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OSMAN OSMAN – Will Digital Media Change the Narratives About Northern Kenya? – The Elephant

In the face of an indifferent traditional media, citizens from the marginalised communities of northern Kenya have taken to social media to highlight the challenges they face at the hands of government security agencies.
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In early September 2021, Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Horn of Africa security expert, was abducted by unidentified men in Nairobi’s Central Business District. The academic was forced into a vehicle that took him to an undisclosed location where he was held hostage for close to two weeks. His abduction was allegedly triggered by his critical comments online on regional politics. Immediately after the incident, Kenyans took to social media to report his disappearance. #FreeAbdiwahab and other hashtags were created, and a week-long discursive discourse erupted online, consistently calling for his immediate release.
While Kenyans from different communities joined this discourse, Somalis from northern Kenya, where Abdiwahab hails from, dominated this wave of digital protests. The Tweets were explicit that the communities from north-eastern Kenya are victims of abductions that are normalized and justified under the guise of countering terrorism. The Tweets also pointed fingers at the Kenyan government’s reluctance or failure to investigate, and its covert involvement in some of the kidnappings.
Going through my social media timelines, I realized how the online discourse not only resulted from the absence of critical coverage by the Kenyan media regarding the lack of investigations of these kidnappings but also how digital media is employed by this marginalized community to highlight the unique challenges they face.
In short, the reaction following Abdiwahab’s abduction reflected how the absence of accountability institutions cemented the normalization of kidnappings that often end in extrajudicial killings. Moreover, the critical online discourse that followed this incident serves as an ideal case study of how Twitter and other digital media platforms enable marginalized communities to set the agenda for the media and the public.
Counter-narratives constructed on Twitter by citizens from northern Kenya allow them to not only claim power but to also “broadcast these ideas to a wide audience to court support for these ideas, and to form networks with like-minded individuals.”
There has been a rise in abductions and subsequent extrajudicial killings targeting the Muslim community following the al-Shabaab attacks of the last decade. In counties along the coast and in northern Kenya, national security agencies have been accused of being behind the deaths of young Muslim men suspected of having ties with the terror group in Somalia.
The abduction of Abdiwahab in broad daylight was not the first and, judging by the government’s tight-lipped response, it will not be the last. Following the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) 2011 invasion of Somalia to “fight al-Shabaab”, numerous terror attacks have been carried out across the country, prompting a response from the political and security elites to counter the violence perpetrated by the Somali-based terror group. The group has taken advantage of unemployed and traditionally marginalized youths in counties like Mombasa, Isiolo, Garissa, and even Kiambu, by brainwashing them and promising them economic and religious benefits if they join the militants.
The normalization of these illegal counter-terror tactics has been brought about by the precedents set by Western countries led by the US in their efforts to curb terror attacks in cities like New York, Paris, and London. Since 9/11, Western military elites have justified the illegal capture and killings of Muslim men from the Middle East suspected of working with groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State.
For instance, the existence of Guantanamo Bay, a detention camp that holds hundreds of terrorism suspects from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, serves as a reminder of how governments operate in a lawless universe when dealing with “terror suspects”. These Western tactics have informed how terror-afflicted countries like Kenya deal with citizens accused of being terrorist sympathizers.
In 2012, the controversial cleric Abud Rogo was shot dead in Mombasa County. Rogo was accused of spearheading the recruitment of youth from the coast to join the terror group in Somalia. Rogo was not the only Muslim cleric gunned down by the Kenyan security agencies. Between 2012 and 2014, Haki Africa, a Mombasa-based human rights group, documented the killing of 21 Islamic clerics across coastal Kenya. The Kenyan government has continuously denied any involvement in the kidnappings and killings. The lack of investigations and the covert support for these acts explains why fingers have been pointed at the government.
Western military elites have justified the illegal capture and killings of Muslim men from the Middle East suspected of working with groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State.
The global advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), revealed that between 2013 and 2015 “at least 34 people, including two women, were taken into custody by security forces during counterterrorism operations in north-eastern Kenya . . . whose whereabouts remain unknown.”
These are just the numbers documented by rights groups. Because of fear and the sensitivity surrounding the issue of terrorism and al-Shabaab, numerous cases go unreported. The few known ones remain unresolved since, as HRW puts it, “police have not meaningfully investigated these deaths.” Nonetheless, it is important to point out that while such cases have skyrocketed since 2011 when terror events surged in Kenya, communities in north-eastern Kenya have faced these challenges since Kenya’s independence in 1963.
In 1980, thousands of residents in Garissa County were rounded up and many died in what came to be known as the Bula Karatasi Massacre. The Kenyan security agencies were responding to an incident where civil servants were gunned down in a bar in the Bula Karatasi neighborhoodneighbourhood. Farah Maalim, a prominent Kenyan politician, notes that “Many people were killed,” because of the Kenyan government’s response to this incident. “Soldiers shot anything in sight.”
In Wajir County, it is believed that over 5,000 men were killed in 1984 by the Kenyan army when it went in to disarm Somalis in the county following ethnic conflicts. These are just a few examples that demonstrate how Kenyan elites have been dealing with generations of Somalis from north-eastern counties.
