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                  Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia

                  17 min read.

                  It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.

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                  Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia
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                  The current political conflict, now a civil war, in Ethiopia partly has its roots in disagreement among elites on how to narrativise Ethiopian history.

                  There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites regarding the country’s history and future. Informed by its long, and contentious multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the political landscape in the country, a war of narratives has been reignited. The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country. Indeed, narratives surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the one thing that demands the most attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved in it indicates we may be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.

                  How the Ethiopian state evolved

                  Nation-building is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book,?Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson reminds us that nations are “imagined political communities.” Common to all political communities is a set of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics. These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and their leaders about what makes their community unique, especially when compared to others. Nation-building in the Ethiopian context follows a similar pattern.

                  Faced with the burden of justifying maintenance of the Ethiopian state and their place at the top, Ethiopian rulers of the past relied on religious texts and edicts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Written in the 14th century, the?Kibre Negest, or “Glory of the Kings,” provided detailed accounts of the lineage of the Solomonic dynasty—the former ruling dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire—according to which Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It told the story of Ethiopia and Ethiopians as God’s people, a chosen people.

                  The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country

                  This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.” Many Ethiopian citizens and politicians responded with the assertion that Ethiopia will prevail, not least of which because it has God on its side. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office?released a statement?that echoed the same sentiment.

                  Similarly, the 12th century text?Fitiha Negest, or “Laws of the Kings,” served as the country’s oldest traditional legal code. The?Fitiha Negest?insisted that kings must receive obedience and reverence. It justified the Kings’ power using scripture, specifically the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:15:

                  Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

                  Ethiopia’s rulers used these texts to justify the state’s existence and their own power. But more importantly, as much as Americans take the Declaration of Independence as their founding moment, the?Kebre Negest?provided a similar “origins” story, albeit a contested one, while?Fitiha Negest?served as a constitution of sorts by laying out a minimal set of rules that bound the Kings and their subjects. As such, the?Kebre Negest?and the?Fitiha Negest?could arguably be taken as the most important founding texts of the Ethiopian state.

                  The 1700s witnessed the emergence of a new political structure where disparate noblemen usurped power away from emperors of the Solomonic dynasty and began ruling over their own regions, a period known among Ethiopian historians as?Zemene Mesafint, or Age of the Princes, named after the Book of Judges. In 1855,?Emperor Tewodros II, born Kassa Hailu, rose to the throne after defeating regional noblemen. He recognised the need for a newer narrative that was closely aligned to his vision of Ethiopia as a modern, forward thinking nation. In line with that vision, his first step was to separate church and state, shift its narrative and establish the state on a more secular foundation. To do so, he needed better educated Ethiopians, and thus began an elite-led nation building process. His efforts however did not bear fruit due to fierce internal opposition driven largely by disgruntled clergy, who, fearful of losing their own privilege and power, were unappreciative of his radical ideas.

                  Nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia.

                  Subsequent rulers of Ethiopia mended the “glitch” and followed the path that almost was dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II, and, as a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian state, and, with that, the state narrative. That, however, changed with Emperor Menelik II assuming the throne in 1889. Although historical Ethiopia dates back to millennia, Emperor Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His epic defeat of Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another, if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state. As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his book,?Pioneers of Change, Menelik, eager to modernise Ethiopia, sent Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education. Unlike the church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated Ethiopians broke with tradition and became critics of the state. It may be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the creation of a new intellectual-elite class and with bringing the same to the center of state politics. With that he laid the groundwork for the creation of a new elite class that would later challenge the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation state.

                  Walleligne and the birth of ethno-nationalism

                  When Emperor Haile Selassie rose to the throne in 1930, he was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s nascent civil service and bureaucracy. In order to fill in this gap, like his predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education that in the words of historian?Jon Abbink?produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual leaders and thinkers.” However, sadly many of these intellectuals were annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. This loss of its brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scars and decades of stagnation, devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, the future Haile Selassie University (now, Addis Ababa University), Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing educated Ethiopians en masse finally came true.

                  The 1960’s was when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics probably experienced its most consequential phase. Starting in the 1960’s, with the backdrop of broader social unrest, university students started to oppose Haile Selassie’s single-man authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures within which the students said the imperial government and its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was until a more radical wing of the movement, concurrent with the more mundane demand for reform, started to question the equating of the Ethiopian state with the nation. Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and lacked foresight in their calls for?radical social and political reform.?Jon Abbink?might not be far from the truth when he observed these intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”

                  On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” an influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a second-year political science student at the university, and who was later was shot and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight—became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.” However, this reality, according to him, was suppressed by the ruling class. Instead, a “fake Ethiopian nationalism” that is based on the linguistic and cultural superiority of the Amhara and, to a certain extent, the Amhara-Tigre, was imposed on the other peoples of Ethiopia, resulting in asymmetrical relations among the “nations” of Ethiopia. Therefore, according to Walleligne, the Ethiopian state came to be through the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the peoples of the wider South by the North—the Amhara and their junior-partner-in-assimilation, the Tigre. And, that this project of constructing Ethiopia was aided by the trinity of (the Amharic) language, (Amhara-Tigre) culture and religion (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). He was, of course, echoing arguments that Joseph Stalin,?Rosa Luxemburg?and others made about nations, nationalism, and self-determination. (Stalin, for example, lays out his thesis in?Marxism and the National Question, as does Luxemburg in?The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.)

                  Walleligne thus called for the dismantling and replacement of this “fake [Ethiopian] nationalism” with a “genuine Nationalist Socialist State” that he argued could only be achieved “through violence [and,] through revolutionary armed struggle.” To be sure, Walleligne did not see “succession” as an end in and of itself; nonetheless, he propagated it as a means to building the future egalitarian Ethiopian state, with the caveat that such succession should be rooted in and guided by “progressivism” and “Socialist internationalism.” He closed his essay with what may be considered prophetic:

                  A regime [Haile Selassie’s government] like ours harassed from corners is bound to collapse in a relatively short period of time. But when the degree of consciousness of the various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right, but the duty, of the most conscious nationality to first?liberate?itself and then assist in the struggle for total liberation.

                  Haile Selassie’s government did collapse in 1974.

                  The constitutionalizing of ethno-nationalism

                  The movement that Walleligne imagined, spearheaded by the intelligentsia as it were, was hijacked by the?Dergue—a collective of disgruntled low-ranking military officers in the imperial army—that not only succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie’s government, but also in ruling Ethiopia with an iron-fist for the next 17 years. But the political and armed struggle for “liberation” continued. It was in this atmosphere of radicalisation of the intellectual-elite class that discourses like “liberation” and the “oppressor-oppressed” took hold in the Ethiopian body politic and a plethora of liberation fronts mushroomed or revived: the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF, 1962)—that succeeded in seceding Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1991—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, 1966), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, 1975) to name but the most important ones. The Dergue’s 17 years in power was marred by the bloodiest times in Ethiopian modern history: the Red Terror, a border war with Somalia (1977-1978) and, more importantly, the protracted civil wars with TPLF, EPLF and OLF.

