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Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession

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The effects of the British colonial policy of subjugation through dispossession and exile continue to reverberate among the Wakasighau.

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Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession

Two years have gone by since we last saw Mzee Joshua Mwakesi Mwalilika. He hasn’t changed a bit. His birth certificate says he was born in 1923. This means that Mzee Mwalilika is just two years shy of a hundred. He says that the birth certificate is wrong, that he was actually born in 1921. Mzee Mwalilika is from Taita, of the Wakasighau, a people who were uprooted from their native Kasighau region and exiled by the British to Malindi where they languished for over twenty years.

It all started in August 1915, at a time when Kenya was under British colonial rule and neighbouring Tanzania, then Tanganyika, was under the Germans. World War I had begun and, being so close to the border with Tanganyika, Kasighau was bound to suffer the effects of the war. When the Germans attacked the British, the British took revenge on the local African populations.

“All the houses were torched in the entire Kasighau on August 11th 1915. From Kigongwe, Makwasinyi, Jora, Kiteghe, Bungule, and Rukanga,” recalls Mzee Mwalilika. It was the handiwork of the British; they were on a punitive expedition against the Wakasighau whom the British suspected of having betrayed them to the Germans. A few days prior, the Germans had  carried out a night raid on the British garrison at Kasighau, committing a massacre. This was eight years before Mzee Mwalilika was born.

One version of the events is that after the attack, the Germans wrote a letter to the British claiming that the locals had voluntarily betrayed them, which prompted the British to retaliate. At Rukanga Village in Kasighau, retired teacher Jonathan Mshiri, now aged 71, says that local accounts of the events tell of two individuals from the area who unknowingly directed some Germans who were on a spying mission to where the British had set up camp.

“Two people were harvesting honey in the bush and the soldiers came and interrogated them and said, ‘Can you show us where the wazungu are?’” says Mwalimu Mshiri. “They used the term wazungu not British, so Kinona and Mwashutu thought that these white people were just friends of fellow white people. They did not know that these were Germans.”  The Germans laid waste to the British garrison at Jora in Kasighau and 38 British soldiers, including their captain, were taken captive by the Germans. This enraged the British so much that they decided to exile the entire Kasighau community.

For the Kasighau people, the British chose Malindi. After torching all the houses in the five villages, they rounded up all the people and gathered them at a place that was central to all the villages. “The British chose these open grounds because it gave them a view of Tanganyika where the Germans had come from,” explains Ezra Mdamu, a descendant of the survivors. “They also hoped that some of the villagers would have a better chance of pointing out exactly where the Germans had headed to. The people were also subjected to torture to extract information from them.”

The Wakasighau were then forced to march to Maungu Township, some 35 kilometres by today’s roads. From Maungu to the border at Holili is 144 kilometres using today’s road network, if indeed the German attackers had come through Holili.

The captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals.

At Maungu, the captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals. “What the new hosts did was put poison in the water holes, and this led to many deaths amongst our people,” Mwalimu Mshiri explains.

Macharia Munene, professor of History and International Affairs at the United States International University, says that using exile as punishment summarizes the colonial policy of subjugation and dispossession of local peoples.

“Most of these people who were deported were individuals, people trying to challenge colonial authority,” he says, “but colonialists also deported groups of people, often to hostile, undesirable places.”

Return to Kasighau

The plight of the Kasighau in their new land did not go unnoticed, and various parties, including church organizations, brought pressure to bear on the colonialists to review their position. But it was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.

“All the land around Kasighau Hill was termed as hunting blocks where the British people could hunt. The block here was called ‘66A’, the Kasighau people were only confined to a 10km² block around the hill called ‘Trust Land’. The rest of the land was called ‘Crown Land,’” says Mwalimu Mshiri.

It was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.

After independence in 1963, Crown Land became State Land and some of the remaining land was handed over to ex-WWII British colonial soldiers. The people of Kasighau were not represented at the time and the remaining land was subdivided into ranches that today surround the 10km² settlement area. It is within some of these ranches that mineral deposits and precious stones are found, and there are frequent tussles between the youth, miners and investors.

According to a report titled The Taita Taveta County Integrated Development Plan 2013-2017, only 35 per cent of all landowners possess title deeds. The report says that land adjudication was ongoing to ensure that all landowners possess title deeds. The 2019 census puts the population of Taita Taveta at 340,671. Kasighau Ward alone is home to 13,000 people. The majority say they do not have title deeds.

No land, more problems

In February 2019, a group of young men from Kasighau descended on a disputed mine inside Kasighau Ranch. Around the mining area are mounds of earth and makeshift tents. People selling foodstuffs have followed in the wake of the miners. Those mining say they are simply going for what they believe belongs to them. They do not have the heavy equipment needed for serious mining operations such as earthmovers or elaborate underground mining shafts. They are artisanal miners who rely on simple tools such as hoes, spades and mattocks.

“When we young people saw that we did not have leaders serious on championing our rights, we decided to have our own revolution,” says Elijah Mademu, a youth leader. “We decided to redeem our lost lands, lands rich in mineral resources. There are about 500 young men and women eking out a living from these minerals.”

According to retired Kasighau Location chief Pascal Kizaka, the occupation of the mine can be attributed to population pressure and young people running out of options. “Every economic activity starts with land. Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it,” he says.

Prof. Macharia says land ownership remains a significant cause of conflict across much of Kenya where land issues remain unresolved. “The government, particularly the area MP and area governor, because they have power, they should raise the issue and say, these are our people, so process their [land] titles.”

However, Taita Taveta Lands County Executive Committee member Mwandawiro Mghanga disputes the assertion that the county or the leadership at the local level are fully able to resolve the issue of title deeds, arguing that land and natural resources adjudication have not been fully devolved.

“It is true in this matter there are injustices, but on title deed issues even the entire Taita Taveta County has the same problem. In Kasighau the plan is to let them get the title deeds alongside the rest of the county”, he says.

“Of course there are six ranches, agriculturally-driven ranches (ADR’s) and there’s Kasighau Ranch which is very large. . . . There should not be a drive motivated by the capitalist system to grab ranches. What needs to be done is that everyone who needs a title for land to settle should have access to it.”

“Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it.”

Land alone might not be the only thorny issue. Chief Kizaka laments that throughout his time living and working in the area, local Kasighau people have noticeably been lagging behind even in education matters. For instance, a 2013 report on inequalities compared Kasighau Ward to neighbouring Mbololo ward and found that only 8 per cent of Kasighau residents have a secondary education or above. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics report titled Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling Apart or Pooling Together? shows Kasighau’s literacy rates to be four times less than Mbololo’s 32 per cent of the population who have gone beyond secondary school education.

“By independence time, we had only three primary schools, in Bungule, Rukanga and Mwakwasinyi. Illiteracy was very high. You can imagine, illiterate parents producing illiterate children,” bemoans Chief Kizaka. “There is no movement. The number of locals in school is very low. Compared to many parts of the country where locals are the majority, here we do not dominate.”

Today, Mwalimu Jonathan Mshiri says the thought of squeezing almost his entire descendants onto 15 acres of land troubles him daily. He knows too well that already the 13,000 Kasighau residents, whose numbers are increasing, are also facing the difficulty of having to make do with 10 square kilometres of land.

“We are the Kasighau people, we belong to this mountain and the surroundings, why are we not being given the priority?” he asks.

It is 6 p.m. and as the sun sets in the west, in the direction of Tanzania, it casts a golden glow on the Kasighau massif, but the dark despair of the Wakasighau remains.

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Mark Namaswa (@mark_namaswa) and Maura Ndamu (@M_ndamu) are Multimedia journalists based in Nairobi.

Politics

The Unjust Valuation of Pastoralists’ Land in Kenya

The government has passed laws that routinely undervalue pastoralists’ land and undermine pastoralism as a system of production and main source of livelihood in the drylands.

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The Unjust Valuation of Pastoralists’ Land in Kenya

Kenya’s constitution classifies all land in Kenya as either public, community-owned or private. More than 65 per cent of Kenya’s landmass is estimated to be community land. Such land is occupied and used mainly by the pastoralist communities in the northern drylands of Kenya. This area produces roughly 89 per cent of the beef produced in the country; mutton and chevron are not included in the government statistics. Beef is by far the most popular meat consumed in Kenya. It represents more than 70 per cent of all the meat consumed by volume due to urbanisation and a growing demand from the middle class in Kenyan cities.

Pastoralism, as practiced on the unregistered community lands by the indigenous people in Kenya, is of significant economic worth. The annual national pastoralist livestock offtake was valued at US$0.189 billion, while the yearly meat offtake was estimated at 154,968 tonnes and valued at US$0.389 billion. There is consensus that pastoralism contributes about 13 per cent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with approximately 13 million people directly benefiting from the livestock value chain. Over 75 per cent of cattle herds in Kenya are kept by pastoralists, who supply the bulk of the meat consumed.

But the economic contributions of pastoralists are hardly reflected in the government’s strategies or national development plans. As a result, pastoralism continues to face setbacks that hinder the realisation of its full potential. Further, the absence of accurate or, in some cases, the use of outdated data and inappropriate valuation methods, leads to an underestimation of the contribution of pastoralists to the economy.

The constitution protects a person’s right to own property individually or in association with others without any form of discrimination. Further, the state cannot deprive any person of their property or interest in a property unless it is in accordance with the constitution and the established statutory law.  In the case where land, whether registered or not, is compulsorily acquired by the state for a public purpose or in the public interest, the constitution requires that it be done on the principles of just compensation and prompt payment of its total value.

Pastoralists rarely obtain just compensation for land acquired compulsorily by the state because the system of community land valuation is unjust towards the people.

Community land governance

The Land Act 2012 is the primary framework that governs public and private land administration and management while community land governance is addressed under the Community Land Act 2016.  The Community Land Act repealed the Land (Group Representatives) Act (Cap 287) and the Trust Lands Act (Cap 288), which previously provided for the administration and management of community lands in Kenya.

The Community Land Act defines a community as a consciously distinct and organised group of users of the community land who are citizens of Kenya and share common attributes. These attributes are common ancestry, similar culture or unique mode of livelihood, socio-economic or other similar common interests, geographical space, ecological space, or ethnicity.

Pastoralists rarely obtain just compensation for land acquired compulsorily by the state because the system of community land valuation is unjust towards the people.

The Community Land Act 2016 provides for the recognition, protection, and registration of community land rights. Community land in Kenya is owned and vests the power to appropriate in the community. The Act further stipulates that the communities shall hold the communal land as family or clan land, reserve land, or any other category of land recognised under the Act or other written law. In addition, community land can be held in land tenure systems such as customary, freehold, leasehold or any other tenure system recognised by law. Community land includes all land owned by the former group ranches, community forests, grazing areas, shrines, land traditionally held by hunter-gatherer communities, land lawfully held as trust land by the county governments, and any other land legally declared to be community land by law.

Any parcel of community land that is not registered under the Community Land Act remains unregistered community land to be held in trust by the county governments on behalf of the communities. The county is prohibited by the Community Land Act from selling, transferring or disposing of any parcel of unregistered community land or even converting it into private Land.

Compulsory land acquisition

The statutory provisions under the Land Act 2012 guide the determination of compensation for compulsorily acquired community land rights. In addition, subsidiary legislation in the form of rules to guide assessment for just compensation has been developed by the National Land Commission (NLC) and approved by the national parliament.

The Kenyan government introduced an unfair adjustment to the Land Value Index Laws Amendment Bill 2019 that was hurriedly passed by both houses (the National Assembly and the Senate) and assented to by the president. The Land Value Amendment Bill aimed to amend various sections of the Land Act 2012, the Land Registration Act 2012, the Prevention, Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Act, and provide for the assessment of Land Value Index with regard to compulsory land acquisition. Pastoralist communities raised concerns through the Kenya ASAL Advocacy Group (KAAG) regarding the amendment’s serious implications for the just and fair compensation for pastoralist rangelands.

The amendment effectively entrenched unfair government policies and practices that include zero-rating the value of pastureland and legitimised unjust compensation practices of acquiring community land by keeping secret the full appreciation of the rangeland value. 

