As the village of Wadda awakens to the sound of pigeons, chickens and donkeys, an old man rides his camel over the sand that has been smoothed by the chilly morning wind. He straightens his turban and looks disapprovingly at the revolutionary slogans on a wall. The youths of this small village in North Darfur renamed it the ‘martyrs’ square’, in memory of a sit-in in 2019 against the then autocratic president Omar al-Bashir in which one of them was killed.
The camel kneels, the man dismounts and introduces himself as one of Wadda’s elders. “Young people are agitators these days,” he grumbles. “We elders have always kept the peace here. Now young people don’t fear to us anymore. That is why blood was spilled in this square.”
There exists a power vacuum in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, on an even bigger scale than in the capital Khartoum, where the conflict revolves around civilian resistance committees against the military coup in October. The conflict in Darfur is more complicated and already started at the beginning of this century. After a peace treaty in 2020, four rebel groups moved into the regional capital of Al Fashir, their leaders were given political positions and their fighters joined the government army of President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the allied Rapid Support Forces of Hamdan Dagalo Hemedti. The latter group, popularly known as Janjaweed, which relies on support of Arabized Sudanese and is notorious for its crimes against African Darfuri, seems to be the strongest of all.
In the marginalized regions of the country, far from the traditional centre of power in the Nile Valley, armed movements, which often represent narrow ethnic interest groups, are claiming their share. Nowhere is the disorder as widespread as in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. As in Khartoum, resistance committees have sprung up in Darfur and people are killed in demonstrations against the old guard. “Darfur was handed over to the rebel groups and militias, and that has led to complete impunity,” says a security specialist in Khartoum. “In addition, with the departure last year of the UN peacekeepers Unamid and the African Union, there is no longer a single force to keep the violence in check.”
In Wadda, a village of 15,000 inhabitants, the elderly who supported Bashir at the time are trying to regain their lost position. “They are trying to reverse everything that young people have achieved since the deposition of Bashir in 2019,” said Huda Adoma of the local resistance committee. He points to the village square. “The family of that man on the camel was involved in the death of our martyr. Like the resistance committees in Khartoum, we demonstrated here for weeks. Then the man’s son and three brothers came. They killed the martyr and stabbed another with a knife.”
To the displeasure of the younger people, the elderly of Wadda want to settle this murder in the village square in the traditional way, by paying ‘blood money’ to the family of the victim. ”The elderly collaborated with the old regime. Now our time has come. We want justice.” 70 percent of the 45 million Sudanese are under the age of thirty.
Wadda is far from the world of tap water, paved roads, electricity and internet. That’s why it is even more remarkable how politically and culturally aware the young people are after thirty years of strict Islamic dictatorship under Bashir. But the youth are no match for the weapons of the warlords in Darfur. “We have fallen into a bottomless pit after the military coup,” sighs Ibrahim Abdullah, also a member of the resistance committee.
His colleague Rahma Yosif gives him a prod with her elbow to keep him from losing heart. “Certainly, the politics of Sudan are depressing and certainly here,” she says, “but we in the resistance committees are fighting for much more. There must also be a cultural revolution.” Her male supporters nod in agreement. “Sudan’s social problems are far greater than their political ones. In daily life we women have nothing to say and when we do speak out, the elders call us ‘sluts’.”
The overriding problem facing Wadda, and all of Darfur, however, is climate change. This leads to drought, lack of drinking water, impoverishment of the soil, competition for land between the black agricultural population and the Arabized nomads. At the time, instead of dealing with the problems, Bashir sent his army to the black farmers and armed the Janjaweed of the nomadic Arab population to burn their villages. At the height of this conflict, around 2002, an estimated 300,000 people were killed. The International Criminal Court indicted Bashir for genocide. Half of the population of Darfur, more than six million people, has been in need of food aid ever since that war, according to the UN. About two million Darfuri still reside in camps. Last year half a million were added as a result of new conflicts.
On the plains outside Wadda in the blazing midday sun, trees sink into a mirage. A woman on a donkey cart passes a mass grave from the war in 2003, when a rebel movement occupied the village. Since then, farmers keep more livestock so that with the extra proceeds they can buy weapons for their defence. They burned the dry reeds on their fields to keep the nomads out: traditionally, farmers and nomads made mutual agreements about access to the land, but the poisoned political climate has now led to distrust. “Those damn nomads wash their livestock behind our drainage ditches so we can’t drink the water anymore,” says a man who is digging up the sediment behind an artificial sand wall for when the rains return.
The Sahel, of which Sudan is a part, is one of the fastest warming places in the world – 2 degrees warmer than a century ago, research shows. Shepherds and farmers fight over dwindling resources. “Darfur can no longer handle the population pressure,” says an employee of UNEP, the environmental organization of the UN. In the past enough water remained behind in the creeks, now even the basins do not retain enough water.
Digging a water catchment
Until recently, aid organization Save the Children paid citizens with food to dig these types of drainage reservoirs. Now she pays in cash, as all food aid supplies were recently stolen. Development becomes difficult in times of conflict. In the clinic of the same aid organization in the village of Abudialage, nurse Islam Brema weighs a thirteen-month-old child in a washbasin. “Much too light,” he sighs. “And I have nothing to feed her.” Her mother ties the baby on her back and walks back home, 45 kilometers away. Hunger is on the rise: 12 percent of all families in Northern Darfur have at least one severely malnourished child.