                  After 17 years of armed struggle, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) defeated the Dergue and controlled Ethiopian state power in 1991. The EPRDF was a coalition composed of the TPLF, The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF). It should, however, be noted that it was only with victory in sight against the Dergue and a desire to expand its sphere of influence beyond Tigray, that the TPLF formed the EPRDF in 1988. Otherwise, the actual power holder within the coalition remained TPLF. Consequently, the EPRDF introduced the 1995 constitution. Adopted in the immediate context of the post-Cold War, in a way that reflects the politics of constitutionalism and especially the shrewdness and pragmatism of the man behind it, Meles Zenawi, the constitution was a compromise between TPLF’s deep-rooted Marxist-Leninist ideological moorings and the post-Cold War euphoric triumphalism of liberal constitutionalism and human rights. So much so that the constitution declares the inviolability and alienability of human rights and freedoms emanating from the nature of mankind. However, as his building a de facto one-party state would later reveal, this was a move that seems to have been motivated more by placating the West than a genuine desire on the part of Zenawi’s EPRDF to champion the causes of human rights and democratic values.

                  In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.

                  The constitution divided Ethiopia into nine ethnic states that—with the exception of what is called the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional State—are based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. Most importantly, the constitution grants the “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” within those states the unconditional “right to self-determination, including secession.” In other words, rather than with a people, sovereignty resides in a plurality of peoples of Ethiopia. It is these peoples that came together to form Ethiopia and they are the custodians of Ethiopia, from which they have the absolute right to secede if they so wish. That way, the constitution replaced the age-old notion of Ethiopia as a nation with an Ethiopia as a “nation of nations.” Walleligne predicted this almost a quarter of a century earlier: “What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really a nation.”

                  From then on ethnicity became a determinant factor and dominant political currency in Ethiopian politics, bringing with it, in the words of the late sociologist Donald Levine (who taught at the University of Chicago and became a key figure in Ethiopian Studies), an “epidemic of ethnic and regional hostilities.” In addition to changing the way the country organised itself politically, EPRDF also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students. Walleligne’s abstract and—as he himself admitted in his writing—incomplete idea found a home in the curriculum.

                  With this entrenchment of a “new” history of Ethiopia and a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed, a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost clinched power in major cities and rural areas if it had not been suppressed and finally expelled from Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was that election that gave the close to two decades-long ethnic politics championed by Meles Zenawi, a real challenge and, more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival of pan-Ethiopian politics.

                  Abiy Ahmed and the re-emergence of pan-Ethiopianism?

                  Zenawi—the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a prime minister, was reported to have made authoritarianism respectable—died in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Although political pundits thought that in his absence Ethiopia would plunge into crisis immediately, his successors managed to stave off social unrest until protest rallies started to emerge in the Oromia region following the unveiling of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (a plan to expand the federal capital, mostly into Oromia) in April 2014. Months of sustained protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more people being imprisoned.

                  However, the draconian measures did little to slow the protests. The EPRDF government eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region. Protestors demanded rights, representation, and economic justice. Tellingly, these protests erupted less than a year after EPRDF claimed to have won 100% of the 2015 election and only months after US President Obama praised the government as being “democratically elected.”

                  The TPLF-led EPRDF government could not sustain its political power. In the backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo and member of the OPDO, ascended to power. With his promise of leading Ethiopia through transition to democracy, Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including releasing political prisoners, inviting home all opposition parties, and appointing some prominent public figures to key positions within his government. These and many other earlier reforms won him almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace-deal with neighboring Eritrea, ending a two-decades long stalemate, following the 1998 border war between the two countries that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.

                  Despite the indisputably positive changes he introduced and results achieved, Abiy’s Ethiopia also saw its most turbulent years in recent Ethiopian history, including internal displacements, violence that claimed the lives of hundreds—high-profile assassinations, including an attempted assassination on the premier himself, targeted ethnic killings, and ongoing violence perpetrated by a splinter military wing of the OLF in western Oromia region. Abiy’s decision to indefinitely postpone the August general election due to COVID-19 has further destabilized the country and put in tatters his promise of transitioning Ethiopia to democracy.

                  There also is the ongoing tension with the TPLF that governs the Tigray region—that recently held its own regional election in defiance of the central government’s ban on all elections due to the pandemic. As a result, the Ethiopian parliament voted to?cut ties with Tigray region leaders, which has the potential to erupt into a full-blown war with the federal government. Further complicating Abiy’s agenda of stabilizing the East African nation is the?tension with Egypt?in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) and broader geopolitical issues.

                  It was amid this ongoing turmoil Abiy established the Prosperity Party at the end of 2019, which brought together three of the four ethnic-based parties that constituted the EPRDF coalition and other smaller parties, considered within party circles as “allies” to the EPRDF. Based on his vision of national unity among Ethiopians that he calls?medemer, which literally means “coming together,” this re-branding of EPRDF was meant to stave off the ethnically divisive politics and address ethnically motivated conflicts that engulfed the country during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. This seemingly mundane action, however, did not sit well with everyone and it brought to the surface an issue dormant for the last 25 years in the Ethiopian formal political scene, namely: how to historicize Ethiopia. There is now an all-out war of narratives among Ethiopian elites on the history of Ethiopia.

                  This narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianism” and “Ethno-nationalism.” The ethno-nationalist camp takes Walleligne’s thesis as accurate representation of Ethiopia as a nation of nations. As we have noted, in mainstream Ethiopian history, Emperor Menelik is considered the architect of the modern Ethiopian state. He is especially credited with expanding the Ethiopian empire to the south from his northern stronghold of Shoa. To the outside world and to Ethiopians alike, his epic victory over the Italian colonial force in the Battle of Adwa is widely celebrated as a key moment in Black anticolonial consciousness. In stark contrast to this picture, in the ethno-nationalist discourse, Emperor Menelik figures as the archenemy. To the ethno-nationalists Menelik’s supposedly mundane “state-building” endeavors were marked by violence, forced assimilation and suppression of cultures of peoples of the South, especially the Oromo. Echoing Walleligne’s thesis, they insist that rather than a nation built on the consent of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is imposed on the wider South through conquest, violence and assimilation by Ethiopian rulers of Amhara, and to a certain extent, Tigre extraction. In their view, rather than an inclusive multicultural state, Ethiopia is made in the image of the Amhara and the Tigre.