Moreover, parliament passed the Land Value Index amendment law without the usual scrutiny by the members of the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG). The PPG is the largest parliamentary caucus representing the pastoralist communities of 15 counties in Kenya. The members of the national parliament founded the PPG to provide political leadership and protect and safeguard the interests of the pastoralist people at the national level.

By the passing such laws and policies, the government routinely undervalues and undermines pastoralism as a system of production and main source of livelihood in the drylands. Government statistics undervalue land used by the pastoralists, contributing to higher poverty indices and environmental degradation in the pastoralist region. Government-generated indices and valuation models do not capture the total value of rangelands and their uses, violating the constitutional protection of the pastoralist communities’ right to its common property.

Valuation practice in Kenya

The valuation practice in Kenya is governed by the Valuers Act Cap 532, which provides a Valuers Registration Board that regulates registered valuers’ activities and conduct. Any person registered by the board must be a full member of the Institution of Surveyors of Kenya (ISK).

Being members of the ISK, valuers in Kenya are required to subscribe to the International Valuation Standards (IVS) set by the International Valuation Standards Council. These standards specify the concepts, approaches, and bases for undertaking valuation in Kenya. The standards, guidelines, principles, and ideas are expected to promote consistency and transparency in valuation practice in Kenya. The standards prescribe three approaches that underpin these valuation methods: the market approach, the income approach and the cost approach.

The government’s statistics undervalue land used by the pastoralists, contributing to higher poverty indices and environmental degradation in the pastoralist region.

The market approach derives the value of an asset by comparing the asset with comparable (similar) assets for which sale price information is available. It assumes all assets are sold and bought in an open market. The income approach establishes value by converting future cash flow from an asset to a single present value, taking account of time value for money. It assumes assets are held for investment purposes.

The cost approach seeks to determine the value of an asset using the economic principle that a buyer will pay no more for an asset than the cost to obtain an asset of equal utility, whether by purchase or by construction in normal circumstances. Based on the foundations of these approaches, the following valuation methods have been variably applied in the valuation of assets in Kenya: Direct Sales Comparison (Comparable); Income Capitalization (Investment); Profits (Accounts); Replacement Cost; Reproduction Cost; summation (Contractors).

Valuation in community rangelands in Kenya

What is to be valued?

Valuation of community lands can be located from the constitution’s definition, which, as stated earlier, holds that community land include land registered in the name of group representatives (group ranches); land lawfully transferred to a specific community or declared to be community land by an Act of Parliament; land lawfully held, managed or used by specific communities as community forests, grazing areas or shrines; ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherer communities; and land lawfully held as trust land by the county governments. On the face of it, the issue seems straightforward enough, but the practical disaggregation of attributes and interests in context is complex and displays excellent heterogeneity.

Turkana community system

The topography of Turkana County is varied, comprising of lowlands, plains, and mountains. The soils are sandy, volcanic, clay, alluvial and mixed types. There is fertile farming land (both irrigated and non-irrigated) on the lower Turkwel river basin, grazing pasture lands, forests, wildlife areas, caves and historical sites, mining and petroleum production areas, fishing sites, and beekeeping sites. Land use outside the urban areas varies depending on the ecological and geological characteristics, cultural and traditional practices, and government and non-governmental influences.

Significant land use practices include livestock keeping, fishing, subsistence farming, beekeeping, hunting and gathering, mining, cultural ceremonies and social gatherings, worship, tourism, and forestry. These uses may change depending on the seasons and climatic conditions.

Farming land is, for instance, converted to grazing land during the dry season and after crops have been harvested. The physical extent of community land is not defined by conventional administrative or cadastral boundaries but on cultural, use and control bases. Cultural definitions of boundaries vary depending on the rights under consideration. For instance, the more significant territorial boundary includes the areas occupied by the nineteen (19) Turkana subgroups (the outer boundary). Each of the subgroups also has its boundaries within the area that is covered by the external boundary. Families also have their boundaries defined by trees under the Ekwar system.  Individuals also have control areas known as Eree. 

The Turkana cultural property rights over this land are a continuum that includes territorial control, and ownership is collective. All subgroup use and control, family use and control, Individual use and control, individual ownership and control in irrigation schemes, access for members across and within subgroup-controlled areas, access and use by neighbours and friends of families for some resources such as water from wells (Akare) and use by neighbouring communities outside the territorial boundary, migratory rights, all these rights are exercised within customary rules and regulations that are not in writing but are well known and respected by all community members.

Community land ownership and management in Marsabit County

The land within Marsabit County comprises diverse landscapes, including high altitude mountains with rain forests, other forests, farmlands, grasslands, deserts, lakeshores and desert oases. The landscapes are characterised by volcanic, loamy, sandy and clay soils, and rock outcrops. Significant land uses vary across these landscapes and include livestock keeping, fishing, subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, social and cultural activities including traditional religious practices, extraction of traditional medicines and herbs, forestry, tourism and wildlife.

Some areas have mixed uses, like agro-pastoralism, while others have a specific use such as pastoralism. The land outside the municipal territory is traditionally owned by four specific ethnic communities: Borana, Rendille, Gabra and El Molo. Each of these communities has different territorial zones that they have historically controlled and used. The boundaries of the territorial zones are identified by geographical features that are historically acknowledged and known and respected by all. The land is not under a formal cadastral and land administration system.

Each of the communities has a different cultural background and clear customary rules governing land use and occupation.

Despite the various communities having distinct land control and ownership rights, they have developed reciprocal use rights for pastureland and water resources. The elders of the respective communities administer the customary practices. The clans, families and individuals in these communities have collective ownership rights, occupation rights, and user rights for pasture and other natural resources in the rangelands.

Families also have their boundaries defined by trees under the Ekwar system.

The community exercises control over any settlements even though it practices pastoralism that is characterised by temporary settlements. As a rule, communities may not graze in one area for more than three months continuously to avoid degradation. Permanent settlements are mainly found in the urban areas and market centres.

