of the government actually are, whether they want to kill our newspapers, or simply punishing us for something we have published.

The memo went on to say, “What I do know is that we cannot continue operating as we are now without advertising. Advertising is what makes it possible for a newspaper to survive or grow, without money from advertising, we cannot make ends meet.”

In the years that Ng’weno practiced newspaper journalism he styled himself as an apostle of press freedom.

Although The Weekly Review was supposed to be Kenya’s Newsweek, Ng’weno nonetheless styled the political magazine on the quintessential British magazine – the Economist. Just like at the Economist, writers at the Weekly Review did not have by-lines. To the great credit of Ng’weno and his team, it was impossible to tell who wrote what story from the names of the writers on the magazine’s masthead. Again, just like in the Economist, the writing styles were synchronised to present a uniform, distinctive style.

The Weekly Review had another distinctive feature: the editorial, which was written by Ng’weno until he ceded the space, was a short, pointed and punchy 500-word opinion written with candour and panache. Ng’weno used the same style that in his one-page Newsweek columns, in which he broached global topics as diverse as the Cold War, bilateralism and internationalism, neo-colonialism and patrimonialism. Ng’weno was possibly Newsweek’s only African columnist south of the Sahara.

The urbane, cosmopolitan Ng’weno walked with a swagger that told all and sundry that he was an Eastlando guy through and through. Kenyans who have interacted with Nairobians who grew up in the south-east of Nairobi where life, in Hobbesian maxim, is poor, nasty, brutish and short, know that they are street smart, witty, great seductors, agile, multilingual and multitalented, traits that the cool Ng’weno exhibited throughout his life.

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Deconstructing Race and Gender for the African Traveller

Nanjala Nyabola’s new book reflects on Africans’ experiences of dislocation, exile, belonging and not belonging.

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Deconstructing Race and Gender for the African Traveller

The news that European Union countries could deny visas to Africans, the majority (90 per cent of those vaccinated) who have received the Covishield vaccine produced by the Serum Institute in India has once again highlighted how disadvantaged Africans are when it comes to travelling abroad. I don’t want to go into the intricacies of why the EU has made this decision, which you can read about here, but I would like us to explore what travelling abroad will mean for Africans during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Will vaccinations determine who can and cannot travel? Given that less than 2 per cent of the African population is currently fully vaccinated, will this mean that the majority of Africans wishing to travel abroad will have to wait at least a year or two before they can do so?  And if Covishield is not approved by the EU, does this mean that those who like me received two doses of the vaccine will be permanently barred from entering Europe?

Believing that the pandemic would not negatively impact Africa was just wishful thinking. While the number of infections and fatalities have been low compared to other regions, the economic shock has been equally – if not more – devastating. Loss of incomes has already impoverished millions of Africans as lockdowns continue with new waves of the pandemic. Moreover, we are – and have always been – at the receiving end of decisions made in other continents (the decision to colonise Africa was taken in Berlin by European powers) – decisions that determine what Africans should or should not do. We are not allowed to make decisions on our own behalf. African countries, including Kenya, for example, did not stop flights from Europe or North America – the epicentres of the pandemic in the first and second waves – but these regions were quick to stop flights from African countries. Nor did we impose “vaccine passports” on citizens of these regions that would allow them to gain entry into our countries. As one of my Twitter followers explained, this should not surprise us because it is the mighty dollar and the euro that determine how Africans treat those who control both currencies.

How could it be any other way? Citizens of African countries are subjected to the most stringent visa conditions for entry into Europe or North America. Those of us who have applied for a visa to a European country, the United States or Canada know how painful and humiliating the process can be. From providing mountains of documentation, including bank statements, to show that one is not a potential illegal immigrant, to bearing the cost of exorbitant non-refundable visa fees, the visa application process is designed to deter Africans from travelling to these countries. This has significantly diminished the travel experience of Africans.

In her book, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move, the Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola describes visas as “a cruel and unusual invention” and “a power play, a cash grab, and a half-assed invitation to enter but not belong”.  Nyabola not only unravels the experiences of Africans travelling abroad and within the continent but also exposes the “insidious racisms that shape the politics of human mobility”. As she emphasises in her foreword, the book is not a travel memoir, but essays inspired by travel – a book that tells uncomfortable stories that make us think about why they make us uncomfortable. As she so eloquently puts it: “In this book I want to sit in the discomfort of being a black woman and having our intersectional pain ignored . . . I want to reflect on what it means to be at home, and to be un-homed.”