                  This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.”

                  Quite to the contrary, those in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp embrace the historical Ethiopia and adhere to the idea of Ethiopia as a nation-state. While not ruling out the presence of violence, they reject the “empire thesis” of the ethno-nationalists and hold that Emperor Menelik was just engaging in state-building when he conquered and brought the wider South under his Imperial rulership. In the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative of Ethiopia, the supposed assimilationist and imperialist expansion of Emperor Menelik and his predecessors to the South is a normal historical process inherent to state building. There are also some within the Pan-Ethiopianist camp that insist that Emperor Menelik did not actually conquer and control “new” territories, but only “re-claimed” territories that hitherto were parts of the historical Ethiopia. There are still those in this camp that argue that it is in the nature of an empire to conquer peoples and rule over lands, and hence there is nothing anomalous about Emperor Menelik’s deeds.

                  Not surprisingly, many in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp saw, at least in the beginning, Abiy’s formation of the Prosperity Party as a move in the right direction with a potential to dismantle the current ethnic-federalism—that adherents of this camp hold is the root cause of the cycles of ethnic conflicts and other problems that the country faces—and eventually realise a unified Ethiopia, albeit federalist. Quite to the contrary, the move did not sit well with the ethno-nationalist camp, the TPLF in particular openly opposing this merger as “illegal” on the grounds that all constituent parties of the EPRDF should have consented to the dissolution of EPRDF and the merger. The Oromo activists see in this merger and Abiy’s other reform agenda a return to the old Ethiopia, in which they argue Oromos were culturally and linguistically alienated by the Amhara-Tigre elites that in the past had a monopoly on state power.

                  Social media and narratives of hate

                  The elites’ reach and impact has expanded as the means of information sharing and consumption has expanded. It is no more the traditional intellectual-elite class that engages in the production and dissemination of information that advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual activists. The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims, purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance. Fueled by algorithms that favor combustible content, social media companies orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme positions and be adversarial towards one another.

                  The emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They recognize their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents of their speech or the quality of their argument. Name calling and?ad hominem?attacks are their currency and they invoke current and historical grievances, and narratives of superiority, to stoke fear and anger. Unfortunately, the narratives these elites broadcast are not without consequences. There is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and the supposed adherents of these narratives.

                  Nothing makes the dangers of the deep division between the two camps as the?murder?of the renowned Oromo singer,?Hachalu Hundesa?in June 2020. This incident has clearly shown their tendency to see and interpret any and every incident or issue in ways that support their respective narratives. Unfortunately, as is quite common in the post-truth social media age we live in, it is as though elites in each camp use different truth-filters, no matter what facts on the ground dictate. So much so that, immediately after the news of Hachalu’s death surfaced, elites in each camp took to social media and, with no evidence at their disposal, started to speculate who might have shot and killed the singer and began pointing fingers at each other. In the ethno-nationalist camp, a conspiracy started to circulate that claimed the killing was orchestrated and carried out by “neftegna” and statements like “They?killed our hero” reverberated around social media, followed by wide-spread Oromo protests in Ethiopia, Europe, and North America. On the other hand, in what appears to be due to Hachalu’s pro-Oromo nationalistic political views, in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp there was either a deafening silence, or some suggesting that the killing was a result of intra power-struggle among the Oromo elite politicians who just “sacrificed” Hachalu for their own politically calculated ends. Amidst the confusion and unsubstantiated claims floating around—with even?some media outlets?broadcasting hate-filled messages—violence??erupted in the Oromia region claiming the lives of more than 200 individuals, the displacement of thousands, and property damage. The killings were reported to be?gruesome and targeted.

                  If anyone in either camp is insensitive enough to bring havoc to Ethiopia, or even worse, to sacrifice precious human lives in pursuit of political ends or to prove a particular narrative of Ethiopia, then the debate is not so much about liberation and freedom as it is about ideology or some other ends. As?Edward Said?chastises us:

                  the standards of truth about human misery and oppression [are] to be held despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties. Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performances as much as trimming, careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.

                  We shouldn’t also lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this “war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance, but more so about elites’ drive for resource monopolization, the prestige that comes with power, and other factors external to the debate.

                  Abiy’s government, like the EPRDF before it, is attempting to limit internet access, especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government’s desperate act to avoid future incidents like these are understandable. Expanded internet access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or detrimental. The detriment, actually, is with the unchecked nature of social media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact checking and understanding of local knowledge among social media companies make it possible for misinformation to spread easily.

                  Whither Ethiopia? The way forward

                  As we noted initially, nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a generation of Ethiopians who have grown up under the EPRDF are increasingly alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their ethnic identity and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are highly credible communication mediums, shared facts, and shared goals. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.

                  There is a glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates, leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of alternative narratives. It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.

                  Even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. Denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate, not only because people’s lives are at stake, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.

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

                  Editor’s note: Please note that the piece was first published on September 30. While the authors updated it over the past month, the conflict in Ethiopia has now accelerated to a civil war. We plan to provide more up-to-date coverage. Meanwhile, we recommend?this statement?by a group of scholars and researchers from the Horn of Africa.

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                  Shimelis Mulugeta Kene is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, McGill University. Solen Feyissa is an academic technologist at the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.

                  Politics

                  The History and Uncertain Future of Macadamia Farming in Kenya

                  The macadamia sector in Kenya faces many challenges that can be overcome through supportive policies and regulations.

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                  The History and Uncertain Future of Macadamia Farming in Kenya
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                  The Government in Kenya issued a blanket ban on the export of raw nuts in 2009 to allow local processors to gather enough materials for job creation in this labour intensive sector.

                  However, both the county and national governments have consistently failed to put in place all the necessary measures to support the macadamia sub-sector, which is rapidly emerging as an alternative cash crop to the declining coffee and tea sectors in the Mt. Kenya region. The crop has gained traction to non-traditional growing areas such as the Rift Valley and Western regions.

                  Although the macadamia nuts sub-sector has grown on its own since the ban was put in place, fears are now emerging that the country is likely to lose its grip on this niche market to new entrants due to the low quality of the nuts we have been producing.

                  In 2009, when Kenya banned the export of raw nuts, it had a firm grip on this niche market. There were only four other nut producing countries in the world –? Australia, South Africa, Kenya and Hawaii in the United States, with Kenya supplying about 20 per cent of the total global demand.

                  Between 90 and 95 per cent of Kenya’s macadamia is produced for export. Key export destinations for Kenyan macadamia are the US, the European Union, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Canada. This year, demand for Kenya’s macadamia globally declined by 40 per cent, according to the processors’ estimates, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

                  New entrants who threaten Kenya’s global market include China, Guatemala, Malawi, Vietnam, Colombia, New Zealand, Mozambique, Brazil, Paraguay and Swaziland. In total, 15 countries in the world have joined the producing club in the last decade.

