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Ethiopia: war in Tigray threatens to end Abiy’s dream of unity

Ethiopia: war in Tigray threatens to end Abiy’s dream of unity

At a makeshift shelter in a school in Mekelle, capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Gezae Wolderaphael, an aquiline-featured young sesame farmer, shows what he says are rifle butt and knife wounds on his face and shoulder. The injuries, he says, were inflicted by members of an assortment of forces who surrounded him in the western Tigrayan town of Mai Kadra last November after Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, ordered federal troops to take control of the region. 

“They put a gun in my mouth,” he adds, before stabbing him and leaving him for dead in the street. 

The aim of the deployment was to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front from power in the region. The government in Addis Ababa had branded the TPLF, long the dominant party in Tigray, a “criminal clique”. As the leading member of the four-party coalition that ran Ethiopia for almost three decades until 2018, the TPLF had played a decisive role in national politics. But last November, after TPLF soldiers attacked federal troops stationed in Tigray, Abiy ordered the arrest of its leadership.

November’s invasion of Tigray, which the prime minister had promised would swiftly restore law and order, has morphed into a protracted and gruesome conflict that has sparked a humanitarian crisis. It has drawn in troops from neighbouring Eritrea, whose capital Asmara was hit by TPLF rockets, and horrified an international community that in 2019 celebrated Abiy as a peacemaker worthy of the Nobel Prize.

Gezae Wolderaphael, who is sheltering in a school in the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, shows his scars sustained in the attack on Mai Kadra
Gezae Wolderaphael, who is sheltering in a school in the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, shows his scars sustained in the attack on Mai Kadra © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT
In 2018, Abiy Ahmed, left, made peace with Etritrean President Isaias Afewerki, whose forces have been accused of atrocities in the Tigray conflict
In 2018, Abiy Ahmed, left, made peace with Etritrean President Isaias Afewerki, whose forces have been accused of atrocities in the Tigray conflict © Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Abiy himself conceded recently that the war had dragged on much longer than he expected. TPLF fighters, he said, had dispersed “like flour in the winds”. He added that the federal army was fighting a guerrilla war on at least eight separate fronts across the country.

Now, after months of news blackout, stories are surfacing of atrocities that the UN says may amount to war crimes by “multiple actors”. Ethiopia has moved rapidly up the international agenda, with the G7 and others calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access and an independent investigation into precisely what has happened.

The violence unleashed in Tigray has cast grave doubt over the future of what had been widely regarded as an African success story. Since the 1980s, Ethiopia has gradually transformed its image from famine-riddled failed state to one of the fastest-developing economies in the world.

Though some observers say general and regional elections rescheduled for June could see Abiy strengthen his hand, many now question whether he has the credibility to move the country forward.

“Clearly the economic miracle is over,” says Chidi Odinkalu, senior manager for Africa with the Open Society Foundations, adding that international donors will be unable to ignore the atrocities. “I don’t think anybody knows where this is going. Frankly, I don’t think Abiy knows where this is going.”

Ethiopia map

‘They wanted him to suffer’

After gaining rare access to Tigray, the Financial Times has seen and heard evidence of indiscriminate violence, though not all the accounts could be independently verified. Witnesses recounted the killing and maiming of civilians and the widespread use of rape by soldiers of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies.

The FT was also shown what residents said were mass graves in the village of Dengelat, 100km north of Mekelle, reviving memories of the former Yugoslavia with which Ethiopia, a fractious federation of ethnically defined regions, is sometimes compared.

In the Mekelle school, Solomon Haileselassie, another young farmer, speaks of events in Mai Kadra, where there have been allegations of massacres of people from the neighbouring region of Amhara and of Tigrayans. The legally autonomous Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says several hundred ethnic Amharas are believed to have died, with witnesses blaming the killings on Tigrayan security forces and militia.

But Solomon pins at least some of the blame on an Amhara militia, who he says targeted Tigrayans. “Kill them all. Leave nobody from age seven to 70 alive,” he heard people he identified as Amhara militia members saying. He says he lost 15 friends in two days of violence.

“I saw it when they cut a guy’s arms and legs and slit his throat. But they didn’t kill, they left him there. They wanted him to suffer,” he says. “The Amhara have always had the dream of taking western Tigray,” he adds, referring to Amhara accusations that the TPLF stole its lands as part of a redivision of territory in the early 1990s. If he gets a chance, he says, he will fight to help restore Tigrayan control of the territory.