A Save the Children employee draws three circles in the sand: two circles opposite facing each other, that of the elderly and that of the young, and a third one called development. “How can we reunite the elderly and the young by working together on development”, he wonders, “because although against the tide we must continue to help the citizens”.
Fatnia Hamad, 11, is sitting on a mat with her mother in Abudialage. The sun is setting, she is exhausted. “I get up at four o’clock, walk to school for two hours and back at the end of the morning. In the afternoon I cover that distance again with the donkey cart for water.” In the morning her mother cannot make tea due to lack of water. Sometimes Fatnia faints at school from fatigue. The mother looks with a scornful eye at the men sitting separate on another mat, but they say they don’t have time to fetch water.
Den of robbers
On the way back to Al Fashir, the capital of North Darfur, the driver zigzags in the clouds of dust over tracks skidding left and right. Under the last rays of the sun, the mountain range in the distance takes on erratic shapes, with in the foreground remains of houses of a village destroyed by a land dispute sticking out of the sand like rotten teeth. Whoever wants to avoid kidnapping for ransom here, always takes a different route on the way back. Al Fashir is a den of robbers, full of rampaging militias, government troops, rebels and armed criminals. Trucks with merchandise are robbed every day. At nine o’clock everyone rushes home to get in before the curfew.
The street into the city center is marked by the looted warehouse of the World Food Program warehouses. Seventeen hundred tons of food were lost at the end of December. All food aid in North Darfur came to a standstill. Further down in the city lies the looted former yard of the peacekeeping force Unamid. Generators and cars worth a total of millions of euros were stolen here.
In Al Fashir, each armed group controls its own district. Despite the peace deal, warlords continue to recruit fighters. Sometimes they send them as mercenaries to Libya for extra income.
Darfur’s rebel groups say they are fighting for the black farmers, but most have not controlled areas for long since their formation early this century. The Janjaweed militia is probably the most violent against the population, as it were during the war at the beginning of this century. The former enemies must now ensure an integrated army and return of stolen land, two terms of the peace agreement not yet implemented.
Janjaweed fighters also show up in the heavily guarded office of Governor Nimir Abdel Rahim, leader of a rebel group. “I am a freedom fighter,” the governor emphasizes in a conversation. “As a freedom fighter, I captured general Burhan a long time ago, now the president of Sudan. I often remind him of that,” says Governor Nimir. “If you have defeated someone in a battle, you should no longer see him as an enemy.”
As with Burhan, he is lenient on Janjaweed leader Hamdan Dagalo Hemedti, the second most powerful man in the country. “We have to be careful with those two, they feel unsafe. If they give up their position, they risk losing everything.” Janjaweed leader Hemedti was given a gold mine in Darfur by Bashir.
Nimir is the first one to mention the issue of the major looting in Al Fashir at the end of December. “All soldiers misbehave, including those of my rebel group,” he readily admits. “The bases of former peacekeepers Unamid were looted in several towns elsewhere in Dafur. So my soldiers thought: we can do that too. But the government army and the Janjaweed started it. Tomorrow Burhan and Hemedti are coming to visit me in Al Fashir. We need to discuss how to encamp the armed groups outside the city.”
All the rebel leaders of the peace agreement sided with the military after the coup in October, and not with the protesting civilians. They feel part of the military world of thought, the army is the strongest power factor in the country and offers opportunities for money and looting. They call the civilian protesters “rioters.” “But I remain a freedom fighter”, says Nimir, “I allow the young people in Al Fashir to demonstrate”. They try to do so the next day during Burhan and Hemedti’s visit, but they are arrested and robbed of their mobile phones and shoes.
Two days later, fighting breaks out between a faction of the Janjaweed and a rebel group at Unamid’s apparently not-yet-dismantled base. There are several casualties.
This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad.
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‘Uhuru Kenyatta Is Going Nowhere After Polls’
Outgoing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta turns 61 in October. In Africa, 60 years of age, in presidential terms, is considered to be a toddler – in a continent where presidents have been known to collapse in office. As competition intensifies ahead of Kenya’s next watershed elections on August 9th, Kenyans continue to speculate on Pres Kenyatta’s election gambit and political future.
At the height of the global Coronavirus pandemic in the last quarter of 2022, I met a friend at a senior members’ social club in Kiambu County. The exclusive club still open, meant that the society’s upper crust continued to socialise without worrying about police harassment, over not keeping the distance as they enjoyed their favourite juice.
Politics is always at the lips of most Kenyans. As we ate and drank, the group I was seated with naturally turned to political talk. “I’ll never forget what my Nanyuki British landowner told me in 2013,” reminisced a businessman. “You guys have elected a monarch, you’ll live to rue the day. We’ve lived with a monarch for the last 1000 years and we’ve been unable to dislodge it.”
The monarch he was referring to was Uhuru Kenyatta, then the The National Alliance (TNA) presidential candidate, who had magnetised his base (the Kikuyu nation) to emotionally vote for him in the March 2013 presidential elections. Candidate Uhuru had been fingered as one of the infamous “Ocampo Six”, the well-known public officials who the International Criminal Court (ICC) claimed were the most culpable in the 2007 post-election violence. The six were: Uhuru Kenyatta, former head of civil service secretary to the cabinet Francis Muthaura, former Police Commissioner Major-General Hussein Ali, William Ruto, vernacular radio talk show host Joshua arap Sang and former cabinet minister Henry Kosgey.
