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SPEAK OF ME AS I AM: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa

Does a country create a people, or do a people create a country? KALUNDI SERUMAGA responds to Mahmood Mamdani’s recent analysis on the political situation in Ethiopia.

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The Westphalian principles, rooted in the 1648 Treaties signed in the European region of that name, have been monstrously mis-applied when it comes to the African continent, yet they established modern international relations, particularly the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built. Everything else, especially that dreaded category, ‘ethnicity’ is cast as a diversion and dangerous distraction.

This is the tone that runs through Ugandan Professor Mahmoud Mamdani’s one thousand-word opinion piece: The Trouble With Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism, published on 3rd January for the New York Times by (and patriotically reproduced in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper), bearing a total of fifty-four iterations of the word ‘ethnic’.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built.

At Independence, the Westphalia protocols were conferred on to the former colonial contraptions. The results were economic stagnation and political repression. For over five decades, these new nations have been the focus of intellectual and political agitation among Africa’s thinkers. When, after all that rumination and fulmination, our thinkers still get things horribly back to front, we all get stuck at a crossroads.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction. Current Prime Minister, the youthful Abiy Ahmed is faced with a many-sided series of demands from a deeply frustrated population. Many of these relate directly to the lack of an economic growth model that palpably raises living standards. Others reach further back to the age-old question of land ownership and reform. Naturally, the demand for greater civic rights to speech and assembly come as a prerequisite. One feature common to these demands is the tendency for the Ethiopians to speak through, and/or on behalf of the various constitutionally recognised native identities within the country. Some may have even formed militias for this purpose.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics. “Fears of Ethiopia suffering Africa’s next interethnic conflict are growing,” he warns.

Prime Minister Abiy has been quick to concede much, and roll out as many reforms as he can. Most notably, he has ended the two-decade stand-off with his northern neighbour, Eritrea.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics.

This may not be enough, Mamdani tells us. The real problem, as he sees it, is the introduction of ethnicity into Ethiopian governance, and its central position in the Ethiopian constitution. This, Professor Mamdani says, was done by former Prime Minister, the late Meles Zenawi, who served as the de facto Ethiopian strongman from 1991 to 2012. Mamdani describes this as an attempt to replicate a similar strategy of ethnic organization that, in his view, was introduced to Africa as part of the colonial method of governing:

“In most of Africa, ethnicity was politicized when the British turned the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed ‘indirect rule.’ Every bit of the colony came to be defined as an ethnic homeland, where an ethnic authority enforced an ethnically defined customary law that conferred privileges on those deemed indigenous at the expense of non-indigenous minorities.”

This analysis fails to stop itself there, which would have been bad enough.

“The move,” continues the Professor, “was a response to a perennial colonial problem: racial privilege for whites mobilized those excluded as a racialized non-white majority. By creating an additional layer of privilege, this time ethnic, indirect rule fragmented the racially conscious majority into so many ethnic minorities, in every part of the country setting ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.”

Describing native homelands as a “fiction”, the Professor goes on to say that while such ethnic labelling and selective privileging may have served the colonial purpose, it had the effect of first, “dividing a racially conscious African population” and second, turning them into people who saw themselves as “tribes” first and foremost.

Thus, he concludes, “Wherever this system continued after independence, national belonging gave way to tribal identity as the real meaning of citizenship.”

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

These words have many meanings, none of them good for Africans, at least.

First, this is the same thing as saying that before European arrived in Africa, “ethnic” identities were not politicized, and neither were they units of administration. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is to say that there were no ‘politics’ in precolonial Africa, and neither were there forms of administration.

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

Africans seem to have been roaming the continent as a cohort of an undefined but also homogenous mass, with wholly insignificant identities, which were only solemnised, formalized, and bestowed with political meaning with the arrival of a European power amongst them.

Second, it also implies that only the European had the skill to animate these identities, without them tearing the (therefore necessary) European-planted state apart.

Third, that the tragedy of modern Africa began when the European withdrew his controlling hand. Left to their own devices, the identities he had created, mutated into a Frankenstein’s monster of tribal strife.

Fourth, that there is such a thing as ‘national identity’ that sprung to life fully formed at independence, a good by-product of the European-planted state, and that it is African ‘tribalism’ that destroys it. In other words, European-invented African tribalism spoils the one good thing (nationalism) that Europe brought to Africa.

Finally, that belonging to the European-planted nation in Africa is the only viable means of an African citizenship. But if the British were pre-occupied with “ethnicizing”, and the resultant people’s feelings and loyalties were exclusively ethnic, where then does “national belonging” come from at independence?

The entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Naming

Why are 34 million Oromo in Ethiopia an ‘ethnicity’, and 5.77 million Danes a ‘nation’?

Why are the three great wars that shaped modern Europe (Franco-Prussian, the 1914-18 and 1939-1945 great wars), not conceptualized as ethnic conflicts?

Mamdani’s entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Why are there only a handful of contemporary states in Africa whose names bear a relation to the identity of people actually living there. Everyplace else is a reference to a commodity, or an explorer’s navigational landmarks.

This frankly malevolent labelling offers the space for the linguistic demotion of entire peoples. To wit: 34 million Oromo, seven million Baganda, 43 million Igbo, 10 million Zulu will always remain ‘ethnicities’ and ‘tribes’ to be chaperoned by ‘whiteness’. 5.77 million Danes, 5.5 million Finns, and just 300,000 Icelanders can be called ‘nations’, complete with their own states with seats at the UN.

Some of these states were only formed less than two centuries ago (Italy: 1861, Germany: 1815, Belgium: 1830), while some of those ‘tribes’, and most critically for the argument, their governing institutions had already been created.

Why has the ethno-federalization of Great Britain itself, not been seen as such, and as a recipe for conflict?

This, in fact, is the real ‘fiction’, and it has led to decades of instability. But just because Westphalia does not see them, does not mean the African nations don’t exist. The denial of their existence is in fact, an act of violence.

This is what led a thus exiled Buganda’s Kabaka Edward Muteesa II to write: “I have never been able to pin down precisely the difference between a tribe and a nation and see why one is thought to be so despicable and the other so admired.”

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity. The starting point of this enterprise is to invite the African to agree to see our own identities as a liability to African progress, by labelling them “ethnic”.

When “ethnic” conflicts do flare up, those natives who have refused to jump on to this bandwagon are subjected to a big “I told you so”, as Mamdani’s essay now seeks to do.