The Kenyan mass media’s systematic lack of critical coverage of these acts means that the government has not been held to account. As I have argued before, Kenyan journalists based in Nairobi have cemented the culture of portraying northern Kenya as a region engulfed by conflict, with the result that no substantive or thematic coverage is undertaken.
With few journalists from this region working for the mainstream news media, and in the absence of correspondents on the ground to cover these acts of violence, the community has been left out of the national conversation. There were no avenues that could have been used to create awareness about the unique challenges faced by Kenyan citizens in the north. This explains why the Somali community in the region is embracing social media platforms to not only push back against misrepresentations of their issues but also to prominently place their narratives in the national agenda.
The historical and contemporary injustices faced by communities in north-eastern Kenya have led them to embrace digital media. But it is also essential to note that a majority of Kenyans are unable to own smartphones or access the internet in order to be active participants in on-going debates on platforms like Twitter.
Only 17 per cent of Kenyans use social media and as a result of this digital divide, most Kenyans access news through traditional media like radios and newspapers. These traditional, mainstream mediums have failed to adequately advocate for the critical coverage of issues like the systematic abductions and killings of citizens in northern Kenya.
There is a growing body of literature on how marginalized communities like African Americans in the US and Muslims in Europe use digital media to counter the predominant narratives constructed by the mainstream media. These studies show that digital platforms like Twitteroffer citizens most invisible in mainstream politics radical new potentials for identity negotiation, visibility, and influence.”
It is believed that over 5,000 men were killed by the Kenyan army in 1984 when it went in to disarm Somalis in the county following ethnic conflicts.
A classic example of the power arising from the intersection of marginalized publics and digital media is the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement. This group, which was created and organized by youthful online activists highlighting racial injustice in the US, remains impactful and has been successful in setting the agenda in the US and elsewhere. The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020 that ignited an explosion of protests from Minneapolis to Accra, demonstrates how digital media has the power to set the agenda for national and global discourses.
In Nigeria, the lack of critical coverage of campaigns such as the #EndSARS movement prompted protesters and community leaders to take to social media platforms. Protesters in the West African country called for the abolition of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that has terrorized Nigerians for years. South Africa’s #FeesMustFall was also successful in fighting plans to increase fees in higher education, advocating instead for increased funding to universities. These examples are testaments to the importance of social media for excluded citizens such as Kenyan Somalis.
Human rights lawyer Abdinassir Adan was among the Twitter users who tirelessly advocated for the release of Abdiwahab. He affirms that social media remains an important tool “because it is an easy way to get attention from the state [and] it is a quick way of making it trend. Our main aim is to create awareness and stand up against enforced disappearances and injustice [that are] contrary to the rule of law.”
Adan shares the frustrations of many, pointing out that the limited and uncritical coverage of these abductions by the Kenyan mass media forces them to raise this awareness online. “It is very unfortunate that the mainstream media over the years has been ignoring challenges faced by the Somali community in Kenya. Social media has rendered the hollow and the gibberish media useless. In a nutshell, we felt that digital media is more effective, and it easily helped us to achieve our goals.”
Judging by the reaction to the abduction of Abdiwahab, it is evident that marginalized communities in northern Kenya are systematically using social media to change the culture of news media production in Kenya. The result is that, as a primary agenda-setter, the Kenyan press has been forced to adopt the social media agenda created by the public and make it part of the national agenda.
While this is a good opportunity for minority communities across Kenya, it is important to address the question of whether this is good in the long run. Most of the citizens in these northern counties still receive their news through traditional media, particularly community radios. While young people like Adan, who mostly reside in urban areas, can afford smartphones and have internet access to push back against government discrimination and media bias, a large proportion of the population of these counties is left out.
Moreover, by their very nature, these platforms have helped advance free speech, prompting some African governments to try to curb the freedom of expression among citizens by introducing high taxes on digital activity and passing restrictive legislation.
Further, online platforms have also been infiltrated by users who spread propaganda on behalf of the state. Social media influencers are paid as little as US$15 to spread disinformation, creating negative perceptions for institutions like the judiciary. This can have a negative impact on marginalized communities that depend on these platforms to share their challenges.
As a primary agenda-setter, the Kenya press has been forced to adopt the social media agenda created by the public and make it part of the national agenda.
The mainstream media should not remain passive, waiting for social media to highlight cases of human rights abuses against the people of northern Kenya. The demonstrated systematic pattern of targeting this group by government security agencies is enough to warrant a comprehensive, critical coverage of this important issue.
The Twitter conversations are also a reminder to Kenyan security agencies that, unlike the past, neglected citizens like those from north-eastern Kenya are now armed with digital platforms to counter-narratives constructed by the political and media elites.
In an age where information is shared within seconds, it is time the Kenyan government drops its abusive counter-terrorism tactics and systematically investigates cases like that of Abdiwahab. The Kenyan government and mass media need to treat Kenyans equally and to apply the law equally to citizens accused of any crimes. When communities in northern Kenya are accorded the same treatment as others across the country, then perhaps people like Adan will not be forced to use Western-owned digital media tools to highlight the challenges faced by Kenyans like him.
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Osman Osman (@osmanberet) is a PhD student in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. His work has been published by Al-Jazeera English, CNN, Quartz, among others.