A member of the Amhara militia  in Mai Kadra, where there have been allegations of massacres and counter-massacres of Amharas and Tigrayans
A member of the Amhara militia in Mai Kadra, where there have been allegations of massacres and counter-massacres of Amharas and Tigrayans © Eduardo Soteras-Jalil/AFP
Solomon Haileselassie, who fled to Mekelle after the attack on Mai Kadra, said Amhara militia had targeted Tigrayans
Solomon Haileselassie, who fled to Mekelle after the attack on Mai Kadra, says Amhara militias have targeted Tigrayans © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

The Ethiopian government cautions against believing stories such as Solomon’s. It has warned about “perpetrators acting as victims” in what it says is “an attempt to reverse the narrative”.

Whichever side was most responsible for the massacre in Mai Kadra, stories of similar atrocities are tragically common. Solomon is one of as many as 1m people who have been displaced. Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, has warned of “blanket denials and finger-pointing” amid evidence of atrocities committed by all sides, including the Ethiopian National Defence Force, the Eritrean army, the TPLF and its supporters, as well as fighters from Amhara.

Tens of thousands of people may have died in the conflict, say senior foreign diplomats in Addis Ababa. More than 60,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, which could get dragged into the conflict after deadly border skirmishes. And some 700,000 people have escaped to eastern Tigray from the western part of the region, which is currently “occupied by Amhara militias and special forces”, according to Mulu Nega, the interim president of Tigray appointed by Addis Ababa in November.

Gizachew Abebe, a senior member of the Amhara government, has blamed the TPLF for fomenting instability around the country and for picking a fight with Amhara. “The TPLF is the one who started the fight,” he says.

Until recently, Abiy had strongly denied the involvement in Tigray of troops from Eritrea, which fought a bloody war against Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 when the TPLF was effectively running the country. But in March, Abiy conceded that Eritrean troops were present, but that he had secured an agreement with Isaias Afewerki, the wily strongman who runs Eritrea, to withdraw them.

However many doubt Abiy’s capacity to insist on that. “Isaias seems to be doing what he wants with Ethiopia,” says Daniel Mulugeta, an Ethiopian research associate at Soas in London.

A senior member of the caretaker administration in Tigray admits that Eritrean troops are still occupying parts of the region. “Getting the Eritreans out will be a big challenge. But they’ll have to go,” he says.

More than 60,000 refugees, displaced by the conflict in Tigray, have fled to Sudan © Nariman El-Mofty/AP
Mulu Nega, Tigray’s interim leader, says 700,000 people have escaped to eastern Tigray from the western part of the region ‘occupied by Amhara militias and special forces’ © Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Rewriting history

For many years, Ethiopia has been a source of hope, rather than despair. Over the three decades since the TPLF led the overthrow of the brutal Marxist Derg regime in 1991, the country of 110m people, the second most populous in Africa, has maintained a rapid pace of investment-led growth. In the process, it has cut poverty, raised life expectancy and become a manufacturing hub for textile brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. Addis Ababa is in the midst of a perpetual building boom and Ethiopian Airlines has become the most successful carrier on the continent.

Throughout this period, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, the four-party coalition of which the TPLF was the leading member, ran a paranoid police state. But international donors mostly overlooked the authoritarian nature of the regime as Ethiopia became the nearest thing Africa had to an Asian-style growth miracle.

“There’s no doubt that Ethiopia made tremendous gains through the development-state approach,” says Kingsley Amoako, a Ghanaian economist and former executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa.

Events in Tigray have thrown that record and Ethiopia’s prospects into doubt. That has widespread repercussions. As well as being a putative model for other African states, Ethiopia has been both a strategic ally to the US in the unstable Horn of Africa and a close partner of China. Last month, Joe Biden, the US president, dispatched a special envoy to Addis Ababa after expressing “grave concerns” over the conflict.

The war in Tigray has also cast a shadow over the capacity of Abiy, prime minister since 2018, to carry out his vaunted economic and political liberalisation. After he was selected as part of an EPRDF plan to draw the sting out of mass street protests in Amhara and Oromia then rocking the regime, Abiy was initially lauded as a transformative and unifying leader. Declaring himself a “capitalist”, he proposed to tweak the state-led development model by selling off state assets and creating a bigger space for the private sector. He also pledged to nudge Ethiopia towards a more open liberal democracy.

Amid huge excitement, Abiy released tens of thousands of political prisoners, freed the media and made formal peace with Eritrea. He set a timetable for elections, subsequently delayed because of coronavirus, and then disbanded the EPRDF, replacing it with the non-ethnic Prosperity party which the TPLF refused to join.

From his first days in office, Abiy advocated pan-Ethiopian unity. Many welcomed this as a conciliatory gesture after the perceived domination of ethno-nationalist politics under the Tigrayans. Abiy comes from the Oromo ethnic group, which constitutes more than one-third of Ethiopia’s population against only 6 per cent for Tigrayans. Yet, far from achieving reconciliation, ethnic and political tensions, suppressed under the previous regime, bubbled dangerously to the surface. In Tigray that has led to war.