Irony and politics oftentimes go hand-in-hand: it was not lost on some of us on the irony of the supposedly British landowner’s remarks. The expansive Nanyuki plateau, 200km north of Nairobi city in Laikipia County, is the playground for many foreigners, majority of them of British descent, who own huge tracts of land, acquired with the help of a retreating British empire, after World War (II).
Six months to the August 9, 2022 presidential elections, President Uhuru’s billboards are all over the Nairobi city’s conurbation, his huge beaming portrait staring you in the face. Today’s African big man’s desire to be loved and pervade both the private and public space of his subjects, is not any different from his post-independence predecessors, who ruled in the single party era and who considered themselves presidents-for-life.
In the new constitutional dispensation of two-term limits, now commonplace in many African polities, this big man’s syndrome, seems to have found new meaning and avenue. The post-independence presidents made sure their portraits were everywhere – on the country’s currency notes and coins, in business premises, churches, government offices, schools and homes.
The African big man suffers from the tragedy of longevity in office: once made president, they create a career out of the presidency, surrounds himself (it’s hardly a she), with acolytes, hangers-on, layabouts, loyalists, praise-singers, yes-men and a few yes-women. Look around on the continent – you cannot fail to spot them: Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville, Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Robert Mugabe who died in 2019.
In Africa, 60 years of age, in presidential terms, is considered to be a toddler – in a continent where presidents have been known to collapse in office
In Africa, 60 years of age, in presidential terms, is considered to be a toddler – in a continent where presidents have been known to collapse in office, whose health status is a top government secret – they are always sneaked out of their countries in the dead of the night, for treatment abroad and who cannot be in a meeting and not be in “meditation” the entire period, irrespective of the time. President Uhuru will be 61 years by October, 2022, when the country will have held its seventh multi-party presidential election and the third after the promulgation of the new constitution in August 2010.
In the 1970s–1980s, when Organisation of African Unity (OAU) reigned supreme, the African despots would meet annually in some designated capital city, to compare notes, but most significantly, to congratulate each other for surviving yet another year. It was a presidential club, where most of these presidents-for-life would be glad to stamp their presence and hope to see each other in another year, that is, if they weren’t deposed by the military junta, who more often than not, killed them.
The military coups of the 1970s and 1980s have since been replaced by “democratic coups” of the post-1990s multiparty era, where the incumbent presidents have perfected the art of rigging the votes and subverting electoral processes. They have been doing these by manipulating the voter registration data, shutting down the social media, tampering with the biometric machines that count the votes, orchestrating power blackouts and refusing to open computer servers indefinitely. Hijacking opponents on their way to present their nomination papers and stuffing ballot boxes is today considered both archaic and absurd.
The recent West Africa military coup d’états are a tragic replay of what used to be normal occurrence of Africa of yester-years.
The presence of President Uhuru’s billboards is spawning silent murmurs from Kenyans: what do these billboards portend? Why does Uhuru need to remind us of his presidency, six months to his exit? At the club, there seemed to be a consensus that President Uhuru did not behave like a president who wanted to leave after his constitutionally mandated two-terms are over. “I’m persuaded the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), is more than meets the eye. It’s a project geared to secure a post-presidency position for Uhuru after 2022,” said one elderly man. I later learnt he was one of the county’s BBI representative.
The BBI came about after President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, his most stringent nemesis in two successive electoral contests – 2013 and 2017, seemingly buried their hatchet and shook hands on March 9, 2018. The initiative was the immediate aftermath of the détente.
I’m persuaded the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) … is a project geared to secure a post-presidency position for Uhuru after 2022
There’s no smoke without fire. This talk about President Uhuru’s ostensibly not being keen to leave office after August 2022 general election, has been apparently stoked by his yes-men and praise-singers, including himself.
Addressing his base from Sagana State Lodge in September 2019, where the President retreats to, when he wants to connect emotionally and linguistically with the Kikuyu people – the President finds refuge speaking in his mother tongue – President Uhuru reportedly quipped: “I do not know the contents of BBI report, yet I hear people claiming Uhuru Kenyatta wants to become the Prime Minister of Kenya. I wouldn’t mind being in leadership in such a post.”
Three months after this rather odious statement from the President, his acolyte and former Jubilee Party vice-chairman, David Murathe reiterated in November that President Uhuru would stay on as prime minister. Said Murathe to Citizen TV: “Uhuru is going nowhere. . .there is going to be new formations. . .they can even agree with the former prime minister (Raila Odinga) (for him) to run for the presidency of this country. . .the leader of the party with the majority seats as per the BBI recommendations forms the government and if Uhuru is the party leader, he’ll form that government.”
In September 2020, in an interview with the weekly Sunday Nation newspaper, Francis Atwoli, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) boss, revealed that once the constitution is changed, President Uhuru would be eligible to apply for another term. Atwoli, who has a penchant for hiring Congolese crooners to sing his praises, was referring to BBI, which, if it’s passed by the Supreme Court, will elicit a constitutional change through a referendum.
“Uhuru Kenyatta can use the envisioned change to remain president beyond 2022. Why are people pretending that they don’t know (Daniel arap) Moi after the constitutional change of 1991 remained in power for another term?” growled Atwoli. That aside, the flamboyant trade unionist, who, oftentimes will be spotted bedecked in jewellery chains and bracelets, has on several occasions intimated that President Uhuru is too young at 60 years to retire. Charity Ngilu the Kitui County governor recently joined the chorus, claimed President Uhuru was too young for his wisdom to go to waste.
