Connect with us

Features

ON WHOSE ORDERS? Torture as an instrument of repression in Uganda

Published

on

Uganda torture legacy
Download PDFPrint Article

Four police operatives who were charged with torturing a local politician were on May 30 granted bail, hardly a week after they had been remanded to Uganda’s biggest prison, Luzira.

In Uganda, bail is treated as a constitutional right, granted at the discretion of a judge/magistrate and subject to the accused fulfilling certain conditions. But the speed with which the accused policemen were granted bail will leave you agape, especially since the same court that restored the policemen’s temporary freedom – Buganda Road Chief Magistrate’s Court – had dilly-dallied and in the end taken 33 days to release on bail one of President Yoweri Museveni’s leading social media critics.

I will digress into this peculiar case for a split second.

Stella Nyanzi, a researcher at Makerere University, uses colourful language on her Facebook page. Her posts, especially before her incarceration beginning early April, are littered with phrases many consider lewd and obscene. She ventured into largely uncharted territory, berating Museveni and his family, especially his wife Janet; to many an observer that was courting real danger. Some of Nyanzi’s classic phrases may not be appropriate for this article, but suffice it is to note that her charge sheet indicated that she had referred to the president as “a pair of buttocks”.

As Museveni marked 31 years in power on January 26, which is a public holiday, he told the people gathered to celebrate his unprecedented feat that, contrary to what some (referring to his opponent Kizza Besigye) had said, he was not a servant of Ugandans. A boiling Nyanzi wrote the post as a rejoinder to the president, for which she was eventually charged.

Opinion was split over Nyanzi’s case; those who back Museveni and moralists admonished her over what they called obscenity, while Nyanzi’s following and support of activists disenchanted with Museveni’s long rule grew astronomically.

Some of Nyanzi’s classic phrases may not be appropriate for this article, but suffice it is to note that her charge sheet indicated that she had referred to the president as “a pair of buttocks”.

On the other hand, the country was galvanized in condemnation and shock after pictures of the tortured local politician, Geoffrey Byamukama, were leaked on social media. His knee and ankle joints had been hammered and pounded, and by the time he was delivered to Nakasero hospital in Kampala, all the skin around them was dead and mounds of pus, as he would later tell members of parliament, were rapidly inching towards his bones. Medical workers at the hospital had to urgently peel away the dead flesh and drain the pus immediately and, according to Byamukama’s narration to the MPs who visited him as he recuperated at the dreaded Nalufenya police station in Jinja, his doctors feared that they would need to amputate his legs.

If for a moment we keep on the court’s decision to immediately grant bail or delay it, it is hard to miss the irony in all this. The chief magistrate hesitated to grant Nyanzi bail because the prosecution had, based on a colonial-era law, argued that, given what she had written about the president, the accused was probably insane and asked the court to order that she undergo a mental examination. Arguing this application took a lot of the court’s time on the first day, leaving no time for Nyanzi to apply for bail.

The same prosecution, however, did not find it appropriate to seek leave of court to examine the mental states of the four policemen – who are part of a force whose motto is to “protect and serve”, but who were accused of visiting the most savage torture imaginable on a suspect.

Nothing unusual

As far as the unlucky Byamukama is concerned, it is easy to conclude that his tormentors had just done a bad job of torturing him, as opposed to him being an isolated case.

Byamukama, as we would later learn from the MPs that interviewed him at Nalufenya, was accused by his tormentors of having played a part in the gruesome murder on March 17 of former police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi. The flamboyant police publicist, who was at the rank of Assistant Inspector General of Police and was an unmissable embodiment of power in the force, was, the postmortem report showed, shot 27 times. He was killed together with his driver and bodyguard shortly after leaving his home in a Kampala suburb.

The chief magistrate hesitated to grant Nyanzi bail because the prosecution had, based on a colonial-era law, argued that, given what she had written about the president, the accused was probably insane and asked the court to order that she undergo a mental examination.

The country was terrified. Police chief Gen. Kale Kayihura pensively sat out the whole day at the scene of the crime, and President Museveni a day later paid a visit to the bereaved family to pay his respects. Museveni observed on that occasion, and not for the first or last time, that the police had been infiltrated by criminals, and charged Kayihura to clean up his house.

Kaweesi was mourned but the arrests began even before he was buried. Kayihura would announce at the burial that at least three suspects had been arrested in connection with the murder, and that one of them had been nabbed as he tried to escape to the Democratic Republic of Congo. More arrests followed but we have no accurate count of the people arrested in connection with this high profile murder.

Appearing before a magistrate for mention of their case, 13 of the suspects complained that, contrary to the court’s remand order for them to be detained in Luzira, they had been taken to Nalufenya and tortured, “both physically and psychologically”.