The Open Society Foundations’ Odinkalu says Abiy has demonised the TPLF, blaming it for all the ills associated with the EPRDF coalition and airbrushing away its achievements. “He is rewriting history to suit his own narrative,” he says.

Since 1991, Ethiopia has maintained a rapid pace of investment-led growth, cut poverty, raised life expectancy and become a manufacturing hub for textile brands
Since 1991, Ethiopia has maintained a rapid pace of investment-led growth, cut poverty, raised life expectancy and become a manufacturing hub for textile brands © Eyerusalem Jiregna/AFP/Getty
State minister of finance Eyob Tolina says Ethiopia, whose gross domestic product grew 6.1 per cent in 2020, could quickly bounce back towards double-digit growth
State minister of finance Eyob Tolina says Ethiopia, whose GDP grew 6.1 per cent in 2020, could quickly bounce back towards double-digit growth © Em Fitzgerald/FT

Postwar dividend?

Not everyone agrees that Abiy has mismanaged the situation in Tigray. Gabriel Negatu, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, sees criticism of the prime minister as misplaced and coverage of the war as exaggerated. Abiy, he says, is right to try to eliminate the TPLF, which he accuses of brutalising Ethiopia and undermining Abiy’s message of unity.

Not only can Abiy pull Ethiopia back from the brink, Negatu says, but victory in June’s elections could strengthen his hand. “This war and its aftermath, as horrible as it has been . . . has galvanised the country behind him,” he says. “After the election, I venture to say, you will see a new, revitalised and reinvigorated Abiy determined to take this country to the next level.”

Eyob Tolina, state minister for finance, is also firmly behind the prime minister’s actions. The country, whose gross domestic product grew 6.1 per cent in 2020 despite the war and pandemic, could quickly bounce back towards double-digit growth, he says. It could raise billions in desperately needed foreign exchange from the privatisation of telecoms licences. “With the demise of TPLF, a significant political risk has now diminished,” he adds.

One close adviser to the prime minister blames the country’s current problems on the 1995 constitution, which divided the country into nine ethnically defined regions. “The TPLF fostered ethnic politics and institutionalised division,” he says. “Instead of one country, they made this into a collection of different ethnic groups to divide and rule us.”

Far from unifying the country, the war against the TPLF was more likely to divide it further, says Mulugeta at Soas. “My suspicion is that this conflict in Tigray emboldens centrifugal forces who want to break away from the country,” he says.

Every transition in Ethiopia since the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 has been violent, say analysts. Hopes that Abiy could engineer a peaceful change of guard appear to have failed. Now, as elections approach, Abiy needs to push his vision of a united country. “The election is consequential yet also challenging,” he told parliament last month.

Kahsay Tesfay waits for his son Mikael, 16, to undergo surgery in Mekelle to amputate his foot after he was caught in a bomb blast
Kahsay Tesfay waits for his son Mikael, 16, to undergo surgery in Mekelle to amputate his foot after he was caught in a bomb blast © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT
Michelle Bachelet, UN human rights chief, has warned of ‘blanket denials and finger-pointing’ amid evidence of atrocities committed by all sides
Michelle Bachelet, UN human rights chief, has warned of ‘blanket denials and finger-pointing’ amid evidence of atrocities committed by all sides © Martial Trzzini/EPA/Shutterstock

But even in his own region of Oromia, many are suspicious of his pan-Ethiopian message. Some see it as a return to a centralised state that tramples on the rights of the Oromo and other communities that believe they have been marginalised.

Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo leader, has been jailed and faces charges of “inciting ethnic and religious strife”. That removes one of Abiy’s strongest political opponents, but could also undermine the legitimacy of any electoral mandate the prime minister secures in June.

“We are against an Ethiopia that promotes one nation, one language, one religion,” says Kumsa Dirriba, known by his nom de guerre Jaal Marroo, leader of the Oromo Liberation Army, an armed group accused of kidnappings and bomb attacks. “We are more than 80 nations and nationalities living in this country and we want an Ethiopia that treats all these nations equally.”

The TPLF itself continues to fight in Tigray’s central-south regions, while some top leaders have evaded capture by Abiy’s federal forces. A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded that the war has turned the region decisively against the central government. For the first time in decades, many Tigrayans are talking about outright secession, which is allowed under the current constitution. “Tigrayans today don’t want to be part of Ethiopia because of these crimes,” he says.

Kahsay Tesfay, a 66-year-old Tigrayan builder, agrees. The conflict, he says, is the worst in his lifetime, worse even than the TPLF uprising against the Derg and the Ethiopia-Eritrea war.