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity.

This was the position of the OAU member states, and many African political parties, including those in opposition to their increasingly repressive post-Independence governments.

But Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism.

Since his initial assertion when introducing the issue of ‘ethnicity’, was that it was a result of European labelling leading to a “divide and rule” situation, Mamdani is then faced with the difficulty of explaining where those particular Ethiopian ‘ethnicities’ spring from if there were no Europeans creating them. Unless, to develop his assertion of homelands being a ‘fiction’, he thinks Ethiopia’s various nationalities are fictional too?

Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism

He covers up this logical gap by pre-empting a proper discussion of that history. Then changing tack, he suggests that the presence of “ethnic” problems in Ethiopia, despite the country’s lack of a European colonial history actually shows that “ethnicity” is somehow a congenital defect in the body politic of all Africa.

“The country today resembles a quintessential African system marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.”

Of course the correct answer to all the above questions is that Africa’s Africans had their ‘ethnic’ identities well known and in place long before the arrival of any European explorer or conqueror. And these were not anodyne proto-identities, but actual political institutions and methods of organization and governance. But this is an inconvenient truth, because then it forces the proper naming of these alleged ‘ethnicities’: nations.

All told, deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations. It serves to fetishize the colonial project as the godsend device to rescue the African ethnic strife and predestined mayhem.

But if the 34 million Oromo are an ethnicity, then so are the 5.77 million Danes. More so for our situation so are the English, Scots and Welsh who field national teams during the World Cup and the Commonwealth games. We need consistency, people must be spoken of as they are.

Deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations.

Naturally, the emergent Independence-era African middle class was more than happy to go along with this erasure, in what Basil Davidson called an attempt at “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”, and even fine-tuned it. Where some concessions had been made to the existence of the old nations, these were quickly, often violently, dispensed with.

In British Africa, the politics of trying to dispense with this reality is what dominated virtually all the politics of pre-independence constitutional negotiations. The question informed even the political alliances that emerged at independence.

In Zambia it required a special constitutional pact between the new head of state, Kenneth Kaunda and the ruling council of the Barotse people – they have recently sought to repudiate it and return to their pre-colonial status.

Ghana’s Asante kings were against the British handing power to Nkrumah’s government. They argued that since they had ceded power to the British via treaty, then the departure of the British meant a termination of those treaties. Logically, therefore, that power should be re-invested in the ones it had been taken from under treaty.

In Kenya, the Maasai and the Coastal peoples used the same argument during the decolonisation conferences at Lancaster House. Significantly, the Somali rejected inclusion in the independence Kenyan state, insisting that they wanted to be integrated into independent Somalia. Unable to resolve the ‘Three Questions’ the Foreign and Colonial Office cynically kicked them into the not-very-long grass for the incoming leadership to deal with. The Mombasa Republican Council of today draws its political legitimacy from the updated colonial-era Witu Agreement of 1906, signed between their ancestors and the independence government.

Histories

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

It is a two-stage challenge. First: to understand Ethiopia’s history. To do that, one must first recognise and accept the possibilities of an African history not shaped, defined and animated by European imperatives. Africans, like all people, have been making their own history. And like people elsewhere, this has as much narration of the good as it does the bad.

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

As his title implies, this was not a nation, but an Empire: a territory consisting of many nations, brought into his ambit by one means or another.

Menelik’s motives and method can, and should be debated, but the fact is that Europe met its match in the Ethiopian Highlands, and were forced to leave Menelik to it.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

Yes. Africans also produce momentous historical events. It is not an exclusive trait of white people.

We must get into the habit of discussing our own non-European driven history as a real thing with real meanings. Just as we may talk about the continuing long-term effects of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the European Balkan region, so can we talk about how the demise of Menelik’s empire continues to impact on the greater Horn region.

If that sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that since Menelik’s passing 120 years ago, Ethiopia has had only six substantive rulers: Zewditu/Selassie, Mengistu, Zenawi, Dessalegn and now Abiy.

On his passing, Menelik left a region covering more than three times the area he inherited. Prince Tafari, upon eventually inheriting the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 simply sought to consolidate it.

In his 2002 biography: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, the Ethiopian author Nega Mezlekia tells the story of him and his family, as one of many Amhara families that migrate to Jijiiga, a region in the far east of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Selassie. This was part of a government programme of Amhara settlement to many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. Jijiiga is home to ethnic Somalis. Amhara expansion, one of several factors, eventually provokes an armed revolt. Ironically, the author in his youth joined the insurgents.

Emperor Selassie can be said to have made some errors, but the context is critical: his reign spanned a period that saw immense changes in global politics, and social ideas.

Consider his life and times:

He witnessed the two great inter-European wars, the fall of its empires (Italian, German, Ottoman, Japanese) and the end of direct European occupation of Africa. He suffered two European invasions of his realm, and lived in exile. He was a regent during the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917, and saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world superpower and the Cold War that followed. He may have been one of only a handful of world leaders to have been a member of both the United Nations, and the League of Nations that preceded it.

This sweep of history also had its impact on the Ethiopian peoples. One response was a growing demand for social, economic and political reform, including loosening the bonds of Selassie’s empire.

By the time of the 1975 coup against him, the world was a fundamentally different one than the one he had met when he took the throne. He was, in fact, so “old school” that his captors were taken aback when he calmly informed them that he had no personal income or savings to look after himself.

He took a hard line on Eritrea, which had settled into an uneasy federation, provoking a war of secession; continued Amhara settler expansion into Oromo and elsewhere; and he failed to manage Tigrayan nationalism, rooted partly in their dynastic loss of the imperial throne to that of Menelik’s Shewa kingdom. Critically, he did not effectively address agrarian land reform, one of the roots of the country’s political and agricultural crises.

So, to sum up Emperor Selassie: ultimately, he neither succeeds to fully consolidate his empire, nor does he re-order the empire’s boundaries and strictures, which he had inherited in a fundamentally different era. He found himself fighting the more conservative elements of his aristocracy opposed to his reforms; the modernist republicans concerned that he was not reforming fast enough; and the increasingly radical nationalists in the regions demanding self-determination.

Enter Colonel Mengistu, something of a zealot, but who, for all his violent tendencies, was more of the “social reform” persuasion, and sympathetic to the “land to the tiller” demands of the early radical youth movements. Having overthrown a monarch, he saw himself in the image of the Soviet Union’s Communist party in Russia which had deposed the Russian King Tsar Nicholas II. His task, as he saw it, was to create a socialist state.