                  With funding and support of the Chinese government, the International Macadamia Research and Development Center, established in Lincang, China, now holds more market potential for macadamias than any other country on the planet, recording an 11-fold increase in macadamia consumption between 2012 and 2018.

                  A global macadamia nut symposium held in China two years ago, which was poised to be held in Kenya next year but cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic,? noted that as the global macadamia industry continues to grow, the need to deliver exceptional quality nuts will be more critical than ever.

                  The Nut Processors Association of Kenya (NutPAK)’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr Charles Muigai, said that this is where the biggest challenge for Kenya’s market competitiveness in the global arena lies because farmers are not faithful to producing quality nuts due to the low support the sector receives from the government and other actors.

                  With funding and support of the Chinese government, the International Macadamia Research and Development Center, established in Lincang, China, now holds more market potential for macadamias than any other country on the planet, recording an 11-fold increase in macadamia consumption between 2012 and 2018.

                  Value Chain Analysis for Macadamia Nuts from Kenya 2020, a report of the Netherlands’ Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries, cited climate change, the impact of pests and diseases, poor good agricultural practices (GAP), lack of access to inputs, use of unsuitable or old macadamia varieties and immature harvesting as Kenya’s main undoing.

                  At a critical point of transition, following the ban, there was no functioning formal association of macadamia farmers. In 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) initiated the creation of Macadamia Growers Association of Kenya (MGAK), which has remained without an office or a budget.

                  The macadamia sector, unlike tea and coffee, has evolved without any regulation or policy support from the government. The only main intervention was in 2009, when a ban was effected and again in 2018 when the ban was anchored in legislation.

                  History of macadamia farming in Kenya?

                  The production of macadamia nuts in Kenya traces its history from 1944 when a European settler called Bob Harries introduced the crop from Australia in his estate near Thika town for ornamental and household consumption purposes.

                  He would, two decades later, found Bob Harries Ltd. to invest in the widespread expansion of the crop by introducing two key macadamia types – M. Integrifolia and M. Tetraphylla – and other hybrids from Hawaii and California.

                  In 1968, he grafted his own seedling nurseries to create a source for non-African estate owners and African smallholder farmers in Central Kenya’s coffee growing zones, namely, Embu, Meru, Kirinyaga and Thika.

                  He also initiated a campaign to have the government commercialise the crop. A feasibility study carried out in 1974 by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) that gave a nod to the viability of the sector convinced the government to support macadamia processing and marketing.

                  The government facilitated the creation of a joint venture between Japanese investors led by Yoshiyuki Sato and a Kenyan, Pius Ngugi, in setting up the Kenya Nuts Company (KNC), which today still runs the factory in Thika.

                  Sato had founded and run a textile factory in Nairobi since 1960 while Ngugi, a large-scale macadamia and coffee farmer from Thika, was in search of a market for his nuts.

                  The company would build a modern processing plant and establish its own macadamia plantations at an initial nuclear farm of about 400ha. It also set up a nursery for the propagation of adapted and grafted seedlings to supply out-growers.

                  By 1975, the company was processing nuts from its own estate as well as from other out-growers. It enjoyed a monopoly purchase right for in-shell nuts, sourcing 90 per cent of these from 140 smallholder coffee cooperative societies, as well as 47 additional buying centres.

                  Farmers delivered the harvest to cooperatives and collection centres and got a receipt with a pre-agreed price per kilogram. KNC would then collect the nuts when enough quantity has been bunched, and transfer the payments to the cooperative banks, where farmers collected cash by producing their receipts. Cooperative would earn a 10 per cent commission.

                  Japan continued to support the macadamia sector for over twenty years, culminating in the construction of the National Horticultural Research Centre where agronomists focused more on grafted seedling varieties. KNC multiplied these in their nurseries and by the time the Japanese left in 1997, it had distributed over 1.5 million seedlings.

                  Like the cashew sector, the macadamia sector was also affected by the liberalisation of economy. Being part of the private sector, KNC could not be privatised, which salvaged it from the decay that followed the cashew sector.

                  However, liberalisation accelerated domestic competition. In 1994, Peter Munga, the Equity Bank founder, opened a macadamia processing factory called Farm Nut Co. in Maragua, Muranga district. He had made some foray into buying coffee from farmers and realised that they were also selling macadamia at low prices. He decided to venture into marketing and processing the nuts.

                  Unlike his well-established rival, his firm lacked logistical infrastructure and links to cooperatives. The idea of brokers, who had played a marginal role by only collecting macadamia from distant locations, came in handy. With the entry of Farm Nut, the role of middlemen became predominant.

                  Like the cashew sector, the macadamia sector was also affected by the liberalisation of economy. Being part of the private sector, KNC could not be privatised, which salvaged it from the decay that followed the cashew sector.

                  Essentially, brokers would go directly to the farmers, offer better and direct prices than the cooperatives had done. Consequently, this significantly reduced farmers’ transaction costs of bringing nuts to collection centres as well as collecting their payments from banks.

                  Also, reduced volumes from the cooperatives increased processors’ transactional costs. It became more convenient for them to deal with the middlemen, and by the early 2000s, the cooperatives’ role in the macadamia supply chain diminished.

                  In the early 1990s and when the macadamia prices passed Sh30 mark per kilo in 1997, farmers in Central Kenya became more interested in macadamia farming due also to a fall in coffee prices. Production multiplied five-fold within six years only, crossing the 10,000 tonnes threshold in 1998.

                  The Chinese connection?

                  A dramatic shift in the industry would come in the early 2000s when China became a mass consumer of the nuts. The emergence of a growing middle class in China with an appetite for in-shell nuts and container ships increasingly docking in Mombasa, demanding to return with loaded cargo, tempted Chinese traders to venture into the export of raw macadamia nuts from the country.

                  The first Chinese in-shell exporter was a Mr Yang who contracted brokers in Embu in 2004. They transversed the region with loudspeakers mounted on their vans offering Sh40 (US$ 0.48) – twice what processors had offered. They would a year later spread tentacles to Meru, where they remained for close to five years.

                  Local processors would buy nuts mainly from Kiambu, Muranga, Kirinyaga, and Nyeri, where Kikuyu processors had established processing units and created networks with local communities who they hired for factory jobs. This helped to lock the Chinese out of these regions.

                  Estimates by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service indicated that nearly 60 per cent of macadamia had been exported in-shell in 2008, implying that exporters had been able to purchase most of the crop from Embu and Meru. This posed a huge threat, bringing processors together to push the government to ban the export of raw nuts that finally came on 16th June 2009.