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The 2010 Constitution requires that not more than two-thirds of the members of elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender. Article 170, which provides for the appointment of Kadhis, does not specify their gender. Yet the constitution is absent in the intra-Muslim discussions on the appointment of female Kadhis.
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Kadhi courts are arguably the oldest judicial institution in Kenya, being the judicial system prevailing in the Sultanate of Zanzibar that controlled a substantial portion of the East African coast.
In the 1963 agreement between Prime Minister Muhammad Shamte of Zanzibar and President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, the coastal strip was brought within the territorial jurisdiction of Kenya. In exchange, the Kenyan government would guarantee the preservation the Muslim religion and its institutions, courts, officers, schools, lands and the Arabic language within the new state.
Kadhi courts have thus been an integral part of the judiciary since pre-colonial times and were the focus of fierce contestations during the 2010 constitutional review process in Kenya.
Kadhis, especially the Chief Kadhis, have always been males, appointed from Muslim communities and from scholarly Arab Muslim families at the coast (the Saggafs, the Mazruis, the Bākathirs and the Barawa). After independence, Kadhis were also appointed from other non-coastal communities, notably the Somali.
Following the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, Kadhi courts now reflect the face of Kenya. In the last decade, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) has recruited Kadhis from a pool of scholars of Islamic law, some hailing from such minority Muslim communities as the Maasai, the Agikuyu, the Ameru, the AbaGusii, the Turkana and the iTeso. Yet the gender composition of the courts remains unresolved, and it has become a topic of debate in the last few months.
It is not clear what has sparked the recent debates, but the impending retirement of the current Chief Kadhi, Hon. Ahmed Muhdhar, must have animated discussions among the various interest groups over the possibility of appointing a Chief Kadhi of non-Arab descent and the appointment of female Kadhis, both of which are unprecedented in Kenyan legal history.
The Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council (KEMNAC), led by Sheikh Juma Ngao, had in the months before the women Kadhis debate erupted called successive press conferences pitching for the appointment of a non-Arab Chief Kadhi.
The women Kadhis discussion only came to the fore after The Standard published an article asking whether the time was ripe for a female Kadhi.  Another piece followed in The Nation. In early July 2021, the Garissa Township Member of Parliament, Hon. Aden Duale, weighed in on the question while addressing a gathering. He came out strongly in opposition to the appointment of women Kadhis. Duale wields immense authority among the Muslims of northern Kenya and his comments generated debate within the Muslim social spaces. I followed the debates closely and actively participated in some of the discussions, especially on Facebook. I documented some of the comments, followed almost every discussion on social media, on television and in the Friday Khutba sermons such as those by Sheikh Feisal Al–Amoody of Malindi and Ibrahim Lethome of Jamia Mosque Nairobi. Various sheikhs also commented on the debate in their darsas (mosque lessons), notably Al-Sayyid Ahmad Ahmad Badaway, aka Mwenye Baba, who is regarded by the Muslim faithful as one of the foremost religious authorities.
The contestation over the appointment of female Kadhis in Kenya first arose during Chief Justice Willy Mutunga’s time at the judiciary. The Chief Justice, a known crusader for equality and human rights, openly backed the appointment of women to serve as Kadhis. Predictably, this put him on a collision course with the National Muslim Leaders Forum (NAMLEF) and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM). Both strongly objected to such appointments. They occasionally used the Friday sermons to teach and remind Muslims of the position of Islamic jurisprudence on the appointment of female Kadhis. Sheikh Bahero of Bakarani Mosque, Mombasa, for example, dedicated khutba after khutba to this issue.
The latest debates have seen the two organizations take a measured approach while KEMNAC has taken centre stage in shaping the discourse. I can confirm that KEMNAC, Jamia Mosque Nairobi, SUPKEM and the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) have all written to the JSC urging that women should be not be appointed as Kadhis. So far, the only organ that has come out clearly in support of the appointment of women Kadhis is Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) led by Khelef Khalifa.
Perhaps the most eloquent opposition to the appointment of female Kadhis is from Hon. Aden Duale’s speech transcribed below:
We will not listen to what the NGOs will tell us. We will not listen to what government will tell us. We will not listen to what Western countries and powers will tell us. Sisi ni Waislamu, katiba yetu sisi ni hiyo kitabu ya Qur’an awwalan (We’re Muslims and our Constitution is that book of Qur’an first). Hii ingine ya Kenya inakuja second (This other one of Kenya comes second). We will not accept a woman to be a Kadhi. It is not found in the Qur’an, and it is not found in the teachings of the Prophet. Wakati wa nikaah, umeona mwanamke huko? (During marriage solemnization, do you see a woman there?). Islam has given the roles women can perform and the roles they cannot achieve. [Hon.] Martha Koome is a Chief Justice in a secular judiciary, and she is not a Chief Justice over religious organization or religious belief. Msijaribu kuweka mkono yenu katika (do not try to interfere in) how Islam is run in this country, the same way we will not allow you to run the Christian faith. We must leave it to the bishops. We must respect religious leaders kama nyinyi mnataka hii Kenya ikuwe nchi nzuri (If you want Kenya to be a nice country). . . .”