However, Mengistu had basically taken over the same state that Selassie inherited and he was still wedded to it. His modernist concept of history and the world prevented him from understanding that he was dealing with a home-grown imperial history, and that he was in effect therefore, running an empire.

This blinds him to the “nationalities question”, and only intensifies the agitations among the various indigenous nations trapped in his now secular empire.

So, he basically tries to kill everybody opposed to him.

This is the reality Mamdani fails to see, and mistakenly calls Mengistu’s state a ‘unified republic’; interestingly, he does not offer any of the gruesome details of how Mengistu ‘instituted’ this so-called unification. The only places where Ethiopia was unified and a republic was in Mengistu’s mind (and in his armory). What the various territories wanted was recognition of their separate identities, and an unchallenged say over the land of their ancestors.

Mengistu’s response was to raise even higher the levels of violence needed to keep these rebellions in check, simultaneously fighting Tigrayan, Eritrean, Somali and Oromo insurgencies.

Theory and practice.

Ideologically, the leaderships of the Ethiopian insurgencies were taken over by persons claiming to be as Marxist as Lenin was. Eventually, all the belligerents, including the regime, claimed to be Marxist organisations, yet they were in conflict with each other. What intensified the crisis was the conflicting understandings of what Marxist practice should therefore be, in their context. It was at this point that a number of left-ideological debates came into play, and where a lot of left-ideologues lost their way.

Marxist theory, which mobilized millions of people worldwide, and its practical implications, should be examined with some care. History on this point is necessary.

These nationalist struggles based their arguments on the Leninist principle of “The Right of Small Nations to Self-Determination”, which had been partially applied in the Soviet Union from its formation in 1917. After Lenin’s death in 1924, his successor, Josef Stalin, found less time for it, and, in the face of sustained Western European aggression seemed to see it as a liability to the security of the revolution.

The 1975 coup that brought Mengistu to power (or, more accurately, the coup that Mengistu then subsequently violently hijacked) was a response to widespread unrest, particularly among youth and student movements. This led to a number of practical problems on the ground, in relation to ideology.

At the heart of both the Dergue and the later Tigrayan movements was the issue of land reform. Mamdani does note that the initial upheavals of the 1970s were driven by this, but then fails to make the correct links.

For the vast majority of Africans, especially back then, land is not just a place to live, but also a place of work. To be without land is to be without a secure job. Subsistence peasant agriculture is back-breaking, often precarious, and not financially lucrative. It is also – and many progressives fail to recognize this – autonomous. To a very great extent, the subsistence peasant is not dependent on the state or the global economy. If anything, those entities depend on the farmer whose austere lifestyle acts as a hidden subsidy in providing the market with cheaply-grown food at no investment risk to the consumer or the state. Clearly, one thing that can transform and undergird this existence is sensible reforms to the way the farmer secures tenure of the land they work.

But what happens when land rights encounter cultural rights based on land? A “homeland” is certainly not the “fiction” of Mamdani’s assertion. It hosts the identity and worldview of the people that occupy it. It holds their sacred sites, and places marking their cultural consciousness. More so, that culture underpins their ability to keep producing autonomously. To suggest that it does not exist or does not matter, actually shows a complete failure to grasp who black African people are and how they live, and think. It is a fundamentally anti-African statement implying, as it does, that black Africans do not have an internal intellectual and spiritual logic, developed indigenously, and augmented by physical spaces and objects within them, that informs a worldview. Africans, the suggestion is, are inherently transposable, as they are not tied to any thing or any place.

The captains of the old transatlantic slave ships could not have theorized it better.

Coming from someone who lives in Africa, this is a bit surprising. Coming from a professor heading an institute within one of Africa’s new universities, designed to bolster the colonial state’s mission of deracinating the African, perhaps less so.

However, the current crisis in Ethiopia is very real, and failure to finally resolve it holds huge implications for the entire region. That is precisely why a correct analysis is needed. Not a comfortable one rooted in essentially racist tropes.

The allegedly ‘ethnic demands’ were demands for a different type of guarantee to land rights than those being promoted by Mengistu. For example, would an Amhara family like Nega Mezlekia’s, originally settled by Emperor Selassie in Jijiiga, have a legally equal claim to land against the ethnic Somali communities native to the area, just because they now happen to be the ‘tillers’ there? Would there be a hierarchy of claims? In any event, who should decide? A central authority in Addis Ababa, or a federated unit representing the historic native community?

There are no easy answers. But the regime’s (and other ‘progressives’) complete refusal to even consider the issue, is what led to the conclusion that for there to be justice in Ethiopia, the issue of native nationalities, and their land-based cultural rights, would have to be physically resolved first. In short, it became clear that the land reform question could not be effectively addressed without also addressing the underlying question of productive cultural identities and the historical land claims that arise from that.

This was particularly sharp in those areas of the country –such as Oromo and Tigray- that are dominated by pastoralist communities. Historically, much of Africa’s land grabs have taken place against pastoralist communities, the great city of Nairobi being a prime example.

This is the basis of the ‘ethnic’ movements that have so perturbed Professor Mamdani. It was, in fact, a debate of the Left, and not some right-wing atavist distraction.

So, the great irony is that Ethiopia, home to that great bastion of mis-applied Westphalian thinking, the Organisation of African Unity, becomes ground zero for the great unresolved National Question as it applies to Independent Africa: what is an African nation, and is it the same thing as a given African state (or, more accurately, a state located in Africa)?

The armed struggle began in Eritrea, after Selassie’s unilateral abrogation of the federal arrangement. The original fighting group, called the Eritrean Liberation Front was soon violently displaced from the field by a more radical Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front of Isias Afwerki, espousing those aspects of Leninism and Maoism that enabled it to mobilise a broad front of all classes affected by the feeling of Occupation.

The rebels’ demands were clear: a federation of Ethiopia or separation from it; control of their own lands, and an equal recognition of cultures.

For his part, Mengistu, now fighting five separate militant groups, including a very militant hard-line the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front based in urban Ethiopia, placed all his faith in military might. He ended up building the largest armed force in Sub-Saharan Africa (if not Africa as a whole) of some half- a million soldiers, and being heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, which saw him as a vital foothold in Africa, for war materiel and other supplies. He also received military support from Cuba. It again may not be widely known that at the height of the fighting, these different forces which had grown in to wholesale armies, were fighting some of the largest engagements (including tank battles) since the 1939-1945 European inter-ethnic conflict called the Second World War.