Neighbouring communities have mobile access and use rights subject to the customary rules and regulations of the host communities that are often overseen by individual elders appointed by the community’s traditional council. The various landscapes have different uses at different times. For instance, the desert is used for grazing during the rainy season, whereas the highlands are used for grazing during the dry season. All communities share the oases through appointed community regulators. At times cultural events affect land use. For instance, the circumcision period among the Rendille community may dictate where the animals, especially the camels, will be allowed to graze. The land is viewed as a symbol of community identity and the physical features of historical and cultural events.

The Dheda system of the Borana of Isiolo County

The Merti rangeland comprises the areas outside Isiolo central, which are largely dry season grazing areas. There are also wet season grazing areas, small subsistence farming areas, several small pastoralist towns with markets, and one growing urban settlement. The Borana people classify areas using the term Dheda.

The landscape is primarily savannah grassland with some hills and plateaus and varying vegetation cover. The soils are mainly sandy and mixed soils. The dominant land use is livestock keeping, complemented by small-scale subsistence farming along the Ewaso Nyiro riverbank, social amenities, and cultural and traditional shrines. In addition to these uses, the land is the central defining feature for community identity and the foundation of the traditional livestock production system (pastoralism).

The boundaries for the rangelands are determined by geographical features that are historically recognised by the communities, such as hills, seasonal rivers, rangeland water points and other types of rangeland resources related to pasture within each Dheda.

The clans, families and individuals in these communities have collective ownership rights, occupation rights, and user rights for pasture and other natural resources in the rangelands.

The rangeland is mainly occupied and controlled by the Borana community. The clans, families and individuals do not have direct control over the rangelands. Elders govern it on the basis of customary rules and regulations. Families and individual members have user and access rights.  Community members cannot dispose of land by sale or exchange since the land is considered an intergenerational community asset. Neighbouring communities from Marsabit, Wajir, Garissa and Samburu have migratory use and access rights that are defined by the Borana community’s rules and regulations. These rights are seasonal, and the neighbouring communities cannot establish permanent settlements in the grazing areas.

There are community boreholes situated in different locations to provide water for both livestock and people. They are controlled by elders to avoid use during unauthorised seasons or as a disincentive to permanent settlement. This ensures that the grazing patterns are maintained to prevent land degradation or depletion of pasture before the onset of the rainy seasons.

From the case studies of these three communities, it is clear that the subject of valuation should vary across these different communities taking into account their specific customs and practices, the physical attributes of the land, and the region’s economic activities. The valuation should have legal, economic, social, cultural and environmental dimensions that will vary depending on the purpose, the community’s context, and timing. Community land valuation variables are not only influenced by the host community but also by the interests of neighbouring communities, including access, user rights and their social-economic activities. Some of these variables, such as those related to culture and spiritual practices, may not be directly quantifiable in the national valuation framework.

Neighbouring communities from Marsabit, Wajir, Garissa and Samburu have migratory use and access rights that are defined to the Borana community’s rules and regulations.

Besides state interests and frameworks, the rights and tenure arrangements that comprise the subject of valuation also contain several bundles that include individual, family, clan, ethnic subgroup, ethnic group and neighbouring ethnic groups. In the process of valuation, the physical scope should be ascertained by social mapping that considers cultural and social dynamics. However, the government’s current cadastral system does not allow for this. 

In light of the foregoing, it is necessary to review how community land valuation for the purposes of compulsory land acquisition is done in Kenya. Whether relying on real estate background, livelihood safeguards or ecological management, the statutes that guide valuation in the case of compulsory community land acquisition by the state must adopt new guidelines that comply with constitutional requirements and legal and policy changes.

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Politics

Patriarchy and Negotiated Democracy Knock Wajir Women off the Ballot

For clan elders in Wajir County, a less educated male candidate is still preferable to an educated woman who is regarded as a “weak” leader who cannot deliver on expectations.

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Patriarchy and Negotiated Democracy Knock Wajir Women off the Ballot

Equality in leadership will remain elusive in northern Kenya as long as powerful sultans continue to promote negotiated democracy as the preferred method of electing political leaders. Negotiated democracy is unconstitutional and does not respect the two-thirds gender rule that promotes equality in decision-making. It is a power-sharing agreement where political positions are distributed ahead of the elections, allegedly to prevent election-related conflicts. (Although, as Dalle Abraham observes, negotiated democracy “does not bring about the expected harmony.”)

There is a Somali proverb that says, “Women have no tribe” from which derives the unspoken rule that women cannot represent their clans and tribes in Wajir County politics. Among the 30 elected Members of the County Assembly and the six Members of Parliament, with the exception of the Women Representative, none is a woman.

The process of negotiation includes all the clans in Wajir but leaves out women, who are not part of the council of sultans. The main Somali clans residing in Wajir are the Ogaden, the Ajuran and the Dagodia. To illustrate, the Dagodia clan, the largest of the clans in Wajir, has a council of sultans who are drawn from the ten Dagodia sub-clans. Each of the sub-clans has its own sultan who is (s)elected by consensus by the clan elders. (The Wabar is the leader and unifying factor of the Dagodia community that also occupies parts of Ethiopia and Somalia. The incumbent, Wabar Abdille Abdi, visited Kenya from his home in Ethiopia in November 2019. This was Wabar Abdille’s first visit to Kenya where he was awarded the highest head of state commendation, the Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear (O.B.S.), by President Uhuru Kenyatta “for his role in ensuring cross-border peace and unity in the region.”)

As we approach the 2022 elections, every clan in Wajir has already chosen its sultan who will be responsible for the selection of suitable political contestants from within the clan to represent it at the ballot to compete against the representatives of the other clans. The Fai clan council of Ugas (sub-clan leaders) recently released a statement on Facebook that they will soon kickstart a series of activities to identify suitable political leaders from among their sub-clans to run in the 2022 elections.

Equality in leadership will remain elusive in northern Kenya as long as powerful sultans continue to promote negotiated democracy as the preferred method of electing political leaders.

Every aspirant must write an application letter to the clan sultan and pay KSh50,000 if vying for the position of Member of the County Assembly. The non-refundable amount rises to KShs200,000 for a parliamentary seat and to KShs1 million for the governorship. In 2017, six women aspirants interested in MCA seats (including Hon. Fatuma Ibrahim, currently a member of the East African Legislative Assembly) tried to go through the process by applying and paying the required amount but they were all turned down and advised to run for the position of Women Representative instead.