                  With the exit of the Chinese, and the creation of a processors’ and farmers’ associations, there was hope that the industry would get organised and get the necessary support.

                  Far from it. Both the farmers and processors would soon be left to their own devices, competing among each other to fight the Chinese who were still smuggling nuts out of Kenya. However, the competition and the need to create more volume saw processors heighten production five-fold in the last decade to reach close to 50,000 metric tonnes last year. They also grew in number from 5 to over 30, a move that saw farmers get an unprecedented Sh200 a kilo despite complains emerging that the quality did not justify this price.

                  This year, the sluggish global demand has driven processors away from the field, leaving behind brokers who are buying the nuts for as low as Sh50 a kilo. Joshua Muriira, the Chairman of the Meru Macadamia Farmers Association, said that the absence of processors is deliberate since they have conspired to offer Sh85 a kilo and it has nothing to do with the COVID 19.

                  The idea of an export ban has failed to fade away in Meru and Embu, where people still believe that were the Chinese buyers still available, things would be different. They started protesting from the onset when the prices dropped from a high of Sh100 a kilo to between Sh40 and Sh60 after the Chinese exit.

                  The processors blamed the poor prices on brokers and the resultant high share of immature nuts. A narrative was also pushed that if they started selling the nuts to processors directly – rather than via brokers – good prices would return.

                  After the first ban in 2009, the Chinese would a year later successfully lobby the new agriculture minister, Sally Kosgei, to lift the ban on raw nut exports for three months on 28 May 2010. The official rationale for the lifting the ban was “to facilitate the mop-up of the excess raw nuts with farmers”.

                  On 15 December 2010, when Kosgei yet again decided to lift the ban (Gazette notice No. 16229) for a period of over six months until 30 June 2011, quoting the same rationale, this time, NutPAK successfully challenged this in the High Court on 21 December 2010.

                  It was only in 2016 that the MP for Maragua, a region not known to produce macadamia in plenty, introduced a motion against the ban in Parliament, arguing it was hurting farmers. The house’s agriculture committee rejected the petition on the grounds that it was not in the interests of the industry.

                  There was evidence of continued presence of the Chinese in Kenya, even after the ban. On February 2017, seven Chinese macadamia buyers were arrested in Meru for allegedly doing business in the country without the required licences and documents. Embu and Meru farmers protested against their arrest in March 2017.

                  On one occasion, during the gubernatorial party primaries for the 2017 election, the gubernatorial candidate for Embu, Senator Lenny Kivuti, used the opportunity and joined the protests in Mutunduri in Embu North sub-county, accusing his opponent and current governor, Martin Wambora, of colluding with the domestic processor, Privam Nuts, and saying it was wrong for the police to “harass the foreigners because the latter were offering a better price to the farmers”.

                  On February 2017, seven Chinese macadamia buyers were arrested in Meru for allegedly doing business in the country without the required licences and documents. Embu and Meru farmers protested against their arrest in March 2017.

                  There were protests against the ban throughout 2018. In late January 2018, prior to the legal opening of the harvesting season on 20 February, the government, through the Nuts and Oil Crop Directorate, again arrested and deported eleven Chinese macadamia buyers in Meru who were buying at the stellar price of Sh170, and whose arrest was by opposed by several Meru MPs, farmers and brokers.

                  Areas of intervention?

                  The main opportunity for yield improvement, according to the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing countries report, lies with supporting extension service providers, such as the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organisation (KALRO) and the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA), to increase farmers’ capacities and to multiply and disseminate high-yielding macadamia seedlings that are suited to the different macadamia growing regions of Kenya.

                  There are two main areas of intervention for quality improvement. The first involves supporting processors who wish to obtain loans to buy crops in advance, thereby addressing farmers’ need for quick cash. The second is the implementation of region-relevant harvesting moratoria.

                  Upstream traceability of Kenyan macadamia is severely challenged by the large number of smallholder farmers and independent buying agents. Small plantations typify Kenya’s production system as opposed to other producers like China, South Africa and Australia, which have large plantation farming. Around 200,000 small farms in Kenya currently produce an estimated 42,500 tonnes of in-shell nuts.

                  Adopting traceability systems, some of which are part of mobile cash applications, could help in addressing this problem.

                  There are two main areas of intervention for quality improvement. The first involves supporting processors who wish to obtain loans to buy crops in advance, thereby addressing farmers’ need for quick cash. The second is the implementation of region-relevant harvesting moratoria.

                  Moreover, support should go to the creation of a registry of farmers, including data such as landholding size and age, number of macadamia trees and macadamia varieties and traders. This registry should be governed and accessed by members of the sector’s associations and AFA.

                  Communication and dialogue among macadamia stakeholders is lacking. Often, conflicting interests among actors lead to rivalry.

                  To address this, sector associations should establish, adopt and enforce codes of conduct to regulate the practices of sector players. Dialogue and transparency should be the ruling principles of this code of conduct. Moreover, all actors should discuss a multi-stakeholder strategy to address the challenges facing the macadamia sector.

                  Although some processors have links to European markets, the notion prevails among EU buyers that Kenyan macadamia nuts are of inferior quality. Moreover, processors regard the EU market regulations as more stringent than those of the US.

                  To address poor EU market access, the creation and marketing of a Kenyan macadamia brand should be explored.

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                  South Africa: The Culture Wars Are a Distraction

                  When our political parties only have recourse to the realm of identity and culture, it is a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy and programmatic content. It is cynically unpolitical, and it’s all bullshit.

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                  South Africa: The Culture Wars Are a Distraction
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                  Almost nine months ago, South Africa entered into a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown is still in place, but back then the restrictions imposed were incredibly severe: no one could leave their home unless to purchase food or medicine, and the now familiar category of “essential workers” were the only ones permitted to travel for work. Now that these rules have been lifted, some people are desperate to soak in the warm weather and taste a slice of normality. It’s easy to forget that the implementation of lockdown spelled confusion and disaster for most;? easier still, to ignore the fact that despite the gradual reduction of reported cases, the economic impacts are only really appearing now, and things are looking grim.

                  And so, the debacle unfolding last week over retail company Clicks’ use of a racist advert on its website, is the clearest illustration of the erratic consciousness which characterizes South African public life. The advert, selling the American hair care brand TRESemmé, depicted a white woman’s hair as “fine & flat” and “normal” while a black woman’s hair was described as “dry & damaged” plus “frizzy & dull.” It goes without saying that the ad is reprehensible, offensive, and deserves the outrage its sparked. Yet, this is not the first thing Clicks has done in the last six months which is objectionable—in April, its workers accused them of?forcing them to work without pay. It was also at one stage accused of price gouging, and, it wasn’t the only company implicated—across the board and throughout the lockdown, corporations partook in unfair labor and pricing practices in order to shift the economic burdens of the crisis to workers and consumers. Why did these practices produce little outrage?