Such a speech conjures up images of past contestations over the inclusion of Kadhi courts in the 2010 constitution and raises questions as to whether the debate was concluded. Even though the Christian clergy who vehemently opposed the inclusion of the Kadhi courts in the 2010 constitution have moved on, some of the fears they raised at the time now seem to have caught up with Muslims.
As Duale stated, there is no specific Quránic verse or Hadith (Sayings) of the Prophet that approves of the appointment of women to the position of Kadhi or to any other position of leadership. The Hadith that says, “There shall not prosper a nation that appoints a woman to rule them,” is often quoted as a direct prohibition. There are verses of the Qur’an, like 4:34, that show men’s authority over women, and only in the story of the Queen of Saba (Sheba) is a woman seen to have power over men.
Some verses discourage women from mixing with men or appearing “unnecessarily”   in public places. Further, the two-women-equals-one-man ratio in the inheritance law and in the law of testimony during evidentiary proceedings signifies, in the opinion of the majority of jurists, that the woman is not a man’s equal.
The only organ that has come out clearly in support of the appointment of women Kadhis is Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) led by Khelef Khalifa.
Furthermore, in the fourteen centuries of Islamic history no woman has been appointed to the position of judge (Kadhi). Then there is the Hadith that says a woman is deficient in intellect and religiosity, which is taken to warrant her disqualification from holding such an important office.
A majority of Muslim exegetes and jurists in the pre-modern era took to these arguments as a restatement of the law on this particular question: Women should obey their husbands, stay at home, and have no authority over men.
Another class of jurists has provided interpretations that seem more gender-egalitarian and have used historical, logical, textual and contextual nuances in the explanation of the texts relied upon by the first strand of jurists. Their discussions can be found in the studies by Prof Mohammad Fadel  of the University of Toronto School of Law and by Dr Abdulkadir Hashim, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religious studies of the University of Nairobi.
All the verses and Hadith relevant to the question of female Kadhis are analysed in their two works using exegetical, hermeneutical and comparative perspectives. Fadel uses tools within the philosophy of Islamic jurisprudence to argue that appointing women as judges in Kadhi courts is possible even without resorting to extraneous sources of law for justification. On the other hand, Hashim uses both historical and comparative law approaches to answer this question while situating it within the immediate Kenyan context.
Women should obey their husbands, stay at home and should have no authority over men.
On comparative perspectives, there is a text titled Women Judges in the Muslim World: A Comparative Study of Discourse and Practice by Nadia Sonneveld and Monika Lindbekk. This work documents the practice of appointing Muslim women in Muslim majority countries to be judges, and even more specifically, Sharia court judges who are the equivalent of Kadhis.
These countries include Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine and Indonesia. Most of these countries are, like Kenya, commonwealth-common law jurisdictions with a rich Islamic heritage and a robust jurisprudence. Islamic law forms part of its basic structure and can provide parameters for consideration in Kenya.
Pakistan, for example, has a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) that checks on the repugnancy of any law to the doctrines of Islam. Twice, a petition was filed to bar women from being appointed as judges using arguments from within the Islamic legal tradition. The FSC threw out both petitions.
The female Kadhis debates have generated a few thoughts. First, most Muslims are not aware of the historical developments in the court across the years, the laws that regulate the functionality of the court, the recruitment procedures for Kadhis, and the status and place of Kadhis and Kadhi courts in the judicial structure in Kenya. One discerns from the discussions that they are speaking of an idealized Islamic court, in a historicised Islamic state far removed from modernity, globalization and the realities of the nation-state that is Kenya.
Second, secular-religious dialectics pop out in these discussions. There are questions as to whether the constitution is superior, or whether it is God’s law that is superior. Some other Muslims are asking whether Kadhis are judicial officers performing religious duties or religious leaders performing secular judicial functions, or even both.
Third is the crisis of Islamic scholarship and religious authority in Kenya, something that has been alluded to in the past. Unlike the Catholic Church, for example, Muslims do not have a papal figurehead. Their religious and legal authority derives from allegiance to the Qur’an, the Hadith and the interpretation of these sources by Muslim jurists of the four schools of law across the centuries and geographies. Muslim states, and some Muslim minority states such as Uganda, have an official Mufti who is the ultimate authority on issues at the intersection of religion and governance.
On the particular question of female Kadhis, there was a whole mix of people attempting to issue a fatwa on a question that no one, not even the JSC, raised. The rules of fatwa in the Islamic legal tradition are that there must be someone or an entity that asks a question seeking legal interpretation. A juristic authority must exist to answer the question authoritatively. Neither has the JSC asked anyone to provide a ruling on the appointment of female Kadhis, and nor do we have such a fatwa-issuing authority in Kenya currently. I have previously asked for the constitution of such authority.
Women in the pre-modern era in the Roman, Persian and Islamic civilizations essentially did not have authority over men and did not hold public office except in monarchical structures. The absence of women in public office was not limited to the judgeship only. Before the modern nation-state, we did not have Muslim women as presidents, ministers of state, peoples’ representatives, or managers in public corporations. In a strictly “Islamic sense” as expounded by the first group of jurists, no Muslim woman would be qualified today to hold any such office.
There are questions as to whether the constitution is superior, or whether it is God’s law that is superior.