One such aspirant is Ms. Fatuma Sheikh Abass who had served two terms as a nominated Member of the County Assembly under the NARC-Kenya umbrella before attempting to vie for the MCA seat in Elben Ward, Wajir East, in 2017. Abbas went through the selection process but was rejected by the council of sultans which decided to hand-pick a male aspirant based on the belief that a clan cannot be represented by a woman at the County Assembly. But Ms. Abass remains undeterred and will be standing again in the same ward in the 2022 elections with the support of the members of the Wajir Women Council that was created in 2021 by Ms. Rukia Abdullahi Barrow, chairperson of the Wajir branch of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake. The Women Council has representatives from the eight sub-counties and strongly supports the participation of women in elective leadership.

The council is encouraging women aspirants not to be intimidated by the curses pronounced against them by their clan sultans in a bid to force them to step aside in favour of male aspirants. The council is also creating awareness among women at the grassroots level to encourage them to support fellow women who wish to run for elective leadership. But the newly created council has no resources, and it has yet to draw up a resource mobilisation strategy.

A meeting bringing together women aspirants from across Wajir was convened in mid-September 2021 by Women Inclusive Network (WIN), a local community-based organization that supports women’s participation in elective leadership. The objective of the meeting was to engage clan elders on the question of support for women aspirants. Saying that he supported women in leadership, one of the elders, Abdi Kule Hassan, a member of the Fai sub-clan Ugas, explained that his own wife, Asha Abdi Dere had been an MCA aspirant for Wagberi ward in the 2013 elections. He said, “Even though she was not selected in the process, I decided to encourage her to go up to the ballot and she got 240 votes out of 5,886 votes. Only forty women voted for her and majority of her voters were men. I have accepted now that its women who don’t support each other.”

The council is encouraging women aspirants not to be intimidated by the curses pronounced against them by their clan sultans in a bid to force them to step aside in favour of male aspirants.

Another point of concern that was raised by one of the elders is that among the women nominated to the county assembly, a number were allegedly divorced due to work-family conflicts, where the workload and work-related travel left little time for family responsibilities.

Of the registered voters in Wajir County, 46 per cent, or almost half, are women but they are under-represented in decision-making at the county level and in the national assembly. This is because they tend to be exploited as voting machines whose role is limited to casting their vote for the candidate endorsed by the powerful sultans. Decisions are made on their behalf by the clan sultans, the council of elders and by their partners, and they are even transported to cast votes for preferred candidates in other polling stations. It has been noted that divorce rates go up during the election period because of women not being allowed to decide for themselves who to vote for or where to vote.

Ms. Ubah Abdikarim, a former nominated MCA for Township Ward, spoke about the level of illiteracy among women in the county and the lack of awareness that gender equality is a human right that is key to development. Ms. Abdikarim said, “As a woman leader, I fight for gender inclusiveness and equality in the county’s elected leadership and in resource sharing. I will encourage women aspirants to continue seeking elective political posts in the wards and to be part of the decision making regardless of the barriers.”

According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reports, at 76 per cent, Wajir County has the second highest illiteracy rate in the country after Turkana County where the rate is 82 per cent. Only 22 per cent of women have received any education and because of this, women are assisted voters during elections, enjoying no privacy at the ballot. Their illiteracy places them in a situation where they are forced to loudly state their preferred candidate in the presence of the candidates’ agents and IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) officials. There is a lot fear and intimidation since the ballot is not secret. Most times clan representatives act as watchdogs, observing the women through the windows of the polling stations in order to report back if they vote contrary to the decisions of the sultans.

But the educated women of northern Kenya are increasingly questioning why they are being side-lined by an oppressive culture and open bias that denies them their constitutional right to vie for political leadership to serve their communities. They question the motives behind the sultans’ preference for male aspirants. For the sultans, however educated, strong and vocal a woman is, she is still regarded as a “weak” leader who cannot deliver to their expectations. A less educated male candidate is still preferable in their eyes.

Moreover, allegations that the wife of the impeached former governor of Wajir usurped and misused the powers of the office have not helped the case for women. The accusations have been used to promote the view that women politicians would be no better than corrupt male politicians.

Only 22 per cent of women have received any education and because of this, women are assisted voters during elections, enjoying no privacy at the ballot.

Politics is all about financial stability, but women aspirants are not as financially powerful as their male counterparts. During the electoral period money is essential for logistics and the production of campaign materials but most women aspirants have low visibility because of lack of funds.

The system of negotiated democracy has been normalized and fully accepted by the northern counties, and particularly by the communities in Wajir County. Negotiated democracy has killed the hope of true democracy in northern Kenya. It is an unconstitutional process that does not consider the voters’ interests but benefits the few powerful sultans who select loyalist candidates in return for lucrative contracts for their companies and businesses.

It is the hope of every woman aspirant in northern Kenya that the day will come when women will receive the same support from their councils of elders as their male counterparts. For now, women leaders have no choice but to unite all women at the grassroots to support women leadership. As we head into the 2022 elections, most women aspirants are inspired to change the narrative and to win against the negative and oppressive cultural belief that women cannot lead their communities.

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Politics

Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia

Since November last year, Ethiopia has been fighting a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front. Hibist Kassa argues that the scale of misinformation on the war, lack of context and attempts to impose false narratives is deeply troubling and pervasive. Kassa calls for a nuanced and historically grounded approach to properly analyse the course of events.

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Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia

Since 4 November last year Ethiopia has been caught in a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) which has been marked by escalating genocidal attacks on ethnic minorities in Ethiopia. The scale of misinformation and disinformation on the war, brazen lack of context, shameless and downright dangerous attempts to not only impose false narratives, but also impose a narrow human rights agenda skewed to ignore abuses by Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies is deeply troubling and pervasive.

At the moment, a dangerously simplistic and false narrative labelling the federal government as having an agenda for centralisation, as opposed to the TPLF which is pushing for federalism, is being spread in mainstream media outlets and through scholarly networks. This is drawing on a further over-simplification of the history of empire building and contestation, and the nature of cultural and language identities and their relationship to class stratification.