The case had just come up for mention, the magistrate would tell the complaining suspects, adding that the court had no jurisdiction to hear them out. Security Minister Henry Tumukunde would later remark that it was prudent for the forces to release suspects and even apologise to them if it was discovered that their arrest was a mistake.

Byamukama told MPs that after suffering terrible beatings that left him thinking he was dead (if there is such a thing), he pleaded with his tormentors to shoot him right away instead of raining the painful beatings on him. He later found out that he was suspected because his phone number was found in the contacts list of one of the arrested suspects.

Byamukama is a man of some standing, a ruling party supporter and mobiliser at the local level in Kamwenge, Western Uganda, where Museveni and most people in positions of power and authority in the political and security circles hail from. He, therefore, does not fit the profile of a torture victim under the current circumstances.

Torture as an instrument of rule

Before his torture story came to the fore, those who had alleged torture during Museveni’s regime either supported the opposition, had scores to settle with influential people in government or security circles who had set them up for torture, or were genuinely suspected of committing crimes and were being tortured to reveal information the investigators would otherwise not access.

In a “safe house”, we were told, one would get savagely beaten up, carried though a mock execution, shocked with electricity, threatened with vile reptiles, have fingers or toe nails pierced with needles, among other torture methods. There was widespread outcry for the torture chambers – “safe houses” – to be shut down, but they tended to be located in the most unexpected of places in upscale neighbourhoods of Kampala and so could not be easily identified.

Mid last year, for instance, the magistrate’s court at Makindye in Kampala issued criminal summons for Gen. Kayihura and other police commanders to appear before it and answer to charges of torture. The court appearance, which was set for August 10, 2016, did not happen because the court was besieged by goons who argued against Gen. Kayihura being summoned by a court of law. The lawyers who had spearheaded the private prosecution, including opposition politician Erias Lukwago, who is also lord mayor of Kampala City, had to be sheltered in the magistrate’s chambers as the mob bayed for their blood, until they were whisked away.

Richard Mafabi, the magistrate who took the unprecedented step of summoning a top general to answer to torture charges, died two months later of a cardiac arrest as he was being rushed to hospital. He was aged 51.

The complainants, who through a private prosecutor had moved Mafabi’s court to summon Kayihura, were supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who at the time was protesting against what he said was a stolen election. Many of his supporters had been rounded up, and many told horror stories of torture during incarceration.

Before Kayihura shot to prominence, there was Nobel Mayombo, a brigadier who headed the chieftaincy of military intelligence and who was the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence at the time of his death in 2007. His critics accused him of being in charge of torture chambers, ironically dubbed “safe houses”.

In a “safe house”, we were told, one would get savagely beaten up, carried though a mock execution, shocked with electricity, threatened with vile reptiles, have fingers or toe nails pierced with needles, among other torture methods. There was widespread outcry for the torture chambers – “safe houses” – to be shut down, but they tended to be located in the most unexpected of places in upscale neighbourhoods of Kampala and so could not be easily identified.

The word “safe house” has now almost gone out of use in Uganda, but multiple sources within the police and accounts by people who have been subjected to torture recently suggest that such places still exist. In his narration to the MPs, the tortured Byamukama said the beating that nearly ended his life did not happen in Nalufenya, for instance. He was blind-folded and driven to a location within Kampala City where he was tortured and was only dropped in Nalufenya after the fact.

During the pre-colonial period, for instance, Susan Miers, in a book published in 1988, refers to a practice of mistreating slaves in Buganda which sometimes led to the mutilation of parts of their bodies. The author quotes an earlier book, which provides the origin of a popular Luganda saying: “Muddu awulira; y’awangaaza amatu” (“A slave who is obedient gives long life to his ears”).

Museveni, as the public huffed and puffed about Byamukama’s savage torture, wrote a widely publicised letter to the security agencies, warning them against torture and pointing out that it is a backward and ineffective method of investigation.

But, in all honesty, a revolted Fountain of Honour would be expected to do more under such circumstances. How, to begin with, would he let Kayihura’s leadership of the police, which he had renewed only weeks earlier, continue after such a terrible scandal? And even if he were to let it continue, what demonstrable steps were taken to ensure that such torture does not continue?

The four policemen referred to earlier were charged, of course. But that would, contrary to the reports that have continually come through, suggest that that the instance of torture was an isolated occurrence, which is not the case.   The Uganda Human Rights Commission, the statutory body charged with overseeing the observance of human rights in the country, for instance, has consistently pointed out that torture is the single most prevalent violation of rights by state organs.   In its 2015 report, for example, the rights body noted that nearly 38 percent of all reported rights violations by security agencies involved torture.