The book begins with her experiences as a humanitarian worker in Haiti, the first black republic and one of the world’s poorest countries, where she learned about “the cultural construction of race”. In a country where NGOs managed mostly by white people practically run the country, she questions why she had to bend and adapt to their whims. Why were the Haitians not running the show?

Much has been written about the inadequacies of aid to Haiti, also known as “Republic of NGOs” (more on this in my forthcoming book), but not quite with the insider-outsider perspective of Nyabola, a black humanitarian worker in a non-African black country where white foreigners have more say than the locals. She concludes that those claiming to help impoverished Haitians should do so not because they feel bad for them, but “because we want them to experience the same fullness of life that we ourselves aspire to”.

Many of the essays in the book focus on another type of traveller – the African refugee or migrant who risks all by making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in the hopes of reaching Europe.  She questions the absurd practice of placing refugees in camps where they are denied freedom of movement and are not allowed to earn an income or to work. Most refugees seeking asylum before the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees came into effect, she notes, were not crammed into camps. Jews seeking asylum in Europe and North America during World War II were allowed to integrate socially and economically into the societies that accepted them. Why and how did this change? And why are an increasing number of Africans and Asians entering Europe illegally when there are legal ways to do so? Well, says Nyabola, it’s because “legal and safe passage to Europe has disappeared, for all but a small sliver of the world’s population”.

Jews seeking asylum in Europe and North America during World War II were allowed to integrate socially and economically into the societies that accepted them.

Travelling while black also proves to be a challenge in Asia. On a physically demanding hike on Mount Everest, Nyabola encountered “being raced” by her Nepali guide, who refused to attend to her even when she fell dangerously ill simply because she was black. How can people who themselves do not enjoy white privilege become racist? Is the racism of white people different from that of those who also experience white racism?  Nyabola tries to explain the difference by making a distinction between “racism” and “being raced”, the latter a phenomenon that black Africans who visit Asian countries often experience. She explains:

I think there is a qualitative difference between racism and being raced. Racism, I think, is more sinister and deliberate. But being raced or racing other people is something that people do because they aren’t paying attention. It’s cultural laziness: we create all these shorthands that allow us to process difference. . . . They have raced me – decided, based on cultural generalisations, who they think I am – in order to process my presence; and, because of the way popular culture from the West especially projects and processes black women, a lot of that is negative.

She is equally critical of Africans who treat other Africans badly. Her discomfiting experiences in South Africa, where xenophobic attacks against Somalis, Zimbabweans and other Africans have been rising in recent years, are telling, and reflective of a country that has not completely disengaged from the clutches of apartheid. South Africa challenges her belief that Africans can be at home anywhere on the continent  – a belief advocated by the leading Pan-Africanists of yesteryear who envisioned independence from colonial rule as the basis for building an inclusive Africa for all Africans. “The truth is that millions of Africans are foreigners and migrants in Africa, un-homed by power and abandoned to physical or structural violence,” she admits.

There are some uplifting chapters in the book that hold out the promise of Pan-Africanism, like her trip to Gorom Gorom in Burkina Faso where she observed “regal families undulating on their camels” and her foray into rural Botswana where she goes to trace the life of Bessie Head, the mixed-race South African writer who Nyabola admires deeply. As an outsider in both the white literary world and in Bostwana, Head suffered loneliness and rejection. The black American literary crowd in the United States had no time for an African woman writer. When she reached out to fellow African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe, who were beginning to be recognised in the West as African literary giants, “their responses were curt and perfunctory”. The chapter on Bessie Head’s life will no doubt resonate with female African writers for whom the doors of big established publishing houses are permanently closed.

Nanjala Nyabola’s book does, however, open new worlds to African women travellers like her who are reflecting on how their race and gender have shaped their experiences of dislocation, exile, belonging and not belonging.

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Kenneth Kaunda: One Zambia, One Nation

How Kenneth Kaunda was instrumental in guiding Zambia through its formative years in the absence of war or mass atrocities that blighted many of its neighbors.

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Gone Is the Last Of the Mohicans: Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda

Zambia’s inaugural president, Kenneth Kaunda, died on June 17, 2021, at the age of 97. From the early 1950s onwards, he led a nonviolent liberation struggle against British rule, eventually forging independence in 1964. In power for the first twenty-seven years of Zambia’s independent statehood, Kaunda leaves a controversial legacy. He abandoned multiparty elections in 1973, ruled as an authoritarian leader for the next eighteen years, and was the architect of disastrous economic policies that compounded the already significant levels of poverty in the country. However, Kaunda should also be remembered as a leader who was instrumental in guiding Zambia through its formative years, doing so in the absence of the wars or mass atrocities that blighted many of its neighbors.