This year marked the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa in 1896, a historic defeat of a European imperialist power by Africans, with the unification of divided peoples. Lords, serfs and slaves, women and men, mobilised an army of about 100,000 to defeat Italian troops in a matter of hours. The aftermath of the victory also laid the basis for further empire consolidation and forging of the modern state, a contested historical process that has been foregrounded in the current conflict. A nuanced and historically grounded approach is needed to analyse the ways the centre-periphery tensions shaped autonomy in Tigray, recognise the wide spectrum of debates within the TPLF and how elites have deployed this in the current conflict (I examine this in some detail in the Agrarian South Bulletin here).

While the need to get the analysis right on the crisis is important to inform interventions, we also need to understand the nature of the accumulation strategies of elites, the contradictions in these strategies and where this leaves the working class and the advancement of a progressive alternative from below.

What are the competing narratives?

At the moment, mediation is being proposed as was recently advocated in a statement by African intellectuals, that eerily followed the line of the United States and TPLF on the crisis. A robust response by the Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink have highlighted the problematic nature of the statement, and the need for an understanding of what is really at stake in the volatile Horn of Africa region, where a realignment of geopolitical relations between Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia, with South Sudanese solidarity, is potentially decentring US domination in the region, and sealing the decline of TPLF. Understanding the tricky and complicated context of the changes underway, demands also for careful attention to what is left out of the dominant narrative of the crisis.

For instance, it was shocking to hear pro-TPLF commentator, Martin Plaut, and now visiting researcher at Kings College Department of War Studies, declared boldly on 5 February this year, that even though a massacre in Mai-Kadra in Western Tigray was terrible, ‘I don’t care who carried them out’ (see 30:00-31:21). This was a genocide of about 1000 men, the elderly and children who were identified as ethnic Amhara by TPLF youth groups. As the men were being slaughtered, women overheard them say they would come for them next. Zelalem Tessema, Co-Chair Ethiopian Association in the UK, who was on the same panel as Plaut said that this was the ‘Srebrenica massacre’ of Ethiopia. Accountability which was so important for Plaut when examining Amhara militias, Ethiopian federal troops and Eritrea’s involvement, was suspended in the case where TPLF militia and its youth members, who later escaped to join refugees on the Sudanese border. The TPLF has continued to commit atrocities in its vicious expansion into Afar and Amhara regions displacing up to 4 million people.

Meanwhile, a coherent campaign sympathetic to TPLF by the US, EU and UN, including the IMF and World Bank, have focused on aspects of the Tigray crisis pressuring the Ethiopian Federal government to revert to mediations with the TPLF. Even when a unilateral ceasefire was declared by the government, the TPLF has continued to encroach upon other provinces in Amhara and Afar provinces, temporarily occupying Lalibela, and slaughtering civilians, destroying historic Churches in Gondar, there was still no universal condemnation of the TPLF except for the instance where the USAID Director in Ethiopia cited widespread TPLF looting of aid goods.

There has also been complete disinterest in the killings of ethnic minorities elsewhere which have been linked to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), openly allied to TPLF. In principle, violations by any state and non-state actor in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia should be investigated, victims provided care and culprits held to account. But the geopolitical power struggle that is ongoing has no interest in this kind of accountability agenda. Instead, human rights violations, whether they be genocide, widespread rape, recruitment of children as combatants and violations against Eritrean refugees, have been ignored when TPLF forces have been identified culprits. Talk of accountability and human rights is just a game in a bigger geopolitical battlefield.

Getting the facts right is key!

To make sense of what is an intensely complex crisis, it is important to focus on the following key facts:

  1. On 4 November, after the Federal Government of Ethiopia had transferred US$281 million to the Tigray provincial government, a ‘lightning strike’ so described by TPLFs’ spokesperson, was unleashed on federal troops who were undertaking joint operations with the Tigray provincial forces. Unarmed soldiers and generals were slaughtered in their pyjamas and their bodies left to rot, while other troops were taken as prisoners. Soldiers with specialised training were later summarily executed, ran over with trucks, and women soldiers were raped. When the news of this shocking attack trickled in, it horrified the general public and ended all attempts to mediate tensions between the Federal government and the TPLF.
  2. Prior to the above attack, tensions had been building between the Federal government based in Addis Ababa and the TPLF. The loss of TPLFs almost three-decade dominance of power in the federal government had aggrieved the committee members. To recall, TPLF itself was a political party, with its own hierarchies and membership drawing from various constituencies within Tigray province.
  3. Normalisation of relations with Eritrea was an extremely significant change introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. This significant change in foreign policy of Ethiopia was made possible under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition with new leadership under Abiy Ahmed as a member of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). It was a decisive break from TPLF foreign policy which had treated the Eritrean government as a lethal enemy. The latter which has acted as a bulwark against the expansion of the United States’ AFRICOM in the Horn of Africa, and retained some semblance of sovereignty over its national policy space. These former allies who waged war against the Derg (the military regime that ruled Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1974 to 1987), soon turned into foes over the TPLFs ethnonationalist agenda entrenched in the Ethiopian federalist system, redrawing provinces and the entire governance system on the basis of ethnicity. Each province formed standing armies of their own and entrenched the right to secede in the constitution.
  4. Tigray province is in the northern most part of Ethiopia and shares a border with Eritrea, over which war was waged from 1998-2000, when Abiy was then on the frontline as a solider. A peace treaty was only signed in 2018 once the OPDO under Abiy was in power after a wave of popular protests against TPLF. According to Iqbal Jhazbay (former South Africa ambassador to Eritrea) since the Peace Treaty was signed, this provided Eritrea, ‘a previously isolated regime which has stubbornly resisted being turned into a pawn by foreign powers’ a bridge with which to expand its foreign policy influence in the volatile Horn of Africa. Asmara has resisted a regime change agenda, a challenge now facing Ethiopia, under the new Progress Party (PP) under Abiy, which has now had to resist pressure from foreign powers to dictate its relations with Eritrea.
  5. The successful completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been resisted not only by Egypt and Sudan, but also with backing from the US and Israel. Although GERD was conceptualised and initiated by former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, its successful implementation did not have full backing of his heirs in the TPLF. The Metal and Engineering Corporation, a mega-parastatal, which was charged with manufacturing parts of GERD, manufactured them below expected standards. This delayed the project and has been suspected as an act of subversion instead of incompetence on the part of the parastatal. The combination of Egypt and Sudan, and the realignment of interests with internal actors, like the TPLF (and now OLF), has created another deadly alliance that threatens stability in the Horn of Africa.
  6. Ethiopia is on the brink of national self-sufficiency in wheat production within two years. The Abiy government has also been setting up bread factories to ensure affordability for the urban poor and working people (especially in a time when food prices continue to skyrocket). In addition to the GERD and its potential to provide renewable energy resource to the Horn of Africa and beyond, these developments should be seen as efforts to strengthen productive capacity in the region and hopefully also address energy poverty that falls on the back of women. It is also a case that the infrastructure investments and Industrial Parks especially in the garments industry, have had keen interest from global brands, but also significantly drawn upon domestic resource mobilisation. All these are signs that concrete gains are being made in the country.
  7. Nonetheless, in spite of the Ethiopian governments commitment to liberalisation, this has not enamoured the regime to donors and the Bretton Wood Institutions. Sanctions have been imposed on government officials to travel to the US. Conditionalities for loans are being attached to ensure mediation with TPLF. The interest of the IMF, primarily influenced by the US, in this conflict is noteworthy.
  8. Bretton Woods Institutions, especially the IMF, have been attaching conditionalities to assistance obliging the government to make concessions to the TPLF. This hard-line towards the PP government is puzzling given that it has declared the country open for business, liberalising one of Africa’s last heavily regulated economies and allowing competition with State-Owed Enterprises, electricity and the telecommunications. The Abiy government has also been a very consistent partner in the War on Terror, especially as it relates to operations against Al-Shabab in Somalia.
  9. This indicates that there are higher stakes in Ethiopia’s forging of alliances with Eritrea and Somalia and the broader goal to stabilise the Horn of Africa in a manner that has not centred Washington and its ‘War on Terror’. Lawrence Freeman, on a panel on Ethiopia Television, “Addis Dialogue”, argues that a global political oligarchic faction that maintains neo-colonial control of African countries in particular, sees any actor operating outside US control as threatening their dominance and needing to be dealt with as a threat. Deacon Yoseph Tafari, Chairman of the Ethiopian American Civic Council, concurs and emphasises that the US had initially misread the Abiy government in the beginning of its tenure, and had to confront the reality of its more autonomous approach to foreign policy and its persistence with state led developmental initiatives such as the GERD. It is this aspect that has informed a regime change agenda.
  10. The TPLF which was the dominant force in the previous coalition government had been able to control the security and governance arms of the state and considerable investments in SOEs. It is an open secret that the TPLF had amassed offshore accounts of US$30 billion. At its height, foreign aid reached US$3.5 billion a year. Two to three billion dollars were lost annually through under and over invoicing of imports. Parastatals had become effective vehicles for accumulation of wealth by the top tier of the regime, with varied forms of patrimonial relations with less powerful actors within the party machinery. Proximity to power had its benefits, but none compared with the accumulation of wealth and deepening inequality that was apparent over the last three decades.

Q & A between Munyaradzi Gwisai and Hibist  Kassa which reflects on the state of the working class in Ethiopia today.

MG: The emergent Ethiopian working class was a key player in the 1974 revolution that eventually ousted Emperor Haile Selassie. The wave of strikes helped inspire the popular protests of students, peasants and the junior soldiers. The later eventually wrested power led by the [Marixst Leninist] Derg, provoking a nearly two-decade period of Civil War and instability.

What happened to the Ethiopian working class in this period, in the struggles that ensued… Was class militancy and organisation crushed by repression and war?

HK: As the parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC)  case highlights, trade unions have struggled, and continued to struggle to organise in Ethiopia. IndustriALL Federation has been making important interventions especially in industrial parks. Important analytical work has been done  on the super exploitation of women workers has drawn attention to how the accumulation strategy of the state that relies on cheap wage labour and the creation of an enabling environment for foreign direct investment, demands the repression of organised labour.

In response to high turnover of the workforce and a wave of wildcat strikes, there have been some moderate reforms to create a means for workers to raise concerns through the Labour Department inspectors and the provision of district offices. In spite of this, trade unions still need to be able to organise workers on the shopfloor. Resistance to this persist.

Moreover, the tension between the focus on large scale foreign direct investments as a means of enabling industrialisation places this strategy in tension with the dynamic and diversified economic activities by smallholder producers in agriculture, cottage industries and the retail sector. Ethiopia has a history of cooperative associations traced to the Derg regime, but these were demobilised by the TPLF dominated EPRDF regime.

MG: Ethiopia is amongst the top five performing economies in Africa in the last decade with annual growth rates of over 10%. A new, younger and expanded working class must therefore have emerged. If the working class retreated in this period leaving the petite bourgeoisie in charge, was there not a significant growth and re-emergence of the working class in the period after 1995? Quantitatively and qualitatively especially after 2000?

What is the degree of organisation, class consciousness, and militancy of this new expanded class? How does it compare to the leading role played by other working classes in the region recently, in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya for example and does it provide a counter to the petite bourgeoisie and their ethnicity – region based politics and mobilization?

HK: A new, younger and expanded working class has emerged, and its face is that of women migrants. The new subjects arising out of the industrialisation process is that of women workers, who are being superexploited as part of the country’s development strategy. Rural-urban migration, and now with covid-19, urban-rural migration, has become significant.

I think if we are to consider the primarily informal character of the labouring classes or working people (as Issa Shivji says) we needs to use different approaches to analyse the forms of resistance to capital and the state, and the ways in which people are building autonomy from below through their livelihoods and even survival strategies. This expanded approach to resistance and understanding of class helps us better draw the connections between the urban poor and dispossessed masses, and rural communities who in carrying the burden of social reproduction even as a gendered cheap wage labour strategy is imposed from above become a basis for drawing  organic linkages with ‘wage workers’ in the formal sector. I think this is an opportunity to think in an interlinked manner and develop a more holistic understanding of what organising interventions can be made by trade unions working in alliance with women’s groups, farmers associations, artisanal miners and casual workers.