In February, Kahsay lost one son. He was sitting by the bed of another, 16-year-old Mikael, whose gangrenous foot was about to be amputated. Mikael, who still dreams of playing football, was caught up in a bomb blast in the town of Bizet, close to the border with Eritrea. “I was walking back home in the afternoon after delivering a message to my family,” he says of the moment before the bomb shattered his foot.

“Even children are suffering like animals,” adds his father, speaking in a hospital in Mekelle. Bed after bed was filled with the victims of war. Ethiopia, he says is “never going to be the same again”.

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Egyptian women rail against regressive family law proposals

Egyptian women rail against regressive family law proposals

When Areej Ashraf, an Egyptian doctor, sought to apply for a school place for her son, she was told her husband had to be present, unless she could provide authorisation from him.

She informed them that he lived abroad and that getting such documentation was a lengthy bureaucratic procedure, she wrote on social media under the “Guardianship Is My Right” hashtag. She would certainly miss the application deadline. “I’m the mother of the child, but whether I’m divorced, still married or a widow, the people who drew up the law do not even recognise my existence,” she wrote.

Ashraf’s venting is one of a flood of recent testimonies from Egyptian women angered by new family legislation that fails to redress the unequal treatment of women in family affairs.

Opponents complain the draft bill, which seeks to consolidate disparate pieces of family legislation passed over the years, retains provisions treating women as legal minors, whose authority over their children and in some cases, their own lives, remains under male control. They argue these clauses are disconnected from women’s daily problems, especially following divorce, making their lives Kafkaesque.

“The logic of family laws in Egypt has always been that women are under guardianship,” said Hoda Elsadda, chair of Women and Memory, the civil society group that started the social media movement. “Women have to refer to [the man] in many situations for their lives to function normally. This is the key issue that has not been addressed in the new law.” 

One divorced woman recounted being told she did not have the right to approve surgery for her seriously-ill daughter after her former husband refused to sign the consent form. Others described being unable to get passports for their children, transfer them to a different school, or manage their children’s bank accounts. “Why am I being treated as if I’m a legal minor and have no rights to deal with anything related to my son?” one woman asked in a post.

The legislation has moved forward even as Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, has appeared more supportive of women in public life.

His cabinet boasts eight female ministers, the most in the country’s history. Last month he instructed that women should be allowed into the last two bastions of the judiciary that refused to hire them — the prosecution and the Council of State, the body that deals with the country’s administrative law. But the private sphere is still governed by restrictive laws derived from narrow interpretations of Islam, activists say. 

Nehad Aboul Komsan, a lawyer and rights advocate, described the draft bill, which has yet to be debated in parliament, as a “worse version” of laws dating back to 1925. “Other Arab and Islamic countries have taken important steps towards enlightened readings of the rights of women, men and children [in Islam],” she said.

Egyptian feminists said some clauses are even a regression. A new provision makes it possible for close male relatives to sue for an annulment of a woman’s marriage contract by arguing “lack of compatibility” between her and her husband.

“The structure of the law and its philosophy do not respect women and denigrate them,” Aboul Komsan said. “Female ministers in Egypt can sign agreements worth billions of pounds on behalf of the state, but they can’t marry without a male guardian. Now under the new law any male member of their family can go to court to get an order within 24 hours preventing them from travelling.”

Conservative tradition and entrenched sexist habits are other hurdles. Egyptian law allows women to marry without a guardian, but in practice the clerics who officiate often refuse to finalise the contract in the absence of a male relative. Similarly, women are entitled to register their newborn babies but civil servants typically insist on the presence of the husband or one of his male relatives.

On social media, women complained about these informal barriers. Some wrote about being refused hotel rooms when travelling alone for work. Other personal tales include landlords, porters and neighbours feeling they had a right to monitor the whereabouts of women who live alone and interrogate them over visitors.

Public defenders of the status quo argue that men are the “natural guardians” of the family because they are responsible for supporting them. Alaa Mostafa, a lawyer, suggested in a debate on state television that the online campaign against the bill was the work of feminist organisations backed by foreign funds for nefarious purposes. Guardianship is given to men by religion, he said.

“Egyptian men are being persecuted by women,” he claimed. “I’m telling men that guardianship is your right.”

Sawsan Fayed, a female sociologist, said on the same show that the uproar was a “manufactured and exaggerated problem” and a form of “warfare” to undermine society.

Sisi has promised “social dialogue” over the legislation but it is unclear what aspects of it might change and who would participate in the discussion. Officials and members of the state-appointed National Council for Women have not commented.

“I’m calling on President Sisi to intervene immediately to stop a law which takes Egypt back 200 years,” said Aboul Komsan.