The facts suggest that what is going on is just a furtherance of the way those who have held power in Uganda across time have reproduced it. During the pre-colonial period, for instance, Susan Miers, in a book published in 1988, refers to a practice of mistreating slaves in Buganda which sometimes led to the mutilation of parts of their bodies. The author quotes an earlier book, which provides the origin of a popular Luganda saying: “Muddu awulira; y’awangaaza amatu” (“A slave who is obedient gives long life to his ears”). There are tales of servants in ancient Buganda having their ears cut off if they disobeyed their masters; others were summarily put to death. The story of Kabaka Mwanga putting to death disobedient subjects who had embraced Christianity (and would later be regarded as Uganda Martyrs) towards the end of the 19th Century is very widely told.

“Ankole”, according to a publication by the British aid agency DFID, “became a class-based society in which the Bahima controlled the use of violence…” The old Ankole kingdom is the only one whose restoration Museveni has blocked until now, citing the possibility of resurrecting inter-ethnic tensions between the Bahima (Museveni’s ethnic group) and the Bairu, who were previously oppressed.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission, the statutory body charged with overseeing the observance of human rights in the country, for instance, has consistently pointed out that torture is the single most prevalent violation of rights by state organs.   In its 2015 report, for example, the rights body noted that nearly 38 percent of all reported rights violations by security agencies involved torture.

In a working paper titled “Taking orders from above: Police powers, politics and democratic governance in post-Movement Uganda,” Makerere University law don Joe Oloka-Onyango takes a look at how the police have been used as an instrument of repression in Uganda through time. Oloka-Onyango writes:

“If the police played an essentially coercive role under colonialism, after independence it became even more overtly politicised and draconian. In other words, the police became an instrument of direct political repression in the competition for state power among the Ugandan elite. This witnessed the proliferation of sub-branches of the police, such as the Special Force in Obote I (1960s), or the Public Safety Unit (PSU) and State Research Bureau (SRB) under Idi Amin.”

No single Ugandan, going by recorded history, personifies torture, repression and outright murder more than Idi Amin, who seized power in 1971 and held on to it until April 1979 when a combined force of the Tanzanian army and Ugandan exiles shot him out. The figure is disputed, but it is estimated that about half a million Ugandans were killed by state agents during Amin’s time. Many of the victims were severely tortured. Some of these gruesome murders are documented in a book with a depressing title, A State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin, by Henry Kyemba, who served as a minister in Amin’s government but later fell out with the dictator and ran into exile.

“The basic role of these agencies was to use state resources to terrorise political opposition, to carry out covert intelligence operations that could barely be sanctioned by the law, and to spread and maintain a high level of terror and intimidation among the general public,” writes Oloka-Onyango.

He adds: “In this context, the prevention of and tracking of crime took a back seat, unsurprisingly leading to higher levels of criminality as the attention of the police was focused elsewhere.”

That crime surges as the police focuses more on repressing the regime’s opponents than catching criminals is as true today as it has ever been in Uganda’s history. The police have not released a crime report for over three years now, so it is hard to prove this scientifically, but there has been a surge in shootings and petty crime, especially house break-ins in and around Kampala in recent months. For this reason, President Museveni has on at least three occasions in a space of three months talked about the police force being infiltrated by criminals.

I will give you an example. Someone I know personally had her mobile phone grabbed in the streets of Kampala two weeks ago. She went to a nearby police post and told a police officer that she desperately needed her phone back. The police officer told her she would actually get it back, but at a fee, which she agreed to pay. She described to the police officer the person who had grabbed her phone and left. Hours later, the police officer called her and she picked up her phone, with all her data already deleted.

One policeman, Stephen Mugarura, went public about what he calls criminality within the police force, but the force he serves is instead trying him for the exposé instead of investigating his claims. Speaking to police officers like Mugarura, you discover that as far as investigations are concerned, there are at least two, not one, police forces in Uganda.

There are so many Ugandans with similar stories these days. Thieves broke into one man’s house and stole his electronics while he was asleep. . When he reported the incident at the police station the following morning, there was no policeman to follow him to the scene of the crime. He was just asked whether he was interested in having his phone tracked, for which he would have to pay.

One policeman, Stephen Mugarura, went public about what he calls criminality within the police force, but the force he serves is instead trying him for the exposé instead of investigating his claims. Speaking to police officers like Mugarura, you discover that as far as investigations are concerned, there are at least two, not one, police forces in Uganda. Those who call themselves “professional” investigators distance themselves from acts of torture, which they say are perpetrated by rogue groups closely connected to the topmost leadership of the police but have nothing to do with the directorate charged with criminal investigations. These “rogue” police operatives, other policemen say, were either former criminals or informants who were irregularly recruited into the force. But this doesn’t matter so long as they do the job.