It is true that women, even in other religious groups, do not solemnize marriages. But Kadhis today rarely solemnize marriages as Muslim marriage officers appointed under the Marriage Act 2014 are spread across the country. Imams even solemnize the bulk of marriages, and parties only come to court to make applications before the Kadhi for marriage recognition and registration. What prevents a female Kadhi for example, from making judicial orders that a potential couple have met the requirements of marriage in Islamic law and can therefore proceed to a recognized marriage officer of their choice for solemnization of their marriage?
There is also the apprehension that as Kadhis, Muslim women will have the authority to dissolve marriages, an authority popularly exercised by men within the domestic sphere. It is a known fact that Muslim women have been unilaterally dissolving their marriages through the khul’ procedure and nothing in Islamic law denies them that jurisdiction. As Kadhis, Muslim women would be exercising public authority in dissolving marriages by judicial decree, the same way women magistrates do. They would only be observing the regulations for the judicial dissolution of such marriages as provided for under Islamic law.
Moreover, Kadhis’ appeals go to the High Court, and women judges in the High Court dissolve the same Muslim marriages. So, it smacks of cognitive dissonance to deny Muslim women an opportunity to serve in the Kadhi courts on the basis that women did not have that jurisdiction in the past. Yet, the same jurisdiction is exercised at appeal by women, and Muslim women judges in particular.
Unlike the Independence Constitution, the 2010 Constitution provides in Article 27 for the two-thirds gender rule, which requires that not more than two-thirds of the members of elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender. Article 170 of the constitution that provides for the appointment of Kadhis does not specify the gender of the Kadhis, and that has been a fundamental aspect for those agitating for the appointment of female Kadhis.
It smacks of cognitive dissonance to deny Muslim women an opportunity to serve in the Kadhi courts on the basis that women did not have that jurisdiction in the past.
A notable aspect is that the constitution is absent in the intra-Muslim discussions on female Kadhis, either because Muslims do not believe in the supremacy of the constitution as suggested in Hon. Duale’s remarks, or Muslim religious authorities see it as a hot potato, or both. I expected someone like Sheikh Ibrahim Lethome, an advocate, a former CKRC Commissioner (Constitution of Kenya Review Commission) and someone trained in Islamic law to have a broader approach to this question that situates the constitution within the discourse. He has been on many platforms speaking about this issue, but he has chosen to gloss over the place of the constitution in the question.
Old jurists’ opinions are authoritative but not timeless; neither are they eternal in their signification. They are embedded in a context, and contexts change, and such changes require the expenditure of juristic energy in finding solutions to old questions posed in a different environment. That energy is what Muslim scholars in Kenya worth the name must expend.
Although the sub-groups of the larger Oromo are distinct both socially and economically, and in terms of religious belief, they are united by a shared language, Afaan Oromoo or Oromiffa, which is widely spoken in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, in northern Kenya and in parts of Somalia.
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The Oromo are a Cushitic ethnic group and nation indigenous to Ethiopia and Kenya who trace their origins to a common ancestor. They call themselves ilmaan Orma, children of Orma. Historical explorations suggest that before they split into different regional groups in the 16th Century, the Oromo had a joint government and institutional framework. The standard system of governance functioned well in small-scale polities, but population growth and territorial expansion led to the fission of Oromo groups, which lived in federations and confederations in various independent but contiguous regions, sharing similar traditions, beliefs, and value systems from one founding father.
The Oromo are one of the most prominent ethnolinguistic groups in Ethiopia, accounting for 34.4 per cent of the country’s population of 112 million as of 2019. They are made up of many different clans, but are chiefly divided into two major groups. The Borana Oromo, who occupy the Borena zone of the Oromo region of Ethiopia and the former Northern Frontier District of Kenya (NFD – Isiolo, Garissa, Mandera, Marsabit, Moyale and Wajir). Within the larger Oromo, the Borana Oromo are believed to be the most influential group due to their unyielding adherence to the Gada social system.
The second moiety of the larger Oromo are the Barentu Oromo that inhabit the Oromia zones of Bale, Dirre Dawa, Jijiga, Afar, Amhara, Arsi zone, and West Hararghe. Although the sub-groups of the larger Oromo are distinct both socially and economically, and in terms of religious belief, they are united by a shared language, Afaan Oromoo or Oromiffa, which is widely spoken in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, in northern Kenya and in parts of Somalia.
Despite their diversity, their numbers and their occupation of large urban and pastoral zones, the Oromo people in Ethiopia have experienced a long history of marginalization, loss of land, and forced assimilation by the Ethiopian government. This ostracism has led to a decline in the pastoralist lifestyle of this larger group. The persecution of the Oromo also led to the rise of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the 1970s. What started out as a student union evolved into political movement whose main goal is Oromo self-determination, and which has gained traction with the Oromo diaspora and its intellectual leadership.
In the spring of 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the then ruling party, extended control over the Oromo region, provoking a negative reaction from the OLF, which feared occupation of Oromo land. Continued coercion and persecution provoked OLF members and supporters to take up arms against the ruling party in 1992. Although the insurgency was swiftly contained, the OLF has only grown stronger. In January 2004, the Ethiopian security forces arrested 349 Oromo students for demonstrating to demand their right to freedom of cultural expression. The repression in Oromia has been harsh, with the arbitrary detention of protestors in the occupied regions. The Ethiopian Human Rights Council has reported of arrested students being forced to trek over gravel barefooted or on their knees.