The fight progressively turned in favour of the rebels. With Mengistu’s main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, finally capitulating against the US in the Superpower contest in 1989, his forces were routed and he was driven from the capital in 1991.

The Eritrean armed struggle started in 1961, the Tigrayan one in 1975 and Oromo’s in 1973. All end with Mengistu’s fall.

If Mamdani genuinely believes these nationalities are just “ethnicities”, and that Ethiopia is now running the risk of hosting “Africa’s next inter-ethnic conflict”, then this history shows that Ethiopia has in fact already had the “next inter-ethnic” conflict. Mamdani’s fears, this is to say, are 30 or 40 years late.

To sum up Mengistu: he seized power in response to a severe political crisis, and then, misreading his position, sought to impose his concept of “socialism” on the various peoples still caught in the net of Menelik’s Empire state. This led to a situation of mounting violence, in which he saw just about everyone as an enemy to be physically crushed. His regime eventually succumbed to the overwhelming resistance.

Enter Meles Zenawi, who came out of that generation of student activists who took up the nationalities and land reform demands during the time of the Emperor. To many of them, Mengistu’s high-handedness in dealing with the matter was a disappointment. Tigrayans today do not easily recall that when Meles led the the youth to start the war, they sought refuge in Eritrea, and were nurtured and trained there by Isias Afwerki’s EPLF forces already at war against the Ethiopian state.

The issue of identity does not therefore mean that Africans are perennially and illogically at each others throats in some kind of primordial frenzy. They do politics, and are fully capable of defining their interests and maintaining relations, or breaking them off, as needs may dictate.

Zenawi (to an extent like Daniel Ortega on the other side of the world, and even Yoweri Museveni, in his own way), found himself in charge of a state now encountering a new, neo-liberal global world order being enforced by the only super power left standing. Like Selassie, the circumstances around them had changed greatly from when they had begun their political journeys.

Far from simply “introducing” a federal constitution whose “ethnic” nature Mamdani is problematizing, Zenawi’s regime was finally having the Ethiopian state recognise the long-standing historical realities that had emerged from decades of political and armed struggle.

To reduce the product of all that sweeping history to a notion of “fictions”, is a dangerous over-simplification.

In this quest for erasure, Mamdani applies the same misleading thinking backwards by calling the 1994 Ethiopian constitution a “Sovietificaton” of Ethiopia. The Russian nationalities were no more an invention of Lenin than the Ethiopian ones are of Meles Zenawi’s creation. The various units that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were based on nationalities long in place before the 1917 communist revolution took place there. The responsible thing to do, as a starting point, was acknowledge that fact, which the communists did (and Stalin to a greater extent than Lenin before him).

Yes, Meles was a dictator. And yes, the constitution is based on indigenous nations. That does not automatically suggest causality: Meles Zenawi did not “turn Ethiopia to ‘ethnic’ federalism”. Its long history did.

In fact, events show that Zenawi and the dominant faction he governed with, were no longer in support of the “rights of small nations” by the time they took power.

With the exception of holding the pre-agreed referendum on Eritrean independence (he may have had little choice in the matter: friends in Addis used to like to tell the story of how Meles’ own stepmother, who happens to be Eritrean, and who raised him, left him in his official Addis residence to go and vote for independence in Eritrea, then returned after), he fails to implement the spirit and the letter of the new arrangements that were based on principles forged in the course of the long war.

The best example is found in the very incident that sparked the current uprising: if the regime knew that – as Mamdani points out – the 1994 federal constitution guaranteed the nationalities concerned authority over their land, why then did it try to expand the boundaries of the Federal capital Addis further into Oromo territory over the objections of people there?

In other words, the problem in Ethiopia is the exact opposite of what Professor Mamdani sees. It is not the “ethnic” constitution at fault; it is the failure by the Zenawi regime to genuinely implement it, by negating the spirit of the idea in private, while pretending to uphold it in public.

In particular, Zenawi’s “Woyane” regime repeated Mengistu’s mistake of trying to hold on to Menelik’s state. Critically, he too failed to address the historic issue of land reform that began the whole shake-up of Ethiopia with the student protests against the Emperor. In practice, land is still the property of the state, to be handed out for “developmental” purposes, upholding the Mengistu mentality, but now in the context of global neo-liberalism.

“Derg and [the TPLF] took a very similar approach to the land question. Which is why, three decades after TPLF comes to power, they have still been unable to do land reform, abandoned agrarian reform and ironically, put rural Ethiopian land on the international auction. Something like four million acres of rural farmland, mostly in southern Ethiopia has been leased out to foreign investors since the mid-2000s, ” observes journalist Parselelo Kantai, who frequents the country.

Power comes with its temptations, and a state machine comes with its own institutional imperatives. It would appear that once a group finds itself in control of the apparatus of an empire such as Menelik’s, they become very reluctant to abandon its workings. Perhaps it is only the armed forces in Portugal, having overthrown their autocratic Caetano regime in 1974, that ever went on to immediately dismantle their empire and allow the conquered to go free.

The politics of the armed coalition coming together and finally driving Mengistu out may well have been the moment for this change in attitude to begin, not least because the Meles’ TPLF was by far the militarily dominant faction of the alliance.

To sum up Meles Zenawi: he evolved into what many ‘revolutionaries” became after the Cold War era: a technocratic autocrat placing his hopes in a neo-liberal approach to solving the country’s deep economic problems through a “developmentalist” strategy. He quite literally burned himself out hoping that, by bringing rapid infrastructural development, he could perhaps outpace the historical political claims, and thus render them redundant.

This essentially meant a new form of what Mengistu and Selassie had done before him: overlook people’s ancestral claims to this or that, and simply see the whole landmass as a site for “development” projects, no matter who they may displace or inconvenience.

But “any notion of ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’ that does not start from a peoples’ culture is tantamount to genocide.” the late Professor Dan Nabudere warned us.

Meles Zenawi sought to hold on to the very imperial state he had once fought. His unwillingness to fully honour the terms of the broad alliance of all the fighting groups, and instead consolidated his armed group to take factional control of the whole state and set the course for new upheavals. His sudden death became the opening for these issues to spill out into the streets.

His immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, soon found that the kind of extreme state violence that had served Zenawi, and Mengistu before him, and Selassie before them both, no longer worked, forcing Deslaegn to resign in failure.