Two months after Atwoli, one of President Uhuru’s now most vocal yes-man, made his remarks known, Raphael Tuju, the immediate former secretary general of Jubilee Party, said in November: “I want to state that there is consensus especially from those of us holding senior positions in the party that it still needs Uhuru’s passion to bring this country together.”
The cantankerous Atwoli was at it again: as ODM endorsed Raila on February 26, 2022 as its August 9 presidential flagbearer, the trade unionist bellowed yet again that President Uhuru was a youth, that BBI was on half-time and that once Raila forms the government after August, it will be revived and a position created to accommodate Uhuru Kenyatta.
As recent as February 10, 2022, Deputy President Ruto claimed rather boldly that his real competitor was hiding behind the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) leader. Raila is the leader of ODM and the apparent insinuation is President Uhuru is shadowing Raila, as he prepares to take on Ruto on August 9. But could this be true?
Environmental Crisis: The New Empire and Its Colonies
The world’s biodiversity hotspots are in the Global South and they have become the targets for capitalist pirates fronted by “conservation” organizations.
The global climate crisis is beginning to manifest in extreme weather events like floods, droughts and temperature rises all over the world. It is therefore important that the world come together at this time to meet this new challenge. However, the rate of commercialization of “climate finance”, carbon trade, carbon offsets, and other financial instruments are overtaking the pace of actual reduction of emissions, which is what the environment needs.
In tropical Africa, Asia, and other parts of the Global South, indigenous people are now suffering injustices like dumping of European toxic wastes, displacement of people for carbon trading, displacement of people to create protected areas, and violent law enforcement to “protect” the environment and wildlife. The payment of money for planting of trees does not reduce emissions, which are the source of the crisis. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow in November 2021 clearly demonstrated the depth of this problem in the fact that the summit was reduced to a business meeting for cutting deals rather than leading environmental stewardship.
The conference resulted in a lot of financial calculations and discussions, but failed to make any concrete commitments on reduction of emissions or reliance on fossil fuels. The success of these financial machinations has created and publicized a myth that a clean environment is something that can be bought and paid for instead of being achieved through action and behavioural change. A major “elephant in the room” at COP26 was the open display of skewed power relations between the major polluters (wealthy Western nations) and their “clients”. These clients or “subject” states are relatively poor nations in the Global South that are responsible for a very small fraction of global emissions and are also the most biodiverse.
Heads of states from African countries were diverted from policy discussions with their peers into parallel meetings (euphemistically called “side events”) with NGOs or corporate interests. The discussions in these side meetings typically centred on what financial inducements could be offered to the individuals or governments involved to subvert their existing natural resource regulations for the benefit of the NGOs or their corporate patrons. This is the point at which colonization and resource looting is happening because intergovernmental meetings are governed by frameworks of sovereignty, diplomacy, and laws as opposed to the “side events, which are essentially backroom deals, all greenwashed in the “detergent” that is climate change and global “biodiversity crisis”. The seriousness of the challenges posed to humankind by environmental pollution and climate change cannot be overstated, but what the whole world is failing to do is recognize and acknowledge human behaviour, capitalism and consumption patterns as the primary cause.
Capitalism is currently very close to its apex in human history and has lost sight of any coherent objectives, other than the mantra of “more”. Very few (if any) global corporations have any visions defining their “endgame” or how big they want to become, or why. It has become de rigueur for global corporations and organizations to grow far beyond their ability to positively manage their own impact on the human society within which they exist. The fallacy of using engineering and technology as surrogates for human impact has been ruthlessly exposed by the current global pandemic and the exponential growth of technology as an end in itself, rather than a solution to specific needs. The resultant “disconnects” are so wide, that the world is now struggling to recognize cognitive dissonance for what it is.
This bizarre “open ended” approach has led to untrammelled consumption, landing the world in the environmental and moral miasma where we currently find ourselves. For example, Amazon, a runaway success that has become probably the world’s most profitable company, pays some of the lowest taxes relative to its earnings, and is staffed by a workforce that barely earns a living wage and must fight for the right to use toilets at work. It now has a fabulously wealthy CEO who donates some money to combat climate change, while spending part of it on a flying into low orbit on a phallus-shaped rocket simply for self-actualization.
Consumers have also become startlingly slavish to brands, forgetting even that basic tenet of choice. Apple Inc. is a manufacturer of high quality (and very highly priced) technological devices, which have won it customers all over the world. However, it is difficult for anyone who hasn’t visited the United States to fathom the bizarre hold the company has on its clients. Stories abound in the media of (normal, sane, mature) people camping for a few days on the streets to buy an expensive new model of a mobile phone on the day of its release. None of them can explain why they cannot buy it the following day. A friend recently shared a harrowing tale of how she bought an Apple computer and spent two hours on the phone talking to machines before she finally got a human being to address her user issues after spending thousands of dollars purchasing the machine. This is a professional person who is never wasteful or profligate or tolerant of nonsense in any of her habits. These are just two of countless examples, and the upshot of this malaise is that global corporations, organizations and even governments have moved away from managing policies, actions and human outcomes into the management of perceptions.
The other inescapable effect has been the untold sums of money accrued in profit. These twin threats have brought capitalists to the table of sovereign heads of states, where they pose the greatest danger to humankind. Leaders around the world are now discussing policies with the heads of corporations that have been unable to achieve internal self-control. This is perfectly illustrated in the co-called mitigation measures being put in place to combat climate change, where the only tangible movement is the normalization of propaganda, greenwashing, and human rights violations and other absurdities that are perpetrated in the name of combating climate change. It is a classic case of elite capture, more astounding because it is happening on a global scale.