                  The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s third largest party and one officially styling itself as “Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian” (they copy the late Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian movement in their red uniforms), has been leading the moral crusade against Clicks. In doing so they have been incredibly effective, beginning last week with country-wide protests at a range of Clicks stores, and ending it by reaching an agreement with Clicks’ holding company to remove all TRESemmé products from its stores to be replaced by locally produced ones, as well as to donate 50,000 sanitary pads, sanitizers and masks to rural settlements chosen by the EFF.

                  These actions marked the return of the EFF to South Africa’s political scene after a long hibernation during most of the lockdown. In its initial stages, the EFF’s most notable call was for people to be quarantined on Robben Island. As it then became apparent that the state’s socio-economic response was lacking, prompting a mass civil-society mobilization to organize food parcels, extend social grants provision and ensure that there was basic support for the poor and vulnerable, the EFF was glaringly absent. But, this is supposed to be South Africa’s working-class party, and much as some on the left have long been disabused of the notion that the working-class is whom they represent, for the most part it’s still believed that the EFF is radical in some meaningful sense.

                  When the EFF first emerged as a political party in 2013, it was widely cheered as being a viable option to fill the void left in working-class politics in the wake of the Marikana massacre as the ruling African National Congress’ hegemony began to crumble. While the composition of its admirers included a diverse range—disgruntled local businesspeople, university students and the urban unemployed—its militant populist style was touted as left in orientation given its advocacy for policies such as nationalizing South Africa’s mines (which it is no longer that committed to), and land expropriation without compensation. (Two years later, as South Africa’s campuses erupted with #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, the EFF won SRC elections on many campuses.)

                  Nowadays, the party has become too loaded with contradictions for it to be considered left-wing in any credible sense, both in its ideology and practice. Besides its lack of internal democracy and the cult of personality surrounding its leader Julius Malema, some of the EFF’s lead figures have been embroiled in various financial scandals including municipal tender fraud and the ransacking of a mutual bank primarily serving informal rural, friendly societies. Throughout its history, the EFF has never had any moorings in the organized working class; it lacks any trade union affiliation (it enjoyed some informal links to the Marikana workers union, AMCU, but it was never formalized), nor does it have any concrete ties to other social movements like those for the unemployed or in mining affected communities.

                  Despite this, it clings vehemently to the rhetoric of class, and proclaims its opposition to capitalism although playing almost no part in trying to build a working class movement in South Africa. How then, are they still venerated by most as progressive, and taken at their word by even their naysayers who believe them to be sincerely anti-capitalist?

                  What explains this is that the terms of radical politics in the public discourse, have shifted from a materialist, class-rooted mode, to an identity-based, culturalist one, and the EFF have contributed to this shift and are its biggest beneficiary. In South Africa, where race is deeply embedded in everyday thinking and experience, the EFF has capitalized and revived the idea that black people possess a distinctive, social identity, therefore constituting a “people” whose political and material interests are uniform.

                  By positing some homogenous “black interest,” the EFF is able to flatten the contradictions of its political project, which at this point looks simply like a kind of economic nationalism, less opposed to capitalism per se, and more opposed to the fact that South Africa’s capitalist class continues to be dominated by “white monopoly capital.” The EFF’s biggest problem isn’t that capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, but that this few are predominantly foreign, white or Indian.

                  In this crucial way, the EFF’s class project is actually just?continuous?with that of the ruling African National Congress, which since 1999 has been facilitating the rise of a supposedly patriotic, black bourgeoisie whose economic upliftment is meant to be synonymous with the progress of black people as a whole. South Africa’s political class in the main has never parted with this thesis. All that’s really contested, is how swiftly or not this is happening. According to the EFF—along with the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ANC, led from the shadows by Malema’s former mentor and former president Jacob Zuma—it is not happening quickly enough.

                  In South Africa, where race is deeply embedded in everyday thinking and experience, the EFF has capitalized and revived the idea that black people possess a distinctive, social identity, therefore constituting a “people” whose political and material interests are uniform.

                  Instead of?being a serious challenge to the ANC’s apparently declining hegemony, the EFF is more accurately an expression of its resilience. The EFF’s sustained inability to articulate a coherent political identity on its own stems from the simple fact that rather than being fascist (as?some?proclaim), it simply is just a wandering faction of the ANC, its prodigal son.

                  Yet, it is Frantz Fanon himself who warns against thinking that this project of establishing a state-led, indigenized capitalism is in any meaningful sense progressive. As he writes in the?Wretched of the Earth:

                  Yet the national bourgeoise never stops calling for the nationalization of the economy and the commercial sector. In its thinking, to nationalize does not mean placing the entire economy at the service of the nation or satisfying all its requirements. To nationalize does not mean organizing the state on the basis of a new program of social relations. For the bourgeoisie, nationalization signifies very precisely the transfer into indigenous hands of privileges inherited from the colonial period.

                  Even if we could successfully transform the capitalist class so that it was demonstrably black, the underclass to which it is causally connected to, whose deprivation makes possible the other’s wealth, would still be black!?Framing inequality primarily as racial disparity misses that it is now actually intra-racial inequality that is contributing more to total inequality. But more importantly, it expresses a fundamentally misplaced concern about the problem. As Adolph Reed Jnr. and Walter Benn Michaels?recently wrote, “What we’re actually saying every time we insist that the basic inequality is between blacks and whites is that only the inequalities we care about are those produced by some form of discrimination—that inequality itself isn’t the problem.”

                  The racism that was on display in the advert approved and displayed by Clicks is very much present in our society. But, it is not the definitive issue of our time, nor does it have to be for us to give it appropriate concern and attention. In corporate workplaces, university settings, Model-C or private schools and hospitality venues like hotels or restaurants, racial discrimination and prejudice very much persist and must be opposed. But ultimately, these are also (elite) spheres where the majority of the country are excluded from altogether, and the consequences of the struggles for recognition operative in them have little bearing for the lives of most poor, black people.

                  Racism does have a significant bearing on their lives, but to paraphrase and modify?Stuart Hall’s turn of phrase, it is an experience of race lived through the modality of class. Consider how throughout most of the lockdown for example, dangerous stereotypes were peddled about the working class. When an increase of the child support grant was being considered, poor and working black people were often cast as financially irresponsible and bound to use the funds on drugs. When the lockdown began easing and returning workers refused to work in unsafe conditions, they were lazy and selfish. When the alcohol prohibition was lifted, and there were spikes in trauma incidents at hospitals, it was poor and working class people who were blamed. It was the middle class and ruling elite of all races and across the political spectrum that happily took part in this demonization.