Ethiopia’s global diaspora is estimated to stand at two million with a large base in the United States. Most Ethiopians are pushed to leave the country in search of political asylum and greener pastures. As Hassan Hussein, an Ethiopian academic based in the US has said, in the absence of an independent media, lack of freedom of expression, and peaceful political struggle inside Ethiopia, the Oromo in the diaspora have stepped in to occupy the space. Feyosa Lelisa, an exiled Ethiopian marathoner who participated in the 2016 Rio Olympics, crossed his wrists above his head in a show of solidarity with those who have been suffering under Ethiopia’s brutal regime.
Jawar Mohammed, a leading Ethiopian opposition figure who had been living in exile in the US, established the Oromo Media Network (OMN) to highlight the issues of the greater Oromia region. Mohamed returned from exile in 2018 when Abiy Ahmed—who was perceived as a reformist—came to power. He has since become a fierce critic of the current regime. The media mogul was jailed together with 22 others following the cold-blooded murder of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, who was known for relaying his criticisms and calls for Oromo liberation through his songs. Hundeessaa’s killing in Addis Ababa in June 2020 sparked protests across the Oromia region, which resulted in the killing of more than 150 people by security forces.
In the absence of an independent media, lack of freedom of expression, and peaceful political struggle inside Ethiopia, the Oromo in the diaspora have stepped in to occupy the space.
The Borana Oromo of Kenya have also not escaped the repression. Established in Marsabit, Moyale and Isiolo, the community has faced the brutal subjugation of both the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments.
The unification of the Borana Oromo of northern Kenya as entity dates back to the period of the political independence of Kenya and the gaf dabba, the Shifta war of the 1960s. As Kenya prepared for self–governance, the minority populations of the NFD were calling for self-determination under a Greater Somalia. The region exploded in rebellion when these demands were not met. The Borana community refused to engage in the Shifta war against the independent Kenyan state as it feared that the creation of a Greater Somalia would lead to the loss of political and territorial rights. Moreover, many Borana in Kenya considered Southern Ethiopia, and not Somalia, their ancestral land.
Jatani Ali was a prominent leader held in high regard by the different Oromo subgroups, and particularly the Kenyan Borana. Jatani was born in 1939 in Melbana Location of Dirre District, in Borana Zone. He was educated in Ethiopia and rose to become the governor of the Borana Zone of Southern Ethiopia. Jatani’s support for Oromo liberation was unequivocal. He was often heard to say “Lafti tessan lafe tessan, laf tessan jabefadha,” literally, “The land belongs to you, and the bone is yours, take care of your land.” Jatani urged the Oromo to take their children to school and to diversify their economic activities beyond livestock keeping.
Like other Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), the Borana zone has been facing a myriad challenges including loss of livestock to prolonged drought, pests, and diseases. To address these recurrent problems, Jatani initiated the SORDU project whose components included road construction to improve accessibility to livestock markets and the provision of veterinary services for livestock waiting to be sold. To cover this cost, the livestock owner would retain 70 per cent of the profits with the remaining 30 per cent being injected back into the SORDU project.
Like other Arid and Semi-Arid Lands, the Borana zone has been facing a myriad challenges including loss of livestock to prolonged drought, pests, and diseases.
Many in Ethiopia and northern Kenya emulated Jatani’s exemplary leadership. Before the rise of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopia was ruled by the Derg, a Marxist-Leninist military junta. Jatani was on the TPLF’s most-wanted list, which drove him into self-exile in Kenya where he was assassinated by TPLF operatives in the Eastleigh neighbourhood of Nairobi in July 1992. School-going children in Marsabit were sent homes following his murder, a sign of the respect with which Jatani was held. Jatani was buried near the Marsabit War Cemetery even though his home is in Ethiopia.
Our contradictions point to a country that is deeply conflicted about itself. We are inauthentic and sadistic, bent on exerting and affirming the power of the colonial state, no matter what it does to us.
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I vividly remember an incident that occurred when I was a graduate student in the US. We were having this conversation with an American on campus, when I animatedly said, “I’m so loving this!” The American then saw fit to correct my English, and promptly told me, “In English, we don’t say ‘I am so loving.’ We say ‘I love.’”
This ignorant American, in his own country, seemed unaware that “I’m lovin’ it” was a phrase that had been popularized by the Justin Timberlake song “I’m lovin’ it” and, in a classic manipulation of culture by corporations, had become the tagline for McDonalds commercials. I said, “I’m so loving” very aware of that dynamic. I was also teaching undergraduate American students. They said this all the time and I was simply borrowing a phrase from them.
This American knew I was a graduate student and I must have had a fairly decent command of English, but that did not count. His boldness came from his assumption that, listening to my Kenyan accent, I couldn’t possibly know English well enough to play around with the language. He needed to remind me that when it comes to the English language, he ranks higher than I do.
The incident is an illustration of how purist notions of language and grammar are not innocent of certain social assumptions, and most of all, innocent of power. What language is considered “correct” depends not simply about what people say, but also about our assumptions about a person and their social status.