One of the more egregious examples of this is the much-touted 30×30 campaign, which recommends that 30 per cent of all land around the world be set aside as protected areas by the year 2030. This was initially proposed by conservation organizations, pushed by their corporate donors and, crucially, supported by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The support of a UN body is the easiest path to obtaining the compliance of governments around the world by creating “goals” and making the action look like an achievement.
Leaders around the world are now discussing policies with the heads of corporations that have been unable to achieve internal self-control.
The UNEP recommendation serves conservation interests well, because despite its history of ethical and practical failures, the veneer of “greater good” that hangs over the UN discourages even the most basic scrutiny. In this particular case, none of the many documents written in favour of this recommendation says whether the 30 per cent is a global calculation, or whether every country will have to set aside 30 per cent of its own land. This apparent lacuna is where the prejudice is concealed, because it is common knowledge that the world’s biodiversity hotspots are in the tropics (primarily inhabited by non-Caucasian people). Besides, no significant biodiversity gains are likely to accrue from creating new protected areas in Europe and much of the Global North. Besides, the high human population density and regard for human rights in the Global North would present a challenge as regards the violence and human rights violations required to create that many new protected areas. This demonstrates that the creation of protected areas is a deeply flawed concept and a primitive, obsolete conservation tool.
Philosophically, protected areas are by definition lands that are taken — or “protected” — from their owners, the indigenous people. They are based on the globally popular myth of ideal nature existing within a matrix of “pristine wilderness” devoid of human presence. This isn’t remarkable, knowing that the concept — first developed in United States — was the brainchild of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. Neither of these men had any ecological knowledge and their assertions are based on the pillars of white supremacy and the need for self-actualization. This “poisoned root” of conservation is the reason why in the Global South, the practice still requires continuous unmitigated violence; it remains a continuous slow-burning war against indigenous people. Together and separately, Muir and Roosevelt both regularly expressed their disdain for Native American societies, referring to them as “dirty” and “uncivilized”, respectively, in their writings.
It is also crucial to understand that this model was developed in a settler colony by racist immigrants without any reference to the presence, let alone the needs of indigenous populations. In recent years, there have been numerous attempts by conservation interests to make protected areas “inclusive” of local people, more “community focused” and to “share revenues” without much regard for their impact or their overall effect. This is because none of the practitioners has dealt with the principle issues of why protected areas were exclusive, visitor-focused (as opposed to community-focused) and why none of the revenue was being shared with the communities in the first place.
The emphasis on tourism is an avatar of the dominance of external influences over the needs and aspirations of locals in conservation policy and practice. The influences and involvement of external parties cannot be driven by livelihood dependencies on in situ resources, so they are also dependent on external drivers, namely capitalism and neoliberalism. Conservation organizations have realized this and to satisfy their ever-increasing needs for funding they have deliberately moved to engage closely with the corporations and capitalists who bear the greatest responsibility for the current environmental crisis through their resource use patterns.
It is also crucial to understand that this model was developed in a settler colony by racist immigrants without any reference to the presence, let alone the needs of indigenous populations.
The corporations in turn have their eye on marketing and have realized that any association with environmental responsibility, however tenuous, is commercially beneficial. This has given rise to what is generally known as “greenwashing” of products and services, a process that has grown from a marketing gimmick into a global battery of financial instruments that include carbon credits, nature bonds, grants, easements, and a myriad other ways in which real or perceived financial muscle can be used to acquire ownership or control of natural resources. The power of the propaganda machine is such that all the global financial structures have failed to ask how carbon trading differs from money-laundering and other white-collar crime.
The reality we live with today is that this casual lip service to environmental concerns has evolved into full-blown corporate partnerships between the self-styled “saviours” of the environment and those who over-exploit its resources. This has created an all-powerful monster whose preferred victims are the nations and peoples who still have and live within relatively intact natural environments and biodiversity. Ironically, the environmental stewardship shown by nations and various indigenous societies in the Global South has now made their homelands and resources targets for capitalist pirates, fronted by “conservation” organizations, backed by UNEP, and facilitated by governments.
The organizations pushing this injustice need to temper their self-absorption with some caution, because we are currently living in the information age, and it is only a matter of time before previously “ignorant” rural societies realize that wildlife and forests are the “enemy” causing them to lose their rights and start acting accordingly. The prevalence of armed personnel, aircraft, fences, drones and surveillance equipment in conservation are an indication that practitioners are aware at some level that what they are doing is socially unsustainable and needs to be backed by violence. However, this is a provision of false assurance, because societies that have nowhere else to go cannot be moved. Barring a change of policy, there will necessarily be bloodshed, pitting “conservationists” against people who have nothing left to lose. Already, the number of extrajudicial killings in Eastern, Southern and Central Africa under the guise of conservation is untenable, so attempts to implement the 30 x30 proposal and effectively double the amount of land under protected areas would further escalate this slow-burning violence.
The power of the propaganda machine is such that all the global financial structures have failed to ask how carbon trading differs from money-laundering and other white-collar crime.