                  By positing some homogenous “black interest,” the EFF is able to flatten the contradictions of its political project, which at this point looks simply like a kind of economic nationalism, less opposed to capitalism per se, and more opposed to the fact that South Africa’s capitalist class continues to be dominated by “white monopoly capital.”

                  As my friend and comrade Awande Buthelezi once eloquently put it to me (channeling Walter Rodney), in post-apartheid South Africa, it’s not so much that people are poor because they’re black, but they are black because they’re poor. What this means is that that the most egregious racialization, that is, literally treating particular groups as possessing characteristics inherent to their nature, happens concomitantly with their particular economic subjugation. What people now often refer to as “classism” is actually just racism by another word. The word classism was only popularized to accommodate the false notion that black people couldn’t be racist, not least against their own race—which misses the important point that while race isn’t real, racism definitely is. And to express contempt for working class people, treating them as if they were a cultural identity (an apparently primitive and conservative one at that), and not?an objective social relation rooted in political economy, is precisely to engage in racializing them. The basic insight of all this is that racial ideology provides the justification for continued economic exploitation. As the American sociologist?Oliver Cromwell Crox?explains, “to justify humanly degrading labor, the exploiters must argue that the workers are innately degraded.”

                  Why then, are people poor? It’s always been because of capitalism, and at the moment every single opposition force in South Africa treats it as its perennial premise. To borrow a phrase from?Karen and Barbara Fields, people treat apartheid as if its chief business was producing white supremacy rather than mining gold, diamonds and platinum. Our society is essentially classist, therefore it is essentially racist. But, what is liquidated in the turn of understanding social cleavages exclusively through identity is the class antagonism which actually grounds the material interests which shape political life—the antagonism between wage labor, capital, and the professional managerial strata in between.

                  In forever using race as a proxy for class, we ignore that race is no longer a reliable predictor for class position, and that this was always bound to become the case in a country where black people are a substantial numerical majority. The interests of black people are not, could not be the same, and to posit them as such is to make possible a public sphere in which actual working class interests are sidelined and ignored. With the public sphere now more or less being entirely the?vapid abyss that is social media, a significant portion of the country is excluded from public life; for example,?only 53% of South Africans have access to the internet.

                  The gravity of the issues facing the majority of South Africans such as skyrocketing unemployment,?a deepening hunger crisis,?water shortages?and drought, as well as the crisis of social reproduction which manifests in?escalating gender based violence?made last week’s debacle feel painfully myopic. South Africans have always known the magnitude of the challenges before us, but what we are still unwilling to admit is that we are in the grips of a global, systemic, and worsening capitalist crisis, not simply seeing through a passing pandemic or set back by temporary issues of governance and state incapacity.? In the face of all this, the EFF’s actions are nothing more than asking that corporations be woke in their profiteering, leaving production for profit unchallenged as the basic principle of social organization.

                  It is Frantz Fanon himself who warns against thinking that this project of establishing a state-led, indigenized capitalism is in any meaningful sense progressive.

                  No political party in South Africa today presents a credible alternative, not even the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition who recently announced that it was officially adopting a policy of “non-racialism”—which is as laughable as the EFF claiming to be Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian. The DA sits on a pretend moral high ground and professes to be against racial identity politics while being committed to it in practice.

                  This year, the DA has campaigned to have farm murders (of white farmers) be declared a national emergency and categorized as hate crimes, treading not far from the right-wing conspiracies that claim there is a white genocide ongoing in South Africa.? Rather than accepting,?as the evidence shows, that this falls part of the general pattern of violent crime and social disorder and that poor black people are crime’s main victims (a symptom of worsening poverty and inequality), the DA tries to construct some special victimhood for white South Africans, despite remaining firmly wedded to the current economic system.

                  The culture wars in South Africa are simply a battle for the soul (read race) of the ruling class, the political elite scrambling to be captains of the Titanic while the ship sinks and the world around it burns. It’s all a distraction, and what’s left of the progressive left must ignore it. It is only the working class and its constituent social movements presenting a credible vision for social transformation in the short and long term, emphasizing that the emancipation of the working class is the emancipation of all. That there is a way out—and not merely drifting aimlessly and precariously on a lifeboat trying to survive, but towards a society free of domination and exploitation, one that is truly non-racial and non-sexist.

                  It is exactly this universalist impulse driving the solutions being put forward by a collection of burgeoning movement coalitions, such as the COVID-19 People’s Coalition, the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Cry of the Xcluded, and include things like introducing?a basic income grant for all, to?adopting a people’s climate justice charter?and?green new deal?that ends our original sin of mineral extractivism while shielding us from ecological catastrophe. As the old order crumbles, rather than present solutions underpinned by a substantive vision of what constitutes the good society, South Africa’s political class resorts mostly to empty and inane posturing. When our political parties have recourse to the realm of identity and culture, it is a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy and programmatic content. It is cynically unpolitical. It’s all bullshit.

                  And sincerely, there is no time for bullshit. The stakes are too high. The left re-emerging in South Africa must declare unapologetically: no war but class war.

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

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                  Death by Pesticide

                  The government looks on as farmers and consumers are exposed to lethal pesticides that are banned in Europe but continue to be sold on the Kenyan market by European companies.

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                  Death by Pesticide
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                  Arrive in any remote village or town in Kenya and chances are high that the first thing you will spot is an agrovet shop stocked with all manner of pesticides. These chemical compounds are commonly used in agriculture and animal husbandry to kill pests, including insects and rodents, and to remove fungi and weeds and control disease vectors.

                  Synthetic pesticides are a child of the Second World War. In her book The Silent Spring, Rachel Carson notes that in the course of developing chemical weapons, some of the chemicals created in laboratories were found to be lethal for insects. The discovery was not entirely by chance as insects were widely used to test chemical agents intended for chemical warfare.

                  The association of synthetic pesticides with the Second World War has not deterred their usage across the globe. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that globally, about 4.12 million tonnes of pesticides were used in agriculture in 2018. In Kenya, where they are presumed to have been introduced during the colonial era, the demand for these pesticides (fungicides, herbicides, fumigants and insecticides) skyrocketed from 6,400 tonnes in 2015 to 15,600 tonnes in 2018.

                  This demand can be attributed to Kenya’s agricultural sector being heavily dependent on conventional methods of food production. This is often characterised by the heavy application of chemical pesticides and fertilisers in an effort to increase yields. For instance, in the larger tea and coffee plantations in Kenya, herbicides are seen as an effective method of weed control. A study by Chepkirui, Gatebe and Mburu reveals that small-scale tea growers in Bomet County preferred to use glyphosate to control weeds in the tea farms, with Roundup (distributed by Monsanto, now Bayer) being the most preferred at 53.7% compared to other formulations of glyphosate (Glycel, Touchdown, Wound-Out).