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Burkina Faso tribunal charges ex-president over Sankara murder

Burkina Faso tribunal charges ex-president over Sankara murder

A military tribunal in Burkina Faso has charged ex-president Blaise Compaore in connection with the 1987 assassination of then-president Thomas Sankara, the Marxist revolutionary known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.

Sankara was murdered during a coup led by Compaore, a former friend who ruled the country for the following 27 years. Along with the killing of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, it is one of the most notorious political assassinations in post-colonial Africa.

Compaore, 70, who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2014 after he tried to change the law to prolong his rule and lives in exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast, was charged in absentia along with his top aide Gilbert Diendere and a dozen others. The former president’s party continues to be a force in Burkina Faso, coming second in elections in November that saw Roch Marc Christian Kaboré re-elected as head of state.

Burkina Faso authorities have held dozens of hearings into the assassination over the past six years and issued a warrant for Compaore’s arrest in 2016. But the former leader lives in comfort in Ivory Coast, where he has since taken citizenship.

“There are two possibilities for Compaore: either he appears freely and voluntarily or an international arrest warrant will have to be issued,” a lawyer for Sankara’s family told the AFP news agency. “But what we hope is that he can appear voluntarily.”

Sankara was a charismatic young army captain who came to power in 1983 at the age of 33 with the help of his close friend Compaore. A strident anti-imperialist, Sankara rejected aid from the likes of the IMF and promoted mass vaccinations and African self-reliance. 

Thomas Sankara has since his death become a symbol of African independence and leadership © Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Critics have pointed out that he also restricted union membership and independent media. But he has since become a symbol of African independence and leadership, in part because he outlawed forced marriage and polygamy, and promoted women to leadership positions in government during his four years as president.

Compaore, who has long denied ordering Sankara’s death, blocked all attempts to investigate the murder during almost three decades in power. The transitional government that served following his 2014 removal reopened the case.

Burkina Faso, once a model of stability in the west African Sahel, has seen a precipitous collapse over the past few years, as violence that began with a jihadist uprising in northern Mali has spiralled out of control and spread across the region. 

Large parts of Burkina Faso are now largely ungoverned, while a dangerous mix of extremist groups and ethnic militias have filled the void, killing thousands and displacing at least 1.65m people.

The current government has, like neighbouring Mali, said it is considering opening talks with the extremist groups that have wreaked havoc on the country. That would cross a red line for ex-colonial power France, which leads the counter-terrorism effort in the region, but it is widely popular with ordinary citizens and domestic politicians alike.

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Djibouti’s president wins fifth term with 97% of the vote

Djibouti’s president wins fifth term with 97% of the vote

Djibouti’s longtime President Ismail Omar Guelleh won a fifth term with 97 per cent of the vote in the key trading hub in the Horn of Africa.

“Thank you for your confidence,” Guelleh tweeted on Saturday, before official results were released. “Let’s continue together!”

According to data from the interior ministry, the incumbent won 97.4 per cent of the more than 177,000 votes cast.

Guelleh, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, defeated his rival, the businessman and political newcomer Zakaria Ismail Farah, who dismissed the results as “far-fetched and incorrect — impossible”.

Farah said other members of the opposition boycotted Friday’s vote, complaining of a lack of free and fair elections in a country wedged between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, where some 20 per cent of its 1m people live in poverty.

After opposition protests last year, human rights groups said clampdowns by the security forces had become common, although the country continues to be viewed as a relative haven in the unstable north-east edge of Africa.

Formerly French Somaliland, Djibouti is situated on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a chokepoint separating the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea, where the water narrows to a few kilometres opposite Yemen. It hosts military bases from France, the US, Japan, and China. 

Thanks to its strategic position overlooking one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes for oil cargoes, it has become a nexus of international trade. 

Guelleh has run the country since 1999 after succeeding his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who led Djibouti’s independence from France in 1977. Guelleh is credited with establishing Djibouti as a base for both cargo shipments and foreign military, and has also set up a sovereign wealth fund. Yet many raised eyebrows when in 2018 Djibouti seized a container port built by the Dubai-based DP World.

The constitution was tweaked in 2010 to end presidential term limits, but it did establish an age cap of 75, which means this would be the last term of the 73-year-old president.

Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmaajo, congratulated Guelleh on Saturday. “It is a victory that strengthens the development and stability of the region,” he said.

Djibouti is the primary gateway to landlocked Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation, whose prime minister Abiy Ahmed, also congratulated “my brother” Guelleh.

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The man who helped make ordinary Africans’ voices heard

The man who helped make ordinary Africans’ voices heard

The first time you read about a life well lived is often in the obituary pages. Here is the story of an exceptional person still very much alive.

Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, who retired this month as head of Afrobarometer, made the voices of ordinary Africans heard. Before 1999, when he helped found Afrobarometer, which conducts polling in 36 African nations, no one had bothered much to ask what people thought about issues from democracy to indoor plumbing. “Very little was known about what ordinary Africans felt about any part of their lives,” he says.

He was nervous that people with a pressing need to earn a living might resent spending 90 minutes answering questions. “Contrary to our fears, people loved being interviewed and it became problematic for the interviewer to extricate themselves,” he says. “They had a lot on their minds.”

Gyimah, as he is known, believes in what he calls “research as a tool for advocacy”. By introducing people’s views into the public sphere, he argues, they become a force for accountability.

He was born in 1953, the seventh of 13 children, in the “tiny village” of Abriem, shortly before Ghana gained independence. His village had a post office but no running water. As an infant he contracted polio, which impaired his mobility but never his ambition. As a child, he couldn’t use the ubiquitous squat toilets and the nearest middle school was a seven-mile walk. His parents moved so he could attend.

“I had polio from the age of one-and-a-half so that’s the only form of mobility I know,” he says. “And when you’re a kid, everything is surmountable.”

He studied political science at the University of Ghana and became a jazz fan, hanging out with his elder brother in Accra. He completed a PhD at the University of California, Davis, and met his American wife. He was determined to return to Ghana, though by then it was under military rule and an economic shambles. He taught for a meagre salary at his old university.

He followed his diplomat wife on postings to Nigeria, Swaziland and Washington, where he taught university and became familiar with the think-tank world. Back in Accra, he established the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development with a $20,000 loan from his wife and the use of the couple’s spare chairs and cutlery.

The CDD helped establish Ghana’s first chapter of Transparency International and produced research on the challenges of transitioning back to civilian rule. The Danish International Development Agency, which provided early funding, paid for the transparent ballot boxes that have become a feature of Ghanaian elections, among the freest in Africa. The CDD introduced the concept of parallel vote tabulations, a method of keeping tabs on the official electoral tally — and incumbents honest.

Shortly after, he co-founded Afrobarometer, which started with a 12-country survey of attitudes to democracy. The findings challenged the prevalent idea that “Africans did not care about democracy and human rights because of their primary needs for food, shelter and clothing,” he says. Far from it, “the aspiration for democratic governance” was very strong and ordinary Africans held firm views on issues such as parliamentary oversight and term limits.

Sometimes their opinions were heard: last year, Malawi’s constitutional court overruled the result of a questionable presidential election. Often they were not. Leaders have become adept at gaming democratic systems and tweaking constitutions to hang on to power, practising what Gyimah calls “you can have your say, but you can’t have your way”.

At 67, he is retiring. Though he is too reticent to say so, it is doubtless an example he wishes more African leaders would follow.

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The Republic of False Truths by Alaa Al Aswany — revolution reimagined

The Republic of False Truths by Alaa Al Aswany — revolution reimagined

In an interview in 2015, the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany made the powerful observation that dictatorship “is like a disease . . . When you live under dictatorship, you become sick.”

Every day throughout the shortlived revolution of late January and early February 2011 (Egypt’s social and political response to the events of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement), Al Aswany was present at Tahrir Square in Cairo, the centre of the protests against the 30-year regime of then president Hosni Mubarak.

The uprising led to the ousting of Mubarak and the swearing-in of the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, but it was followed by the Islamist-leaning Morsi’s own removal from office in 2013 as a result of a military coup led by his defence minister, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Morsi died in 2019 while undergoing a much-criticised criminal trial; el-Sisi remains as a hardline president, with powers to support his authoritarian rule. Ten years on from the Tahrir Square demonstrations, the wheel seems to have come full circle.

The Republic of False Truths, Al Aswany’s new novel, reimagines those 18 days of revolution, when the hope of democracy for millions of Egyptians seemed within reach. It is a multi-voiced work of elation and despair — as the power of the people briefly triumphed over an oppressive and unscrupulous autocracy — and a vivid take on both sides of the revolution, from the perspective of those who either enthusiastically supported or violently opposed the reforms.

Al Aswany brought out the original Arabic-language version of The Republic of False Truths in Lebanon in 2018, its content deemed too explicit and incendiary for an Egyptian publisher to risk. It has been banned across much of the region. Now, three years later, it appears in a lively, versatile and frequently chilling English translation by SR Fellowes.

Al Aswany’s celebrated debut The Yacoubian Building (2002) offered a commentary on contemporary Egypt through the varied lives of the inhabitants of a ramshackle multi-occupied residence. The Republic of False Truths is similar in its construction, with a mixture of voices — from corrupt generals, idealistic students, factory workers, hypocritical religious leaders, intellectuals, teachers and media personalities — and narrative techniques telling the story of the brief and bloody revolution.