This complexity of language is exemplified in Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s recent humiliation of Kenyan nurses who purportedly failed the English language test necessary for them to work in the UK. The contradictions of the whole incident are mind-boggling. All the social dynamics of language were forgotten when the media, true to its hatred of educated Kenyans, celebrated that Kenyan nurses had failed the entry English test requirements.
Unlike what Kenyans are celebrating, Kagwe did not suggest that the nurses could not speak English. His beef was that they did not prepare for the tests well enough. In fact, he added that the role of the health workers is to prepare for the exams, and at no point did he express concern about the ability of the nurses to communicate in English.
But more troubling is that as the media and Kenyans sadistically celebrate the nurses’ failure, they forget how twisted and insidious the context of the conversation is. The context is the Cabinet Secretary for Health, whose job is to take care of Kenyans’ health, in a government that is supposed to provide work opportunities for Kenyans, telling the clinical officers that he will negotiate and sell their labour to countries abroad. And the conference attendees accepting this logic and clapping.
As Mkawasi Hall recently said in a conversation with me on this matter, the idea of governments looking for foreign employers for their own citizens comes from a very dark and troubling place, where the government abandons its contract with the citizens and chooses instead to sell them to foreigners as labour.
The idea of governments looking for foreign employers for their own citizens comes from a very dark and troubling place.
This idea is even worse than what Fanon predicted when he said that the African comprador elite would sell their beaches and landscapes to European tourists and make their countries the brothel of Europe. In this case, we are returning to the Middle Passage four centuries ago where African chiefs kidnapped and sold people into slavery. To add insult to injury, our current chiefs have not learned that it is not money, but African labour, that made the West rich, and they are astonishingly ignorant of Walter Rodney’s argument that the export of African labour underdeveloped, rather than developed, Africa. It defies imagination that the African bourgeoisie can think that the export of African labour will develop Africa because the bourgeoisie are English-speaking, suit-wearing Africans getting dollars from remittances rather than the chiefs receiving guns and cloth of four centuries ago.
Reading Kagwe’s words in print, without the performance, makes the cruelty and absurdity more visible. This is what Kagwe said:
The quality of service that we provide must be at the highest standard possible. Equal to anywhere on earth. If you do that, it will be possible for us to make Kenya a health tourism destination. And if that happens, you (pointing at the audience) will benefit.
As far as I am concerned, we will continue to negotiate for you, and ensure that you work in both Europe and the Middle East. We also have negotiations going on with the Middle Eastern region, and THEY NEED YOU PEOPLE (Kagwe’s emphasis). They need you people (audience applause) and therefore you must make sure that you go there.
But in order for that to happen, we have got to make sure that the standard of our training is one that is universal. . . . Let me tell you what has happened. And this is the truth.
When we test, because there are certain tests that one has to do, depending on the region in the world that you are going to . . . for instance, the ones who are going to England have got to do tests in English, and they have got to do tests I think in computers. Our failure rate, particularly in English, is extremely high (audience laughter). We sent 300 people to do the English exams. Ten passed (Audience laughter and whistling). Ten.
So I am challenging you that this is going to happen. We are going to negotiate, yes, but you are going to have to pass the exams. Not me. You (audience laughter). So when we do those exams, let’s prepare ourselves. Let’s set the standards, so that we are sure that there is no exam anywhere on earth, that a clinical officer training in Kenya can fail.
And therefore when we talk about technologies, when we talk about the future, we need to prepare ourselves to be in that space.
It is clear that Kagwe does not care for the English communication skills of Kenyans. He cares that they pass the tests. That the media and their Kenyan adherents do not see this distinction between communicating in English and passing tests in English is baffling, given that the same people vilified 8.4.4 and praised the Competency Based Curriculum for doing away with exam obsession. Mark you, this saga comes in the week where KICD has announced the assessments of Grades 4 and 5, and Kenyans are responding with wishes of good luck to the children, despite the repeated claims that the assessments are not examinations.
So the Kenyans saying that nurses need to pass English tests to prove they can work in English are contradicting themselves. They want to equate passing tests to ability to work, yet, 1) they lament about the obsession with exams, and 2) they do not want to listen to the fact that most educationists agree that passing tests makes you a good test taker and says little about your skill in the work place.
Now let’s go to the tests themselves. Kenyan media is mocking nurses based on information from a generic website calling itself SCL Online that claims that the tests are mapped “against the Common European Framework of Reference used to describe language ability.”
First, this SLC Online is not an official examinations body. The media has not done the homework of verifying that this so-called test was the one administered to the nurses. Second, the Common European Framework is for European countries where citizens speak another European language as their first language. In other words, the framework is for a European French speaker or German speaker seeking to work in the UK, or for a European English speaker seeking to work in Spain or in Holland. Those standards do not take into account former colonies where European languages are still imposed through the education system and exist in a coercive relationship with local African languages. So testing Africans from English-speaking Africa using European standards does not gauge the English language competence of Africans.
Let’s dig further into the abuse. According to Kenyan media reports, “nurses had 20 minutes to complete 60 multiple choice questions,” and some are listed here:
First, the structure of the questions is misleading and confusing, because one can put an infinite number of English words in the blanks that can correctly complete the sentences. Question 4, for example, does not capture the Kenyanized version of questions in English. A normal Kenyan expression would be “Tom works where?” It may not be the way English natives would ask the question, but heck it works. An English speaker who knows that the Kenyan is a foreigner would not have trouble understanding what the Kenyan is asking.