The growth in the size and budgets of conservation NGOs gives them the ability to step beyond the roles that are generally expected of civil society organizations. In Kenya and in many parts of Africa, these organizations are now even involved in armed law enforcement, hitherto the preserve of the state. They also move to influence formal policy decisions by funding the necessary processes like stakeholder meetings. In Kenya, The Nature Conservancy, International Fund for Animal Welfare and World Wildlife Fund routinely fund policy discussion meetings and Kenyan delegations to international conferences. The government pretends not to know that this is akin to brewers and distillers funding liquor licensing board meetings. In a nutshell, this is capitalism and investment being presented as conservation and philanthropy. This example demonstrates a key effect of the increased conservation funding levels in that some of the larger organizations have the financial muscle to effectively achieve state capture.
Climate change is, and will continue to be an existential threat to our world, but the human greed and racism that feeds on it moves much faster than the much-touted rise in global temperatures and sea levels. The arts and humanities must therefore step up and necessarily participate in the quest for environmental justice, because the prostitution otherwise known as donor-funded “science” cannot be expected to point out the ills of their capitalist benefactors.
The Sands of the Ogaden Are Blowing Across East Africa
Much like in 1977, all the conditions have come together that could turn conflicting interests into ruinous warfare across the region.
Even in a season of bad years, it is a particularly very bad year for the Horn of Africa. War and hunger tearing at Somalia, revolutionary hope in Ethiopia turned into existential crisis, the coming end of Kenyatta’s reign over Kenya with a Kalenjin successor and ethnic tensions in the wings, and in Uganda, the recent suspicious death of an Archbishop amidst a military regime openly massacring the country’s citizens, bring the region to the very edge of catastrophe.
As always happens for the region, it all starts with failed rains, most likely somewhere between Ethiopia and Somalia, although because the way in which it works is complex, few pause to consider that stopping hunger deaths in the Ogaden could create a more stable East Africa. But the rains have failed for more than three years now, and in time, the impact will be felt as coups and massacres as far afield as Kampala and the Congolese border.
In the meantime, as superpower rivalry swoops in, a looming election cycle is setting unease. The elections come. They are stolen. Civil war breaks out in Uganda. In Kenya, tensions between Luo, Kikuyu and Kalenjin politicians push the country to the brink of civil war; in no time, there will be an attempted coup in Nairobi.
But for the more alert readers, if the above scenario sounds more like a description of 1977, rather than of 2022, then there is a good reason for it; it is 1977. There have been many turning points in our post-independence history, but if I were pressed hard to pick the one that unites us in our common fate, I would settle for 1977.
And then, I would back up a little to 1972. For this was the year in which a general, global drought hit East Africa in a serious way. An indictment of public media discourse in the region is the degree of ignorance it engenders not just in its audience, but also in its reporters and editors, and so it was not until 2012 that, travelling to Kaabong from Kotido in Karamoja, I first heard the words “Loreng Lega”, from a pastoralist-turned farmer, Faustino Odir. He was explaining why he, a Jie man, started farming, saying that his family fled Loreng Lega in Karamoja in 1973 and lived in Masindi in Western Uganda for 36 years.
When I inquired further, I was told that Loreng Lega means Red Jewels, in Ateker. At the time, before plastic and glass spread across the pastoralists’ lands as beads, women wore loops of iron wire as neckpieces and kept them fresh with cow butter. In 1973, the cows died. There was no butter. The neckpieces turned rusty and the ever-poetic Ateker found a name for the famine. I might have left it there but there were others. I was told of Lopiar and Loreng Arup, all describing famines — Lopiar in 1980 and Loreng Arup in 1986.
The 1972 famine — also named the Dimbleby Famine by the international media after the British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby who brought it to Western attention — caused what I came to see as the most important political event in all of Eastern Africa for 50 years. Without that event, it is arguable that Eritrea may never have split from Ethiopia, Somalia might still be stable, Museveni would not be president and the Rwanda genocide of 1994 would not have happened.
The fall of Emperor Haile Selassie undid settled but fragile political ties that had kept Somalia, north-eastern Uganda, northern Kenya, parts of South Sudan and all of Ethiopia manageably stable for centuries. The immense legitimacy that comes from a political system widely seen as both righteous and lawful is not a cheap one, and with the great 19th century opening of all the world’s corners to communication and commerce, Ethiopians learnt that the feudal system they had so naturally accepted was in fact a very bad system. Attempts at reforms did not go far enough, and the fact that by 1974 Ethiopia still had actual, rather than metaphoric peasants, who gave up a part of their harvest to the landlord, meant that the country was really asking for it.
The fall of Selassie, heart-rending and ruinous as it was, was a foregone conclusion, which is not to say the successor system was deserved nor that those who carried out the coup de grace to an ossified system were angels. The tragedy of Ethiopia has always been that the rules of political dialectics that describe a move to a better system, don’t usually apply.
We have been paying the price for Selassie’s fall ever since.
With the fall of Selassie, subject ethnic groups on the empire’s periphery began to question their status — questions unthinkable whilst Menelik’s progeny sat on the throne. For a measure of how recent this is, Somali writer Nurrudin Farrah once told me that he met the Emperor as a child when he came on a tour of the territories and was picked to read a poem to him.
The loss of Ethiopia’s sacerdotal myth (aspects of it still exist in what is described as Solomonite society in origin) combined with the ascendency of the Derg to convince the empire’s provinces that the time to leave had come. The most important departure was Eritrea. But in 1977, it looked as if Somalia might be the first.
The tragedy of Ethiopia has always been that the rules of political dialectics that describe a move to a better system, don’t usually apply.