Justifiably praised for his gift for emotional storytelling, which led his first novel to be compared with the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s world-renowned Cairo Trilogy, Al Aswany also leans towards the satirical interpretation of writers living under authoritarian rule. His novels call to mind the work of China’s Yan Lianke, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa and Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk. A practising dentist as well as a bestselling novelist, Al Aswany is also a founder of the democratic movement Kefaya (“Enough”), elements of which appear in the book. The Republic of False Truths is, above all, a robust and brave undertaking. For this reason a surreal air hovers above the prose, which veers between uneasy irony and straight-out reportage, even though the characters are fictional.

General Ahmad Alwany is, we are repeatedly told, a “pious” man. He loves his family. He also facilitates the Mubarak regime by torturing and murdering “enemies of the state”. The novel opens with an account of his morning ablutions: virtuous prayer, followed by a voluptuously calorific breakfast, a shower, a quick flick through the pornography channels on his television — the foreplay for lovemaking with his wife. Then a visit to a prison cell, where a tied-up, badly beaten man is electrocuted and the man’s wife brought in, stripped, and threatened with rape until he confesses.

Al Aswany’s skewering of the excesses of corruption — of the illegal acquisition of properties and businesses, of the infiltration of media organisations and institutions — is written in a deceptively benevolent style, further enhancing the background noise of disquiet and outright terror, which grows almost deafening as the novel progresses. The general’s wife regularly holds “seminars” for Sheikh Shamel, who purports to be a respected Islamic scholar, but whose “Godliness” TV channel is a front for the procuring of vulnerable young women; meanwhile, the general’s treasured daughter, medical student Danya, is beginning to rebel against the very regime her father is paid to maintain.

Elsewhere in the city, the Copt intellectual and hashish-smoking dilettante Ashraf, “an aristocrat in his fifties”, becomes energised both by his involvement with a working-class woman and with the revolution. This narrative, together with the growing relationship (relayed in email form) and activism of teacher Asmaa and student engineer Mazen, carries most of the book’s sense of urgency and drama. Direct testimonials from women arrested by the authorities at Tahrir Square and forced to undergo humiliating “virginity tests” run alongside the almost-caricatured descriptions of the architects of their torture.

If the novel has a major flaw it is that Al Aswany relies too much on stereotypes to create a sense of depth and connection. Yet despite this The Republic of False Truths is a blistering, bold dissection of a failed revolution, and of the disenchantment and dissent that inevitably follow.

The Republic of False Truths by Alaa Al Aswany, translated by SR Fellowes, Faber & Faber RRP£16.99, 464 pages/Knopf RRP$28.95, 416 pages

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Rwanda’s Paul Kagame — is he just another repressive dictator?

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame — is he just another repressive dictator?

Is there such a thing as a benign dictator? Can a ruthless but rigorous autocrat offer the best medicine for a country rebuilding after a catastrophe? How does one weigh human rights abuses against the record of a seemingly well-run economy in a troubled region? And, most of all, how forgiving should we be of an authoritarian government if it took office after a genocide it helped to end?

For nearly 30 years Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, the puritanical former rebel leader who seized power after the 1994 genocide, has faced these questions. In the intervening years not only has his image broadly survived, but he has been at the centre of a global personality cult. US administrations and UK governments have lavished attention and aid on his regime. He has been lauded as a new model leader. His Rwanda has been depicted as an African Singapore or even a Switzerland.

Now, in the form of a devastating book by Michela Wrong, comes something of a reckoning — or at the very least a reassessment. Do Not Disturb is a damning j’accuse on many fronts. An extraordinarily brave piece of reporting, it draws on years of work in the region, including for the Financial Times, and primarily on the accounts of Rwandans who were once close to Kagame but have fallen from favour.

Among many allegations that will embarrass the UK Foreign Office and others involved in the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Rwanda’s capital Kigali in June, it charges Kagame with presiding over a murderous network operating out of its embassies aimed at assassinating exiled opponents; he denies the charge. It also challenges the idea of an economic miracle, arguing that the figures are doctored by the state. While both charges have been made before, here they are delivered in relentless detail.

Yet more devastating is Wrong’s dissection of the region’s awful past. She accuses Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front of slaughtering thousands of Hutus as and after they took power. Even more explosive are the claims about who was responsible for the presidential plane crash in April 1994 that precipitated the genocide. The plane in question crashed over Kigali, killing the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi on their way back from agreeing a power-sharing deal with the RPF. For years after the genocide, it was broadly accepted that the jet was shot down by Hutu extremists who had been preparing for the genocide and just needed the spark to be lit. Wrong quotes former RPF insiders who suggest, as others have in the past, that it could in fact have been the RPF.