Unless, of course, the English patient, like my American interlocutor, is hostile to foreigners and is trying to prove a point about ownership and power. And we do know that in the post-Brexit, COVID anti-vaxxers English empire, many English subjects of Her Majesty are hostile to healthcare workers, whether they are White and English or not.
Testing Africans from English-speaking Africa using European standards does not gauge the English language competence of Africans.
When I saw question 5, my instinct was to fill the blank with the word “drink”, only to realize that the task is to choose the correct negation of the verb “to like”. This question is abusive, because before correctly answering the question, one has to realize that the question is about negation, rather than about the verb “to like”. I can categorically say that this question does not test language competence. This test did not need knowledge of English as much as practice at test-taking. Both Kagwe and the nurses’ unions are agreed that the issue is preparing for the tests, not nurses’ language skills.
My next point about this sadistic fascination with Kenyan nurses failing English exams is related to the fact that Kenya is a country where people will pontificate about African languages and fake laments about colonial languages. Why should we accept to have a colonial power sneering at our competence in English? As many sane Kenyans have pointed out, when Cuban doctors were brought to work in Kenya, they were not tested for their competence in Kiswahili. In fact, the same media enjoying the problems of Kenyan nurses was very generous in their reports of Cuban doctors also learning Kenyan languages. Why can’t we demand such consideration of the UK, since we teach in their language?
My last point on language learning comes from my own expertise in teaching French as a foreign language. There has been a debate in language teaching circles about whether to train people to speak a foreign language correctly, or to train them to communicate. About two decades ago, there was a feeling that the insistence on direct translation and correct grammar in foreign language teaching did not make learners competent in communication when speaking the language in the real world.
Speakers of a language also do not necessarily speak the language in the grammatically correct way. We should know this because of how Kenyan speakers of Kiswahili mix up their ngeli, for instance saying “kitabu yake” instead of “kitabu chake”. In front of Tanzanians who take Kiswahili seriously, a Kenyan will concede that they do not speak Kiswahili well. But the same Kenyan would probably laugh at a European who speaks Kiswahili using the correct grammatical form, saying that the European does not speak Kiswahili like a Kenyan.
In the post-Brexit, COVID anti-vaxxers English empire, many English subjects of Her Majesty are hostile to healthcare workers, whether they are White and English or not.
On the other hand, language purists also pointed out that it is difficult to communicate when you do not respect the basic language rules. What this debate meant for us as teachers is that we had to strike a balance between torturing students with grammar and getting them to communicate. For some grammatical errors, it takes time for a speaker to consistently use the correct grammatical form, even though they may know the correct one. For instance, a common error we see in Kenya is the mixing up of gender pronouns in English. And the reason for this is simple: Kenyan languages don’t have a gender distinction in pronouns. The English have he-she, in our languages we just have “anakunywa maji” for both people and animals. Are we going to humiliate Kenyan speakers because they got a pronoun wrong? Rules of grammar are dependent on many social factors besides the ability to correctly take a test.
Finally, it seems absurd that, with the pronouncements by the private sector, politicians and even Education Cabinet Secretaries that Kenya is wasting too many resources on the arts, Kenyans should be concerned about the language skills of scientists. Where exactly do we want Kenyan nurses to perfect their English, if in the same breath we are saying that the arts should not be taught? Or do we want to blame parents for not teaching their children English, now that CBC makes parents cover up for the faults of the education system?
The fact that Kenyans have been quick to enjoy the humiliation of nurses, sold off by their own government to a former colonial power, despite all their proclamations of “titi la mama li tamu”, shows that we are dealing with deep cognitive dissonance and sadism when it comes to examinations and language. We make formulaic praises of local languages, we make formulaic laments about obsession with exams, but as soon as a Cabinet Secretary faults Kenyan nurses for failing English tests, we rejoice and sing about quality, competence and the failure of the education system.
Where exactly do we want Kenyan nurses to perfect their English, if in the same breath we are saying that the arts should not be taught?
These contradictions point to a country that is deeply conflicted about itself. We Kenyans are inauthentic and sadistic. We care less for who we actually are and prefer to stick to a make-believe narrative about ourselves, a narrative that is based on fake websites and international (read Anglo-American) recognition. Like my American interlocutor, we are deeply embedded in exerting and affirming the power of the colonial state, no matter what it does to us. We are completely hostile to analyzing power, so we prefer technical explanations and are hostile to social analysis. We lack our own Kenyan narratives about ourselves and keep measuring ourselves by the narratives of the UK and the US. This situation is completely violent, and it shows up in the rise of domestic violence, suicide and mental illness.
We need to abandon our narrative of Kenya as an “island of peace in a sea of turmoil”, and accept that we need healing from this violence that we have pushed underground into our abusive relationships in our private spaces. Other African countries may have wars with weapons against flesh and blood in the battlefields, but in Kenya, our battle is against our soul. And if we don’t treat it urgently, in a not so distant future we will be turning the violence, of which the police are already doing a dress rehearsal, into a fully-fledged war between citizens. It’s time that we Kenyans faced up to our reality of who we are to heal ourselves of our contradictions.
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