Abiy Ahmed must finally deal with these realities. Ultimately, any attempt to do politics based on the imperatives of the Menelik-created state was, and is, going to come up against the fact that this state actually started life as an empire. If the history of Ethiopia has shown one thing, it is that this approach has always provoked rebellions.

Ethiopia, one could say, is back to the pre-war situation it was in just before Mengistu’s coup.

The problem is conceptual; the same one that confronted Selassie and Mengistu: are we running a nation, or a homegrown empire made up of several? 

Mr Abiy Ahmed would be wise not to go down that path.

His challenge is to dismantle the remnants of Meles’ personal military apparatus, genuinely re-orient the country back to its federal constitutional ethos, begin to address the land tenure question, and quickly, before the political grievances – and the economic challenges underlying them – completely boil over.

As the world becomes less secure and with fewer overlords, there will be more and more examples of Africa’s invisible nations asserting themselves to manage control of their resources.

Dismissing them as “ethnic” is simply laying a foundation to justify violence against them.

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Mr Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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Africa and Palestine: A Noble Legacy That Must Never Be Forgotten

Today’s generation of African leaders should not deviate from that the solidarity between Africa and Palestine. Indeed, writes RAMZY BAROUD If they betray it, they betray themselves, along with the righteous struggles of their own peoples.

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Africa and Palestine: A Noble Legacy That Must Never Be Forgotten
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Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” began in earnest in 1881 but never ended. The attempt at dominating the continent using old and new strategies continues to define the Western relationship with this rich continent. This reality was very apparent when I arrived in Nairobi on June 23. Although I had come to address various Kenyan audiences at universities, public forums and the media, I had also to learn. Kenya, like the rest of Africa, is a source of inspiration for all anti-colonial liberation movements around the world. We Palestinians can learn a great deal from the Kenyan struggle.

Although African countries have fought valiant battles for their freedom against their Western colonisers, neocolonialism now defines the relationship between many independent African countries and their former occupiers. Political meddling, economic control and, at times, military interventions – as in the recent cases of Libya and Mali – point to the unfortunate reality that Africa remains, in myriad ways, hostage to Western priorities, interests and dictates.

In the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884, Western colonial regimes attempted to mediate between the various powers that were competing over Africa’s riches. It apportioned to each a share of the African continent, as if Africa were the property of the West and its white colonists. Millions of Africans died in that protracted, bloody episode unleashed by the West, which shamelessly promoted its genocidal oppression as a civilisational project.

Like most colonised peoples in the southern hemisphere, Africans fought disproportionate battles to gain their precious freedom. Here in Kenya, which became an official British colony in the 1920s, Kenya’s freedom fighters rose in rebellion against the brutality of their oppressors. Most notable among the various resistance campaigns, the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s remains a stark example of the courage of Kenyans and the cruelty of colonial Britain. Thousands of people were killed, wounded, disappeared or were imprisoned under the harshest of conditions.

Palestine fell under British occupation, the so-called British Mandate, around the same period that Kenya also became a British colony. Palestinians, too, fought and fell in their thousands as they employed various methods of collective resistance, including the legendary strike and rebellion of 1936. The same British killing machine that operated in Palestine and Kenya around that time, also operated, with the same degree of senseless violence, against numerous other nations around the world.

While Palestine was handed over to the Zionist movement to establish the state of Israel in May 1948, Kenya achieved its independence in December 1963.

At one of my recent talks in Nairobi, I was asked by a young participant about “Palestinian terrorism”. I told her that Palestinian fighters of today are Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of yesteryear. That if we allow Western and Israeli propaganda to define Paestine’s national liberation discourse, then we condemn all national liberation movements throughout the southern hemisphere, including Kenya’s own freedom fighters.

We Palestinians must however shoulder part of the blame that our narrative as an oppressed, colonised and resisting nation is now misunderstood in parts of Africa.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed its historical blunder by signing off Palestinian rights in Oslo in 1993, it abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation. Instead, it subscribed to a whole new discourse, riddled with carefully-worded language sanctioned by Washington and its European allies. Whenever Palestinians dared to deviate from their assigned role, the West would decree that they must return to the negotiating table, as the latter became a metaphor of obedience and submission.

Throughout these years, Palestinians mostly abandoned their far more meaningful alliances in Africa. Instead, they endlessly appealed to the goodwill of the West, hoping that the very colonial powers that have primarily created, sustained and armed Israel, would miraculously become more balanced and humane.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed its historical blunder by signing off Palestinian rights in Oslo in 1993, it abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation.

However, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, etc., remained committed to Israel and, despite occasional polite criticism of the Israeli government, continued to channel their weapons, warplanes and submarines to every Israeli government that has ruled over Palestinians for the last seven decades. Alas, while Palestinians were learning their painful lesson, betrayed repeatedly by those who had vowed to respect democracy and human rights, many African nations began seeing in Israel a possible ally. Kenya is, sadly, one of those countries.

Understanding the significance of Africa in terms of its economic and political potential, and its support for Israel at the UN General Assembly, right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched his own “Scramble for Africa”. Netanyahu’s diplomatic conquests on the continent have been celebrated by Israeli media as “historic”, while the Palestinian leadership remains oblivious to the rapidly changing political landscape.

Kenya is one of Israel’s success stories. In November 2017, Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Netanyahu was seen embracing Kenyatta as a dear friend and ally even as Kenyans rose in rebellion against their corrupt ruling classes. Tel Aviv had hoped that the first-ever Israel-Africa summit in Togo would usher in a complete paradigm shift in Israeli-African relations. However, the October 2017 conference never took place due to pressure by various African countries, including South Africa. There is still enough support for Palestine on the continent to defeat the Israeli stratagem. But that could change soon in favour of Israel if Palestinians and their allies do not wake up to the alarming reality.

The Palestinian leadership, intellectuals, artists and civil society ambassadors must shift their attention back to the southern hemisphere, to Africa in particular, rediscovering the untapped wealth of true, unconditional human solidarity offered by the peoples of this ever-generous continent.

Kenya is one of Israel’s success stories. In November 2017, Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Netanyahu was seen embracing Kenyatta as a dear friend and ally even as Kenyans rose in rebellion against their corrupt ruling classes

The legendary Tanzanian freedom fighter, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who is also celebrated in Kenya, knew very well where his solidarity lay. “We have never hesitated in our support for the right of the people of Palestine to have their own land,” he once said, a sentiment that was repeated by the iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela, and by many other African liberation leaders. Today’s generation of African leaders should not deviate from that noble legacy. If they betray it, they betray themselves, along with the righteous struggles of their own peoples.