So how could Rwanda’s western backers have so misjudged their man? Guilt, with a dollop of self-interest, is the reply. Kigali denies the specific charges. It will no doubt seek to denounce them as genocide denial — a criminal offence in Rwanda. But Wrong does not deny the genocide. Rather she is disputing the RPF’s narrative of what happened next, when the genocidaires were finally routed. In doing so she reminds readers that the truth can, of course, prove messy and that just because you have suffered appallingly does not mean that everything you do thereafter is justified. As for the outsiders, including British Conservative and Labour politicians, who have over the years backed Rwanda and broadly shrugged at the critiques, it is, she contends, a case of “Tread softly for you tread on my dreams”

Of some things there are no doubt. In just 100 days in the spring and early summer of 1994, Rwanda endured the most systematic slaughter of a population anywhere since 1945. More died in Cambodia’s genocide, but that was spread over several years. Over half a million people, mainly from the minority Tutsi ethnic group, but also some from the majority Hutus, were murdered in Rwanda in a spree orchestrated by extremist Hutu groups. What was especially shocking about the genocide was not just its speed but its communal nature. Time and again villager turned on villager, with machete, club or hoe.

The Rwandan Military High Court in 2011 reads out the sentences of four former comrades-in-arms to the president, including Patrick Karegeya, who was tried in absentia. Karegeya was murdered less than three years later © AFP via Getty Images

Compounding the shock in the west was the realisation that the world’s leaders had not just been slow to respond; they had turned a blind eye. The debacle of the US military intervention in Somalia the previous year and the embroilment in Bosnia had blunted the west’s appetite for intervention. So much for the resonance of George H W Bush’s “new world order” of three years earlier.

Many news organisations also knew they had been slow off the mark. There were exceptions, but many western news editors and Africa-based correspondents were focused on the morality tale of South Africa’s first all-race elections. I was among those who headed north from Johannesburg only at the end of the slaughter. We saw the heaps of bodies, but the guilty had fled or were fleeing to neighbouring Zaire, dropping their machetes at the frontier.

Late one night in early July I remember a New York Times correspondent racing up to a group of fellow correspondents with an account of RPF revenge killings. But the reports drew little attention. When set against the monstrous scale of the genocide, they seemed small-scale. This was also a time when the RPF, with their well-disciplined and often English-speaking cadres, were busily seeking to rebuild the state and promising reconciliation. It was a story that understandably all but the backers of the old guard wanted to believe and it was not wholly unfounded. It also reflected that human urge for hope after such terrible despair.

The author undercuts this post-genocide narrative by telling the story of the RPF through the words of defectors who she has talked to over many years. Her book is shaped around the life and career of Patrick Karegeya, a Rwandan whose career mirrored Kagame’s. Both grew up in exile in neighbouring Uganda. Both backed Yoweri Museveni’s rebel movement that took power in Uganda in 1986. Among the striking anecdotes about Kagame, it emerges that he was then supposedly nicknamed “Pilato” for his reputation as an enforcer who pushed for the death penalty for disobedient cadres — although when in power, he did ban the death penalty in Rwanda.

Members of the Rwanda National Congress opposition hold pictures of slain party founder Patrick Karegeya and posters that call Paul Kagame a ‘wanted war criminal’ during a demonstration in January 2014, days after Karegeya was found murdered © AFP via Getty Images

Do Not Disturb opens with the account of Karegeya’s murder in a swanky Johannesburg hotel on New Year’s Eve 2013. It then sweeps back through his career including his stint as Kagame’s foreign intelligence chief for a decade after the genocide. In those years he helped tiny Rwanda play an outsized role in the region’s convulsions. But he later fell out with Kagame and, after a stint in prison, fled in 2007 to South Africa where he set up an opposition movement before he was found strangled in the Michelangelo Hotel. Wrong chronicles the murder with kaleidoscopic detail. South African police have linked it directly to Rwanda’s government. Kagame has denied this although he has said he wishes it had been. 

Kagame’s aides will no doubt dismiss this book as one-sided and reflecting merely the biased view of defectors. Wrong could arguably have devoted more space to the horrors of the genocide, if only to set up what happened next and to exonerate her of the regime’s accusation of being partisan. I also would have welcomed the testimony of some of Kagame’s western backers, although it is possible that they did not want to go on the record. But these are quibbles. This is a remarkable, chilling and long overdue book — and one whose narrative does not bode well for Rwanda’s future.

Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, by Michela Wrong, HarperCollins, RRP£20/Public Affairs, RRP$18.99, 512 pages

Alec Russell is the editor of FT Weekend and a former South Africa correspondent

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