The Ogaden war that broke out in July 1977 was a tragic event that should have been avoided, if only for the fact that it produced none of the intended goals. When Siad Barre launched his Greater Somalia wars, the irredentist suit for the unification of ethnic Somalia, he may not have foreseen an even greater shrinkage of Somalia. But it was an explicit threat to territorial Kenya as it was to Ethiopia, both countries more important to world powers than Somalia.
That Siad Barre chose to launch a revanchist campaign in the deep winter of the Cold War only ratcheted up the stakes. It ensured that his war was very quickly hijacked to become a USSR-USA affair. It is here that one of the most cynical manoeuvres of the Cold War era took place.
Since the 1930s, Imperial Ethiopia had aligned with capitalist powers after Haile Selassie petitioned the League of Nations to stop Italian aggression against what was then better known as Abyssinia. American patronage of Ethiopia continued even after the Derg was entrenched, but the openly Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam could no longer be accommodated. Down in Mogadishu, Siad Barre was in bed with the Soviets. The march down to the Ogaden war happened with cold abject calculations. The Soviets helped Mogadishu draw up a battle plan against Ethiopia. The popular version of the story, as told to me by the late Kenyan cameraman, Mohinder Dhillon who covered the fighting, is that at the 11th hour, the Soviets, doubtless with the battle plans in their breast pockets, switched sides and supported the Ethiopians while the Americans fled Addis Ababa to take sides with Siad Barre. Beyond all belief, the Somalis marched into battle with the same Soviet battle plan. The result was a complete rout of Somali forces, the centre of battle converging at Jijiga. But there are more subtle ways in which it happened, which is beyond the scope of this piece.
That Siad Barre chose to launch a revanchist campaign in the deep winter of the Cold War only ratcheted up the stakes.
The result was that Mengistu got allies he was comfortable with, and the Americans, the port of Barbera and the Eastern Africa Indian Ocean. Which was cold comfort for both the USSR and the USA; scholarly journals make the argument that, by so openly going to war against the Soviets in Africa, Jimmy Carter and his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, may have precipitated the end of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty — the detente with the Soviet Union — meaning they threw away something bigger for a regional conflict.
It was a short war, lasting from June 1977 to May 1978. But it put an end to short regional wars for it put in the hands of non-state actors the means to wage guerrilla warfare. Before that, guns and ammunition had been the preserve of state actors. Both the Americans and the Soviets decanted ship and plane loads of arms into the conflict. They inaugurated a regional small arms market that is nigh impossible to shut down. And this is where the tragedy begins.
The first groups to acquire those guns were the pastoralists that straddle the Horn. The testing ground for the destructive power of guns easy to acquire, hide and maintain were the cattle rustlings which had for centuries been little more than sporting, manhood-proving raids. Supercharged with the AK47, they became lethal.
The Turkana had hitherto ruled the pastoralist roost, acquiring their first guns from Menelik in 1911, and lording it over the Samburu, Karamojong, Didinga, Tepeth, Pokot, Toposa, and Nyangatom. Now, all these groups had guns. The region’s descent into hell had begun; these gun trails were to feed Joseph Kony’s war, and all still feed conflicts in the region.
As it was, the timing could not have been worse. The pastoralists had not fully recovered from the famine of 1972, but the famine was not a singular factor. The fate of pastoralists is one that those living in the capital cities — who are nearly all from agricultural communities — don’t fully appreciate nor care about. What had happened was that colonialism had closed up lands and created administrative units corresponding to ethnicity, in effect, inventing tribes. This did not suit nomadic pastoralism, which not only required open lands, but also did not want national borders.
The region’s descent into hell had begun; these gun trails were to feed Joseph Kony’s war, and all still feed conflicts in the region.
The worst affected pastoralist groups were those of south-western Uganda and Rwanda, who suddenly found themselves stateless for their forage lands were split between Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo.
Deep into independence in 1977, pastoralists started to realise that the post-colonial state had left them out and would continue to leave them out. The race to pick up guns was a belated reaction to the knowledge that unless they fought, their way of life was doomed.
The death of animals and humans from the 1972 famine broke pastoralism. But now, unbeknownst to all, an even bigger event — Lopiar — was coming in 1980 to effectively bury it. Before that, another fateful event occurred. The fall of Idi Amin in 1979 left tens of thousands of guns floating in Uganda. Just think of what it means that, when the Ugandan army under Amin fled in 1979, all of Uganda government’s guns fell into private hands. A lot of the suddenly unemployed Ugandan soldiers found that the Ogaden war had already created a market for the guns in their hands. In Moroto, the story is still told of how people carried guns like so many bunches of firewood on their heads.
Hence, when 1980 came, pastoralists were armed to the teeth. The famine of that year is hard to outdo. It is estimated that up 21 per cent of pastoralist lives were lost in that year, first to the drought and the loss of animals, but the bulk of it to the cholera outbreak that followed. They called it Lopiar, The Sweep, in Ateker languages. (On a minor note, this was the event that gave birth to Kakuma Camp, for the relief agencies that arrived found the Turkana assembled in this high, cooler and moist valley. Henceforth, arriving refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Uganda would go there, because it was a feeding centre.)
But the biggest impact was still in the future. In Uganda, 1980 is thought of narrowly as the year that Museveni launched a bush war in response to a lost election. What is rarely thought of is that Museveni, himself a pastoralist, was merely doing what pastoralists all over The Horn of Africa were doing. He was playing the part of kraal boss, and like all kraal bosses, he was leading a group of young pastoralists to fight to keep their way of life viable, for it falls upon young men in pastoralist societies to go out and fight for animals when the herd is either dead or rustled. This time, they were going to rustle the entire Uganda.