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When Numbers Lie: Public Trust, Political Legitimacy and the 2019 Census

The one thing we are sure about, however, is that regardless of the outcome, our confidence in these state-captured institutions is at a historic low. They will have to perform miracles to convince us of the veracity and legitimacy of the population numbers they shall announce, the constituencies they shall demarcate and the voters they shall register.

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When Numbers Lie: Public Trust, Political Legitimacy and the 2019 Census
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There is an uncanny resemblance between elections and population censuses in Kenya. The premise is often that elections and population censuses are purely technical exercises. The processes are handled in a purely technical manner at inception and then they become highly politicised once the results are out. Yet elections and population censuses are highly political-technical operations and should be treated as such from their commencement. This is critical as the institutions undertaking the exercises must be able to build public trust to ensure the acceptability of the results.

However, typical of Kenya, we pretend that the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) conducts population and housing censuses in a political vacuum. We ignore the fact that a census is not just a planning tool; the results of a census form the basis for decisions on representation (electoral boundaries), identity and resource allocation. In any society, these three issues are highly political and very sensitive. It is no wonder then that there are many countries in Africa that avoid conducting censuses and rely on projections instead, as evidenced by the latest list published by the United Nations.

We also bury our heads in the sand and project the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) as an autonomous institution functioning with utmost impartiality and professionalism yet the evidence over the years points to the contrary. The selection of the Commissioners overseeing elections has all the pretences of an open and transparent process, complete with televised interviews. In reality, however, it is political horse-trading with the sole aim of selecting the most politically pliable persons who have never held any serious management positions. The appointments are considered favours to be returned rather than a public service.

However, typical of Kenya, we pretend that the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) conducts population and housing censuses in a political vacuum. We ignore the fact that a census is not just a planning tool; the results of a census form the basis for decisions on representation (electoral boundaries), identity and resource allocation. In any society, these three issues are highly political and very sensitive

It is no wonder then that these two institutions—which are clearly mandated to count—have continually failed to perform their core functions. The disputes surrounding the results of the 2009 census were resolved by the courts. Similarly, the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections were decided by the Supreme Court.

Which begs the question of why these two institutions are unable to perform the one job given to them. Is it a matter of incompetence? Are they unable to do simple additions or are they accomplices in State Capture?

Public records indicate that the core staff of the KNBS are highly qualified demographers and statisticians. Kenya is one of the most active members of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development. It regularly sends highly qualified experts to support other countries in developing their skills in undertaking censuses.

This is also the case for the core staff of the IEBC. While the Chairman and Commissioners have continuously and publicly proved their incompetence in electoral and boundary demarcation matters, the staff, especially at the constituency level, are highly skilled. The issue is therefore not so much one of incompetence among those charged with the technical aspect—the counting of votes or people. To a large extent, the staff know exactly what their tasks are and how to carry them out and it would be inaccurate to label the actions of the KNBS and IEBC as incompetence. Rather, it is a matter of blatant collusion between the senior managers of these institutions and the political class to subvert the will of the people and manipulate the results of the population census.

Public records indicate that the core staff of the KNBS are highly qualified demographers and statisticians. Kenya is one of the most active members of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development. It regularly sends highly qualified experts to support other countries in developing their skills in undertaking censuses.

It is not by coincidence that both the IEBC and KNBS have resorted to using technology in the transmission of the results of the election and the census, respectively. It is also not coincidental that the KNBS is using the same company that bungled the 2017 election despite parliamentary censure of the company.

While there are positive aspects to technology, there are many more worrying aspects to it. Many pundits have focused on the question of data privacy in the 2019 electronic census process. In the absence of regulations on data protection, data privacy is a valid concern. Statements from senior government officials to the effect that data is the new oil suggests possible collusion with companies trading in Big Data and instinctively increases the level of doubt in the government’s intentions. Some of the questions in the population census further confirm that the data collected could be used for commercial purposes by corporations.

In addition to data privacy, we should also be concerned about two other issues: the transparency of the results and cybersecurity. Unfortunately, these issues have not been at the forefront of the national debate on the population census.

On the first issue, the traceability, accountability and transparency of the census, there are lessons from the 2017 General Election that are worth recalling. The Supreme Court decision to annul the presidential result was primarily because of its concerns regarding the transparency and accountability of the electronic transmission of results. This year’s paperless census raises similar concerns. Moreover, unlike the IEBC which had the (albeit unreliable) Forms 34 (a) and (b), there is no similar back-up for the census. The implication is that an audit of the process would be limited to only the electronic files available.

In addition, there is ample evidence from all over the world showing that it is much easier to manipulate technology than it is to manipulate a paper-based census or a paper-based transmission of election results. Several studies have shown how—in the age of artificial intelligence—algorithms can be introduced into the system to produce the desired result. I recall two years ago when the then opposition leader, Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga, was dismissed for claiming that an algorithm had been introduced into the IEBC system to ensure the victory of his now bosom buddy. The fact that the IEBC failed to submit its servers to court-appointed experts to refute the veracity of the accusations should be taken as confirmation that the system was indeed manipulated. What prevents the KNBS from doing the same? The motivation to introduce an algorithm to steer the population census towards a desired result is not any less now than it was during the 2017 election.

In addition to data privacy, we should also be concerned about two other issues: the transparency of the results and cybersecurity. Unfortunately, these issues have not been at the forefront of the national debate on the population census.

Second, cybersecurity should be of concern in the context of a paperless census. Cyberattacks can take various forms including denial-of-service (DoS) where computer systems are interrupted or slowed down; introduction of malicious software (Malware) through worms, spyware, viruses and ransomware; or persons obtaining passwords or user-names and pretending to be trustworthy entities to breach servers. In the past, the country has had its infrastructure attacked by hackers and it is not clear what measures the KNBS has put in place to counter cyberattacks. Certainly, the IEBC had not put in place such measures in 2017.

One may wonder why we should be concerned about the manipulation of the census results and possible cyberattacks. Obviously, accuracy is fundamental given the importance of the data for economic and social planning. But in addition, the 2019 census is crucial to two processes to be undertaken by the IEBC in the coming year.

