50 years of delight and madness: Why you will love and fear these East African lands

Saturday March 09 2024

Twenty-seven years and over five million deaths later, most due to non-violent causes such as diseases and malnutrition, eastern DRC is still embroiled in crisis. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On March 4, 2024, Somalia completed its entry into the East African Community as its eighth partner state, after officially depositing its instruments of ratification of the Treaty of Accession with the EAC Secretary-General.

The event was considered a key moment in a dramatic 50 years in Greater East Africa beginning with the Ethiopian Civil War fought between the Ethiopian military junta, known as the Derg, and an alliance of Ethiopian-Eritrean rebels in September 1974. 

Though they were preceded in Eastern Africa by the Anyanya, a Southern Sudanese separatist rebel army formed during the First Sudanese Civil War (1955–1972) to seek just treatment from an Arabist government in Khartoum, they were the first broad movements in the region seeking state power.

However, it took more than a decade before now-Uganda-President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army/Movement in January 1986 became the first African insurgency based in the centre of the country without a border or coastal line at its rear to successfully seize power from a post-independence government.

Read: BUWEMBO: Things first daughters can bequeath EA

The dam had burst, and the next 10 years were hectic.


In South Africa, anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990, after 27 years in prison. It would be another four years before Mandela was elected South Africa’s first post-apartheid democratic president. 

There were no big fireworks in Tanzania on February 11, 1990, and no confetti flew. But the historical weight of the moment was enormous. No country, with such sparse financial resources at the time, and at great economic and political pain to itself, had given so much to southern African liberation, as Tanzania under Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

Then, in October 1990, the Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front launched its campaign from Uganda against the exclusionist regime in Kigali. It was the first return-to-the-homeland movement on the continent by refugees.

It also became the first one to successfully take power — and so far, the last. Rwanda then closed tragically as the last big genocide of the 20th century, with the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
Nearly one million people were slain.

The ripples of the genocide in Rwanda spread. The genocidaires regrouped inside eastern DRC, and together with the Congo (at that time Zaire) army continued periodic attacks in northern Rwanda. Joining up with a bunch of Congolese rebels, Rwanda allied with six other countries and struck back in 1996. They marched all the way to Kinshasa, ousting the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko on May 16, 1997.

Twenty-seven years and over five million deaths later, most due to non-violent causes such as diseases and malnutrition, eastern DRC is still embroiled in crisis. The genocidaire forces are still organising — there are more than 120 militia and rebel groups of varying size and intentions active there — and, with a war that has seen Kinshasha accuse Rwanda, Uganda, and the West of backing M23, the most prominent insurgent group, sometimes it feels like the region is frozen in time.

Read: OBBO: We can’t outrun the shadow of genocide even in a century

In Ethiopia, the rebels, grouped under the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), ousted the Derg in May 1991 and the indefatigable and head strong Meles Zenawi took the crown. In May 1993, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) won independence for Eritrea, and Ethiopia again became a landlocked country. A new nation was born (or reborn) in Africa, the first in many long years. Eight years later, in July 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation.

Ethiopia wasn’t done. In 2019, the EPRDF, at that point the largest party in Africa in terms of membership, fractured and collapsed. It became the first African classic liberation party to lose power and wither away.

However, as the EPRDF closed to power in Addis Ababa, next-door Somalia, ruled by military dictator Siad Barre, had ended in 1990 in upheaval.

By January 26, 1991, clan-based armed opposition groups had overthrown the Barre government. By the end of 1991, Somalia had become the first post-independence African country to collapse (well ahead of Sierra Leone and Liberia, which were already embroiled in civil war at that point).

By that time, Kenya’s democracy drive was gathering steam, and in 1992 forced a return to a multiparty system. It battled on to take office at the polls in December 2002 as the largest democratic alliance to win power without violence.

As Meles rose, Somalia went up in smoke, and Kenyan democrats started smelling blood. Not too far off in Khartoum in 1992, a bearded chap called Osama bin Laden took up residence in a three-storey house on al-Mashtal Street in the upmarket Al-Riyadh suburb of Khartoum.

Nearly eight years later, on August 7, 1998, the world came to know him, when his Al Qaeda movement blew up the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in near-simultaneous bombings, killing more than 220 people. If there had been an age of innocence, it ended.

The terror of “Islamic jihadism” gatecrashed into our consciousness. In an event that you will likely not find in historical footnotes, in Nairobi, The Daily Nation printed running updates of the story for hours. It became the first, and last, East African paper to sell a million copies.

In November 2008, Barack Obama, a child of a long-departed Kenyan economist, became the first African American to be elected president of the US. A story we were not prepared to tell had walked into our house.

Ah, these troubled, blood-soaked, defiant, yet delightful and imaginative East African lands! What would the world be without you?

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3