Elite wealth accumulation and the gendered working class

It is crucial to also reflect on the nature of corruption facilitated via illicit financial flows and how this has fed into the wealth accumulation strategies of elites in the TPLF dominated ethnic coalition government prior to its removal in 2018. A prime example of this is the mega parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC).

With about seventy SOEs, seven military hardware manufacturing entities, about 12,500 employees, MetEC is a significant force in the Ethiopian economy. Under the TPLF, it successfully disbanded trade union organising on the shopfloor. In 2014, labour unions confronted the then CEO Knife Dangew and they were dismissed for being focused on rights bargaining and of being wedded to the legacy of the previous ‘Marxist Leninist’ military dictatorship. Instead, the trade union federation was expected to focus on the objective of attaining middle income status. In 2018, a parliamentary review revealed extensive graft, with overpricing of domestic and international procurement of up to US$2 billion, in some cases 400% higher than market prices. He was arrested in November 2018, and charged over the procurement of two shipping vessels, two hotels and a plastics factory.

The description below by Tim Hall of an industrial park, in Hawassa, now in the newly established Sidama province, gives us a glimpse of the pre-Covid situation:

Over 17,000 young women from predominately rural areas and a variety of ethnicities have, from 2017, migrated to work at the Hawassa Industrial Park (HIP), employing around 120,000 mainly women workers at potential full capacity. They face long shifts, low salaries given living costs between 800 to 2000 BIRR a month (US$27–68) and new challenges in an unfamiliar urban context, which are exacerbated by their status and dislocation from familial networks.

The brief description Hall offers above is that of women who form self-help groups on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

While there is a case for understanding ethnicity (or kinship as Archie Mafeje argues) in terms of how it can be an organising element in the labour process, the rigid and impervious colonial conceptions of ethnicity institutionalised by the TPLF cannot be underestimated. As relevant as this is to understand the reproduction of inequalities, in the Ethiopia case, it is also important to weigh how these have been entrenched as an organising principle of society.

The ability to render some groups as vulnerable as in the case of the non-Sidamo women migrant workers in Hawaasa or the migrant farmworkers massacred in Mai-Kadra also needs to be treated with caution. TPLF as a dominant force in the EPRDF coalition had almost three decades with an effective machinery to entrench this in the everyday forms of social, political and economic spheres of society, from ethnic development banks to redrawing provincial borders as in Raya to subsume areas where Amhara ethnic minorities can be disenfranchised.

Beyond this, there is also a dangerous oversimplification of vast periods of history and the association of repressed classes with specific language and cultural groups has fed a dangerous and divisive propaganda. This labels certain language groups as exploiters and oppressors and others victims of dispossession and oppression without a grounded understanding of complex and fluid categories, alongside complex economic and historical processes. These claims have also justified horrific violence by the OLF against the Amharic speaking people such as the disembowelment of pregnant women, the slicing off of the breasts of women and rape.

Progressive scholars, the working class and Ethiopia

Progressive scholars have to build bridges to engage with the intelligentsia in Ethiopia who have persevered through military dictatorship under the Derg in the 1970s and 1980s, and through 27 years of TPLF-dominated rule. Ethiopian scholars have been speaking out, as in this speech in 1994 by Mammo Muhcie in London that is an eerily precise analysis of TPLF as it is today.

In the midst of this conflict, Ethiopian scholars have been repeatedly trying to get their voices heard by the Ethiopian government and the international community. The statement widely shared by African intellectuals (including on roape.net) that presumed Ethiopian scholars cannot speak for themselves therefore came across as deeply condescending. If there is genuine interest in supporting Ethiopian scholars to get their perspectives and analysis on the crisis, and build bridges for meaningful interventions, the first step has to be through a serious and deliberate process of engagement.

There is also a need to pay attention to the accumulation strategies of elites and the manner they fit (or do not fit) within imperialism. Within this, an expanded understanding of a gendered working class is needed, recognising the strategically important role of women’s labour as a source of cheap wage labour. In addition, it is still important to not lose sight of how a liberal government like the PP, in pursuing its own ambitions to assert sovereignty over foreign policy and natural resources, has fallen from grace and is facing the age-old colonial/imperialist strategy of ‘divide and rule’ tactics both at the national level and regional levels through the TPLF, OLF and external actors such as Sudan and Egypt.

This also gives us insight into the accumulation strategy of the EPRDF, which still operates under a constitution and governance system setup by the TPLF dominated government. This draws out a broader lesson to the challenges arising out of an ambitious developmentalist elite in Africa. Although, the TPLF has been subjected to accountability processes after their removal from control of the federal government, there is still a broader lesson here for development in Africa, and this demands further interrogation.

Some on the left have admired the capacity of the ruling class in Ethiopia to pursue developmentalist ambitions with industrial parks as a strategy, for instance. But the limits of this strategy also need to be highlighted, as this also has relied on cheap wage labour and migrant women workers who have been rigidly constrained from organising in trade unions. Wildcat strikes and high turnover of labour has meant this is not a stable accumulation strategy, even on their own terms. It begs a broader question, what is the nature of a viable developmental strategy?

In addition, the pressures arising out of a gendered understanding of working class dynamics lays a basis to consider what developmental alternatives can be fought for. Such an alternative also demands a rupture from the existing imperialist architecture of power to assert control over resources which destabilises the global financial and geopolitical arrangements that the emerging Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia relations pose. Failure to recognise this is akin to enabling the catastrophic outcome of interventions in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the reason why there has been a robust and vociferous rejection of any possible intervention by the likes of Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink.

Progressives have a responsibility to centre an understanding of imperialism and the national question, as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros pull together in Reclaiming the Nation, to navigate this terrain and build bridges with the radical intelligentsia and popular formations in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa who want to construct a transformative agenda themselves. A first step has to be rejecting the ethnonationalist, genocidal agenda of TPLF, OLF and their allies.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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