Firstly, the Commission is required to undertake a boundary demarcation exercise shortly after the census. The 2010 boundary demarcation process exceptionally allowed for the establishment of 27 constituencies which had not met the population quota provisions laid out in the Constitution. This means that politicians in these 27 constituencies will attempt to ensure that, this time round, they meet the provisions by hook or by crook. Politicians all over the world are keen to be involved in gerrymandering to ensure that their “strongholds” have more electoral units. It appears that the electronic census system has been put in place precisely to give the IEBC room to get involved in gerrymandering. In the absence of a paper trail the lack of traceability of the census process gives the IEBC room to do what the Commission does best, play to the tune of its benefactors.

Secondly, the Election Act requires the establishment of a new register of voters before the next election. A lot has been written about the defects in the 2017 register of voters and the inflated numbers in certain regions. It is expected that the IEBC will use the population figures to project the target number of voters to be registered. This is when the “tyranny of numbers” narrative will begin to play out; depending on what the political affiliations will be in 2020 and 2021, certain regions will likely have more “registered” voters than others. The likely manipulated KNBS ethnic numbers will then be replicated in the register of voters as was the case in 2017. I am always amused to see how the basic concepts of the ratio between the birth rate and the death rate are never applicable in the voters’ register; regions with a historically low birth rate and high death rate were often the ones with the largest number of new voters registered, thus defeating science.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the era of “dynasties and hustlers”. Are we likely to see the KNBS and later on the IEBC report higher populations and voters in the so-called dynasty strongholds? In the last voter registration exercise, there was ease of access to identification cards in the supposed UhuRuto zones. Will this switch in favour of the UhuRaila strongholds? Will we see the counties in the northern part of the country having more numbers and thus playing a swing-vote role in the 2022 election? Will the ongoing economic marginalisation of the coastal region be reflected in lower population and voter numbers? There are many political questions hanging in the air as we await what the KNBS and the IEBC have in store for us.

The one thing we are sure about, however, is that regardless of the outcome, our confidence in these state-captured institutions is at a historic low. They will have to perform miracles to convince us of the veracity and legitimacy of the population numbers they shall announce, the constituencies they shall demarcate and the voters they shall register.

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I Am Now Officially a Taita: How the 2019 Census Made Me Lose My Identity

Was the 2019 census conducted on behalf of certain commercial/political interests as a tool that could be used for marketing goods or to determine a household’s credit-worthiness?

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I Am Now Officially a Taita: How the 2019 Census Made Me Lose My Identity
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I know most people are not going to believe me when I say this but, haki ya mungu, I was recorded as a Taita in the 2019 census. On the night of 24 August, a young female enumerator who identified herself as a Taita arrived at my house in Kilifi County alongside an elder of the community/area and unilaterally decided that I belonged to a tribe called Taita.

You might wonder how this came about but I can only explain it as interviewer bias—when an interviewer injects his or her prejudices and preconceived ideas into an interview, thereby distorting the results.

This is how this bizarre situation unfolded. Upon establishing that my husband was a Taveta, the enumerator, who appeared friendly and nice, told me without flinching that a woman belongs to her husband’s tribe and so I would be listed as Taita-Taveta. Now, I have spent a lot of my life campaigning for Kenya’s Asian community to be recognised as bona fide citizens like the rest of Kenyans who are born in this country or who have roots here, but to be forcefully adopted into a Kenyan tribe in this manner was not what I expected. (Note: I was not asked if I wanted to be listed as a Kenyan, which apparently was one of the options alongside tribe.)

As the interview proceeded, at some point the word Taveta dropped out of the enumerator’s vocabulary and she began referring to both of us as Taita. I told her I had no tribe and if there was a category called “Asian” or “Other”, I would be happy to be listed under it. She said there was no such category, which made me wonder what the hullaballoo about Asians being officially declared the “44th tribe” of Kenya was all about. Was it just a gimmick or a political ploy to gain votes? If indeed Asians are now recognised as a Kenyan tribe, then why did the designers of the census questionnaire not reflect this?

So, not only were Asians as an ethnic or racial group ignored by the census, but some ethnic groups got special treatment. A Kenyan Somali friend informed me that while the majority of indigenous tribes were treated as a homogenous group (for instance, there was no distinction made between a Maragoli and a Bukusu, both of which belong to the Luhya tribe), Kenyan Somalis were treated as a heterogeneous group of clans. My friend was asked by an enumerator to declare his Somali clan.

While I was still recovering from the fact that I had been categorised in a Kenyan tribe with which I had no biological or filial ties, the enumerator proceeded to inform me that my husband, by virtue of being male, was, according to the census criteria, the de facto head of the household and that all questions would be addressed to him. I told her that the head of the household could be anyone, male or female, who is the breadwinner of the family, but she insisted that in Christianity, the head of the household is always the husband, the only exception to this rule being if the husband has died or has abandoned his family. I told her I was not a Christian, but that did not deter her. (I shudder to think what she might have recorded if she had encountered a homosexual couple where both “husband” and “wife” belong to the same sex.)

A Kenyan Somali friend informed me that while the majority of indigenous tribes were treated as a homogenous group (for instance, there was no distinction made between a Maragoli and a Bukusu, both of which belong to the Luhya tribe), Kenyan Somalis were treated as a heterogeneous group of clans. My friend was asked by an enumerator to declare his Somali clan.

Anyway, I decided to let that pass as patriarchal biases probably determine most censuses, but there were more surprises to follow. I was completely taken aback when she asked me and my husband if we had purchased anything online in the last six months. With the threat of a Sh500,000 fine hanging over our heads for giving false information (which country threatens to fine people for giving the wrong answers during a census?) I admitted to her that I had bought a book on Amazon recently.

Now as far as I know, the primary purpose of a national census is to collect data on the number of people residing in a country, not their shopping preferences. (Data on the latter is usually collected by marketing companies.) These people should be counted regardless of their citizenship. The people being counted could be refugees, tourists or even illegal aliens from Mars. That is why the ID number or passport question was completely irrelevant, and in fact, as many Kenyans learnt rather belatedly, it was also contrary to the Official Statistics Act and international norms and standards pertaining to censuses, which guarantee anonymity.

My question is: if this question is contrary to the country’s own laws and to international norms and standards, why was it included in the census questionnaire? The census question about citizenship and ID number would have definitely put off undocumented people, like the many urban refugees who live in Nairobi and other urban areas outside refugee camps, who I am sure found a way to disappear from the radar of the enumerators on the night of the census.