                  Glyphosate, a pesticide in the category of organophosphates, was first introduced in 1974 by Monsanto (now Bayer) and has been under great scrutiny for its ability to cause cancer. In March 2015, glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer based on a positive association between exposure to glyphosate and cancer. One such case was Dewayne Johnson’s, a groundsman in the United States, where Monsanto was found liable for causing his cancer through exposure to Roundup.

                  Organophosphate pesticides (malathion, glyphosate, fenitrothion and chlorpyrifos) have been shown to be highly toxic to non-target species including humans, although they are still widely used in households and in agriculture. These chemical compounds were initially developed as human nerve gas agents in the 1930s and 1940s and later repurposed as insecticides.

                  Their insecticidal properties were discovered by a German scientist, Gerhard Schrader, in the late 1930s and soon afterwards the German government saw the value of these chemicals as new and devastating weapons in chemical warfare and the work on their development was declared a state secret. Some such as sarin and tabun were developed into deadly human nerve gases while others of a close chemical structure were used as insecticides after the Second World War.

                  Malathion is a neurotoxic organophosphate pesticide that has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable carcinogen. Yet it is still sold in Kenya and is contained in 14 products according to information on the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) website. Fenitrothion, another organophosphate pesticide that is known to be an endocrine disruptor (alters the hormonal system) and that is not approved for use in the European Union, was used by the Kenyan government to control the locust infestation that occurred in early 2020.

                  These and other organophosphates are responsible for thousands of cases of poisoning in Kenya. In 2016, R.K.A Sang and J. Kimani reported that 35 out of 716 individuals aged between 15 and 40 years attending Kericho Referral Hospital in March and April of that year suffered from organophosphate poisoning. These harmful effects are not only associated with organophosphates but also with other pesticides. For instance, a study to examine the impact of pesticides on the health of residents and horticultural workers in the Lake Naivasha Region found that horticultural workers who underwent a clinical examination exhibited more cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological disorders compared to other workers.

                  These pesticides not only impact our bodies but also the soil, food and water resources. Organochlorine pesticides (DDT, aldrin and endosulfan) were found in the soils in the Nyando River Catchment in 2015 despite being banned from use in Kenya in 1986, 2004 and 2011, respectively. Kenyan exports of horticultural produce have been rejected severally by the European Union for surpassing the maximum residue levels allowed. Sukuma wiki (kales) and tomatoes from Kirinyaga and Muran’ga counties were recently found to contain high levels of harmful pesticides.

                  Pesticides should therefore be a concern to us and their use and disposal should be more strictly regulated as they have the capability to enter and alter the most vital processes of the body in deadly and sinister ways. In Kenya, the PCPB, a statutory organ of the government, is responsible for the regulation, importation, exportation, manufacturing, distribution, transportation, sale, disposal and safe use of pest control products. It was formed under the Pest Control Products Act, Cap 346 of the Laws of Kenya. Since its enactment in 1982, this law governs the registration of many conventional chemical pesticides and biopesticides.

                  Currently, there are 19 active ingredients not listed in the European database and 77 have been withdrawn from the European market or are heavily restricted in their use due to potential chronic health effects, environmental persistence, and high toxicity towards fish or bees.

                  The Pest Control Products (Registration) (Amendment) Regulations, 2015 (Form A4 sections 3.7a, 3.8 and 3.9) require an applicant to show proof of registration of any new pesticides in the country of manufacture and in other countries. Also required is information on whether the new pesticide is registered in the country of formulation. It is therefore uncertain on what basis these pesticides were registered for use in Kenya.

                  Moreover, for any pesticide to be sold, used or withdrawn from the EU, it must be authorised in the EU country concerned as per Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009. This legislation regulates the introduction of pesticides in the EU market and lays out the rules and procedures for their authorisation.

                  Following the renewal of approval of an active substance, all pesticides containing that active substance must undergo a renewal assessment to make sure that products comply with the updated assessment of the active substance and with the new scientific and technical knowledge.

                  It is clear that some pesticide manufacturers do not register or re-register products they know would not be authorised in their home country within the EU but, for profit-making purposes, continue to produce and export those products to other countries such as Kenya. Manifestly, the PCPB does not carry out due diligence before approving such pesticides for use in Kenya despite its mandate to ensure that pesticides sold in the country have been assessed for safety to humans and the environment.

                  Pesticide registration standards in Kenya are often benchmarked against the European Union systems since the European Union follows a comprehensive regime and best practices in food systems as well as strictly applying the precautionary principle. Yet the fact is that the European Union is the second-highest exporter of pesticides to Kenya after China, and the products registered in Kenya, which have been withdrawn from the European market, are sold by European companies (77 products).

                  Despite there being 36 different European companies in the sector, more than half of the products (57%) are registered by BASF, Bayer Ag and Syngenta. Coincidentally, BASF and Bayer were part of the chemical companies that formed I.G Farben, a German chemical conglomerate, in December 1925. In the 1920s and 1930s, I.G Farben screened Zyklon B (a toxic gas made from hydrogen cyanide and originally developed as a pesticide) for Adolf Hitler’s programme to exterminate the Jews and used nerve gases on victims of the Holocaust in concentration camps. I.G Farben also specialised in the production of sarin and tabun, both of which are classified as organophosphates and were used as nerve gases in the Nazi concentration camps.

                  Kenyan farmers and consumers are highly exposed to lethal pesticides whose impact goes beyond altering the hormonal system of plants and insects and degrading the environment to also damage the immune and nervous systems of the human body. Given the financial muscle of the manufacturers, the use of these harmful pesticides remains unchallenged by the government agencies supposed to protect Kenyans.

                  It is on these grounds that civil society organisations such as Route to Food, Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) and Greenpeace Africa are seeking support from members of the public through a petition to place a ban on these harmful pesticides and encourage the use of biopesticides and plant extracts in food production.

                  Biopesticides and plant extracts such as Neem, chilli and garlic are effective in the control of pests and diseases with no negative health and environmental impacts. Ecological and organic farmers have been using these ecological and traditional methods to combat pests such as the fall armyworm and they have proven to be efficient. These methods have also been shown to increase soil fertility without the use of harmful chemicals, improve farm biodiversity, encourage the use locally available resources (indigenous seeds) and help put producers rather than corporations in control of the food chain.

                  It is therefore time to advocate for these safe agricultural practices that guarantee us safe food, clean water and healthy soils. Our collective voice is critical in ensuring that our human right to safe food and to a clean and healthy environment, enshrined in our constitution, is upheld.

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