Museveni not only led Ugandan pastoralists to battle, but combined those with pastoralist refugees from Rwanda as well. The mass of guns floating all over the region found eager takers.
Overall, the decision could not have been worse. The gun turned against pastoralists, and for the next two decades, hundreds of thousands would perish in ensuing conflicts. The shadow of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 obscures the fact that the 1990s was the worst decade for pastoralism. The drawing up of colonial borders had kettled in nomadic lifestyles. The attack on Rwanda in 1990 by Paul Kagame and the late Fred Rwigyema was not too different from the Somali attack on Ethiopia in 1977; the aim was the same, to pry loose the 1884 Berlin conference borders and let the herds roam free. It was not too different from the armed gunfights by the Turkana, Pokot, and Karamojong against the Kenyan and Ugandan armies. The Toposa of Southern Sudan were caught in a much more complex battle, for they were caught between the Khartoum forces and the SPLA, who both supplied them with guns, and although they were better off with the SPLA, whom they chose in the end, they were still part of the “Karamoja” cluster, their fate still impacted by the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie.
The shadow of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 obscures the fact that the 1990s was the worst decade for pastoralism.
Grimly, the killings in Rwanda in 1994 were not too distant in form from the gun deaths that happened with such casual repetitiveness between Ugandan, Kenyan, Ethiopian and Sudanese pastoralists at the same time that they were rarely reported. But hundreds of thousands perished in the decades between 1977 and 2006.
The one pastoralist struggle that made good was the ascension of Museveni to power. He has said it many times — and makes propaganda use of herding his animals for the cameras — but what perhaps explains the seeming paradox of his reformist rhetoric which clashes with his dictatorial practice, is that he was driven to pick the liberation lingua of his time to gain support beyond his clannist instinct, whilst fighting for something closer to his heart. If Museveni does not seem that presidential, it is because his psychological make-up is that of a kraal leader. You have to meet many of them throughout the pastoralist lands in the north to meet his kind: tyrannical, brash, hard-driving, imperative, brooking no argument, but above all uber-clannist. The massive land grabs in the latter days of his presidency have a central pattern — to benefit pastoralists as unreported conflicts in many, many parts Uganda between farmers and pastoralists protected by the army attest. The colonial and postcolonial abuse of pastoralists made its mark. They are called “backward”, which is derogatory, considering that pastoralists today remain the true custodians of African cultures abandoned by agricultural communities, and that many in agricultural communities are only a generation removed from pastoralism. But conflict is conflict, and Museveni used to state that he would not leave power while his people remained backward. He has since turned every government institution into an ethnically monolithic stronghold.
If Museveni does not seem that presidential, it is because his psychological make-up is that of a kraal leader.
The biggest coming conflict of Museveni’s life, and one which will survive him for the coming decades, will be a rebalancing of the power stakes between pastoralists and agrarians, for in the long term, agriculture always wins, even if by absorbing pastoralists. This means that this coming conflict will once more pit Museveni’s pastoralists against the agricultural communities of southern and south-western Uganda. The break with Buganda and Busoga, hitherto Museveni’s biggest supporters, is only the opening salvo of this coming conflict. Bobi Wine may be the spearhead of this struggle, but it will outlive him and reshape Uganda for generations to come.
It is Museveni’s terrible, bad luck that Cold War II is returning when his government has lost all legitimacy, meaning that in the event of another armed rebellion, he will no longer be the good guy. He lost that tag forever when he ordered his goons to shoot to death dozens on 18 November 2020. Even worse, he is now the de facto Haile Selassie of Eastern Africa, meddling in Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya and Somalia. By positioning his son to succeed him, and now openly saying that Ugandan public offices will be ring-fenced to those with money (effectively his bush war pastoralist compadres), he is creating a feudal monarchy out of Uganda, like Ethiopia in reverse. He is making Selassie’s mistakes. But he is also giving a bad name to pastoralists who are otherwise noble people.
That is because, as in 1977, the factors to turn conflicting interests into ruinous warfare are in place, almost comically so in how much the players of 1977 are back in place. In Kenya, another Kenyatta is about to exit office. His vice president happens to be a Kalenjin. In the wings, vying for succession, is another Odinga. You cannot make this stuff up. But unlike 1977, and unlike Moi, Ruto is Museveni’s protégé. The ethnic configurations of Kenya are such that should Ruto become president, he will find himself forced to govern like Moi, albeit a Moi who can count on another Idi Amin in Uganda as his ally. This will mean that the coming political instability in Uganda will also become political instability in Kenya. Ruto is opening the gates for Uganda’s political incompetence to be imported into Kenya. We just hope that among his intimate exchanges with Museveni, military rule in Kenya did not crop up.
Like in 1977, Ethiopia is at war. It might be a matter of time before dreams of Greater Somalia are revived, as Mogadishu once more watches Addis Ababa’s discomfiture. Somalia’s options are not that many. After all, the state disintegrated after Siad Barre was beaten on the plains of the Ogaden. It is a matter of time before someone in Mogadishu sees a foreign military adventure as a way to unite the country’s clans. Should this happen, the Ogaden could well be the playing field. But this will not be too much news to Kenya whose biggest threats have so far come from Somalis.
Almost beyond belief, Russia, in the place of the Soviet Union, could very well join China and the USA in messing up the politics of the region, which mess is already in high gear. In 2022, there could well be more AK47s poured in, but there might be other weapons as well.
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