While I was still recovering from the fact that I had been categorised in a Kenyan tribe with which I had no biological or filial ties, the enumerator proceeded to inform me that my husband, by virtue of being male, was, according to the census criteria, the de facto head of the household and that all questions would be addressed to him.

Imagine being a refugee or an undocumented person in Kenya, and then being asked to produce an ID. The fear of deportation or arrest probably saw a lot of people not sleep in their homes during the week of the census—and so they were not counted. So, the census results are already inaccurate because someone at the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics was misled into believing that this was not an enumeration exercise, but an opportunity to intimidate people and to collect data on their legal status and consumption habits.

Tyranny of numbers

As for the question on tribe, in a politically volatile country like ours, where the “tyranny of numbers” is used to oppress or marginalise people, this question, in my opinion, should have been left out altogether.

I did not always feel this way. When the 2009 census was conducted, many argued that ethnicity should be left out of the census questionnaire because it would lead to further polarisation in a country that was becoming increasingly tribalistic (and which had just been through a violent election in 2007) and because the data on ethnicity would be manipulated by politicians to promote their own interests. These arguments have been made in other countries as well, notably in India, where there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not to undertake a census on caste. Those opposing the census say that it would promote casteism in the country, while those supporting it argue that a caste census would be an invaluable planning tool to promote equity.

But I was not convinced. In 2009 I felt that the question was relevant. I argued that enumerating ethnicity was not a statistical problem, but a political one, and that the exercise of gathering data on the ethnic makeup of a country was desirable for planning purposes and also for the purpose of research. An anthropologist or historian studying migration patterns might want to know how many people of Indian origin have settled here, for example. I was particularly keen to know how many people of Indian/Pakistani origin resided in the country, as the only authoritative figure I had was one that was published over 50 years ago.

I was completely taken aback when she asked me and my husband if we had purchased anything online in the last six months. With the threat of a Sh500,000 fine hanging over our heads for giving false information (which country threatens to fine people for giving the wrong answers during a census?) I admitted to her that I had bought a book on Amazon recently

Unfortunately, the figures on Asians released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in 2010 seemed a little suspect. According to an official text message that I received from the bureau, there were 35,009 people belonging to the “Asian tribe” in the country, who accounted for 0.09 per cent of the total population. This figure was questionable because, according to the bureau, there were also 53,393 Hindus in Kenya.

Now unless there had been a mass conversion of nearly 20,000 indigenous Africans to Hinduism in the years preceding the census, it was impossible to reconcile these two figures. How could there be more Hindus than Asians in the country? And what about the many Asians who were Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs or atheists? Were they counted as Asians?

These anomalies may appear minor, but they severely impact the credibility of an entire census data set.   If the data on Asians appeared to be questionable, then what other data was also suspect? This question became apparent when the 2009 census showed that there were 2.38 million ethnic Somalis residing in the country, a figure that was later refuted by the government because it appeared to be too large.

The 2009 census did, however, put to rest the widespread belief that Kibera was the largest slum in Africa, with a population of one million. The 2009 Kenya census showed that Kibera was, in fact, home to slightly less than 200,000 people. So Kenya’s most famous informal settlement lost its “celebrity” status as the biggest slum in Africa (though several articles I have read since the 2009 Kenya census results were published still claim that Kibera has one million residents, which goes to show that figures are like viruses —they can spread even after the medicine has been administered).

Devolution and urbanisation

Why is it important to have accurate census figures? Well, because when a country publishes inaccurate, misleading or unscientific statistics, national policies, priorities and programmes become skewed. Millions of people’s lives can be affected by a single misleading or erroneous statistic. So, for instance, if a census shows that the majority of people living in a particular area are over the age of 35 when, in fact, the majority are under the age of 18, then this could impact the number of schools built in the area.

I understand that devolution has complicated matters, and so numbers are used to justify resource allocation, but surely we cannot in the 21st century’s rapidly urbanising world be thinking that all counties are ethnically homogenous and will remain so in the next 30 years. When Kalonzo Musyoka asked “his people” to go to their villages to be counted, he was implying that resource allocation is dependent on the number of people in a county. This kind of convoluted thinking is what has made planning in this country a political exercise, a tyranny of numbers. This kind of thinking assumes that people don’t move from their ancestral lands to settle in cities and towns. Yet many rural-to-urban migrants never return to their villages and eventually become permanent urban residents. Maybe our cities and towns are in such a pathetic state because county and national government officials assume that people who live there don’t actually belong there, and will eventually go “back home”.

Why is it important to have accurate census figures? Well, because when a country publishes inaccurate, misleading or unscientific statistics, national policies, priorities and programmes become skewed.

On the other hand, urban poverty has become an income-generating cause for many, which was why the one million population figure for Kibera was not challenged for many years. Many NGOs exaggerate numbers because that is how they remain relevant, how they push forward their agenda on the international stage, and how they attract donor funding. Many national and international NGOs working in Kibera probably used the one million population figure (which was, as I found out, completely made up) to solicit funds from donors. Meanwhile, the Kibera MP at the time of the 2009 census, Raila Odinga, didn’t challenge the figure either, probably because he didn’t want anyone to know that his constituency was actually much smaller than people believed.

But the use or manipulation of data to create certain outcomes is not confined to NGOs. Last year, a documentary on Al Jazeera showed how Big Pharma influences the way the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) senior management makes decisions about global public health crises. The documentary suggested that the 2009 swine flu pandemic might have been fabricated or exaggerated to benefit pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the swine flu vaccine. One former delegate to the European Council stated: “The WHO officials have no idea about such things [pandemics]. They depend on scientists. And the scientists are allocated to them by the countries and by the organisations that finance the WHO. And many of them gave advice and made decisions that benefited the pharmaceutical industry.”

Was the 2019 census conducted on behalf of certain commercial/political interests as a tool that could be used for marketing goods or to determine a household’s credit-worthiness? (One Kenyan on Twitter quipped, “For this government, Kenyans are not citizens, they are customers.”) Or was it a form of surveillance, much like the Huduma Namba?

It could be that I am reading too many sinister motives in the 2019 census. Maybe the enumerator sent to my house was not trained properly. It could also be that the statisticians and demographers at the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics who designed this census are not qualified for the job. Whatever the case, I would like the people who identify as Taita to know that one more individual has been added to their number, thanks to the 2019 census.

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