Kaunda’s role in steering his country away from instability and mass violence—especially in the first decade of independence—is particularly noteworthy given the challenges at the time. His own stamp on state building helped to navigate these tensions: he shaped a new national identity that transcended ethnic or tribal affiliations, neither favoring nor scapegoating any group. Kaunda was acutely aware that the new state—with its borders artificially and arbitrarily constructed by its former colonial occupiers—was in peril of fragmenting through power struggles along tribal and ethnic lines. Referring to the dominant language groups, he reiterated the gravity of this new national identity in his 1967 memoir: “with any luck,” he wrote, “this generation will think of itself not in tribal terms as Bemba, Lozi or Tonga, but as Zambians. This is the only guarantee of future stability.” Kaunda thus seemed to be keenly aware that ideology can act as a catalyst as well as one of the most important restraints on mass atrocities; his humanist perspective fostered the latter while other leaders in the region chose the former.

Kaunda backed this principled stance with action during the first decade of independence, when his governing party, the United National Independence Party, began to fragment into factions based on ethnolinguistic differences. Kaunda frequently shuffled ministerial portfolios between factions and often changed personnel in all departments of the public sector—all in an effort to prevent the possibility of ethnolinguistic differences and tensions becoming formally entrenched within the new state. Throughout the 1960s, this constant reshuffling was effective in maintaining a power balance between the country’s different groups; but by the end of the decade, escalating tensions between these factions led to some forming breakaway parties on the basis of ethnolinguistic differences. This prompted Kaunda to centralize power and ban opposition political parties, forging a regime that was increasingly intolerant of opposition voices. Zambia, however, avoided the large-scale violence that some of its neighbors experienced. Although populations in dictatorial regimes are more at risk for mass atrocities than populations in democracies, Kaunda’s decision to centralize power and prohibit opposition parties was motivated—at least in part—by a desire to avoid the formal entrenchment of Zambia’s ethnolinguistic tensions.

In making this decision, however, Kaunda provoked a whole new set of challenges as an authoritarian leader. It wasn’t until 1991 that he lifted the ban on opposition parties, ushering in a transition toward a new phase of democratization. This was done under duress in the context of long-term economic decline, IMF-imposed economic reforms, and increasing dissatisfaction with his regime. Yet even this transition was largely restrained. The opposition movement itself (the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, or MMD) was a broad coalition that embodied Kaunda’s own vision of a Zambia that transcended ethnic and tribal difference. When the MMD registered as a political party and won the 1991 election, Kaunda conceded defeat and transferred power without contestation. While so many other authoritarian leaders opted for a violent response to the contestation of their power, Kaunda chose not to cling to power at all costs.

Even during Zambia’s phase of one-party rule from 1973 to 1991, Kaunda’s legacy of state building stands in contrast to the violent exclusionary tendencies of many regimes in the region. Although he centralized power, this was in part a response to a belief—shared by many leaders across the African continent in the 1960s and 1970s—that multiparty elections were divisive. So while research has shown repeatedly that established democracies tend to be safer for their inhabitants than democratizing or dictatorial countries, Kaunda actually seems to have used his dictatorial rule to steer the country away from the preconditions of mass violence.

Kaunda was able to shape the nation’s identity because dictatorial leaders, through their sway over the dominant narrative of their societies, can be particularly influential and shape how a population may think or act. The way in which Kaunda chose to do so was, however, extraordinary. Oftentimes, dictatorial regimes will use a destructive and exclusionary ideology, as it is through the definition of the “other” that the in-group can be defined and united. Creating such a cohesive in-group can have positive effects for leaders who tend to be more respected, but it can also enhance schisms and cause polarization or, even dehumanization, which can be conducive to massive violence. Populations are particularly likely to turn to leaders with such destructive ideologies when their life conditions are difficult; as people look for ways to understand their reality and search for someone to blame. Kaunda’s feat of uniting the nation, without exploiting ethno-linguistic tensions, is, therefore, even more noteworthy given the real and many risks for identity-based divisions to become entrenched in the first three decades of independence. Though far from perfect, Kaunda’s repeated call of “One Zambia, One Nation” resonated strongly, and established a precedent of stability and inclusion when so many other post-colonial African states went down more violent and exclusionary paths.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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