After the fall of Amin, Obote II came up with the dreaded National Security Agency (NASA), which was directly under the Security Minister Chris Rwakasisi. Rwakasisi would, after Museveni took power, be convicted for murder and condemned to death, only to be released on presidential pardon. He was later named presidential advisor and campaigned for Museveni in the 2011 elections.

During the early hours of Museveni’s bush war, one man who would pay for hailing from the same region as Museveni and who backed him in the impugned 1980 elections, was Kizza Besigye, now Museveni’s fiercest challenger. Besigye has since told his story: He was picked up and tortured in the dreaded Nile Mansions for, he would later find out, being suspected of supporting Museveni’s rebel activities; he later teamed up with Museveni in the bush.

The point in all this is that the state is, as has always been the case, unwilling to stamp out torture in its entirety. In the wake of Byamukama’s torture, for instance, parliament sent a team of MPs to inspect the dreaded Nalufenya police station. But the inspection took just a day after which the MPs reported back to their colleagues. Some things were said and that will be about it; of course until another serious case of torture pops up.

In such a case, parliament should have charged a select committee with conducting an inquiry, hearing from victims and summoning accused persons and heads of security agencies accused of torture. We would, through such a process, get to know much more about the anatomy of torture in Uganda, and those carrying it out would be deterred for a while or forced to change their approach.

That was a lost opportunity in the war against torture. And, if Museveni is keen on launching an assault on the Constitution to remove the 75-year age cap to the presidency as it is widely feared, torture against his opponents could escalate and provide even more space to mourn this lost opportunity.

Comments
Avatar
Read all articles by

The writer is a journalist based in Uganda.

Features

El-Zakzaky: Politics, Religion and the Persecution of Shiites in Nigeria

A disrupter of the status quo, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky is an outspoken critic of the northern political elites, including Nasir El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna state, the base from where he (El-Zakzaky) operates.

Published

on

El-Zakzaky: Politics, Religion and the Persecution of Shiites in Nigeria
Download PDFPrint Article

The Nigerian government has said time and again that the reason it has continued to keep Sheikh El-Zakzaky behind bars for over three years now is only as a matter of public safety and in the best interest of the nation. However, there are many who believe that the government has an axe to grind with the Muslim cleric and the adherents of his Shia faith. Whatever the reason that this government is chasing its cause against the Shiites, the major concern is the possibility and propriety of having an administration settle a score under the guise of “national interest” and public good.

The continued detention of El-Zakzaky, his wife (Zeenat) and two other members of the Shia sect in Nigeria leaves very little or nothing to be desired, especially because they have been held in the custody of security agencies, even after courts have several times given injunctions granting them bail. In some quarters, this development has earned the present government negative labels, with many saying that the administration is high-handed, overreaching and dictatorial in its operations.

But why will a government that came into power on the promise of justice and fairness – as symbolised in its Muslim-Christian ticket – risk being tainted by what now can only be called a mishandling of the Zakzaky case? Who is this sheikh? What makes him an important personality worth the time and resources of both the Kaduna state government and the Federal Government of Nigeria?

A disrupter of the status quo, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky is an outspoken critic of the northern political elites, including Nasir El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna state, the base from where he (El-Zakzaky) operates.

Who is Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky?

A disrupter of the status quo, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky is an outspoken critic of the northern political elites, including Nasir El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna state, the base from where he (El-Zakzaky) operates. Born within the same generation, about seven years apart, El-Zakzaky and El-Rufai have a “hidden-history” that tends to pit them against themselves, leading to a power tussle that cuts through deep religious and political contours.

The history between these two leaders has been silent for quite a while and up until now, not many were aware of, nor were able to draw the parallels that build a solid case for why the friction between El-Zakzaky and El-Rufai goes beyond a matter of public safety. The governor did put it in his defence why the Nigerian government is right in having kept the sheikh in custody for way too long, depriving him his basic rights and needs, including denial of access to proper medical attention.

El-Rufai was born in Daudawa within the Faskari local government area of Kastina, state which was carved out of Kaduna, while El-Zakzaky was born in Zaria, a major province at the heart of Kaduna state. Hence, by virtue of birth places, the Muslim cleric holds a greater claim to the land – he would be seen more as a true son of the soil than the governor, who moved from Katsina to join his uncle in Kaduna following the death of his father at age eight.

Both men attended the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in Zaria (between 1976 and 1979). While El-Zakzaky studied economics, El-Rufai studied quantity surveying. They both excelled in their different disciplines, with each bagging a first-class honour, though Zakzaky’s certificate had been denied him by the university authorities due to his Islamic activities.

As a student, El-Zakzaky was an active Islamic unionist; he participated in several northern Nigeria protest movements in the 1970s, the reason he was expelled. While at ABU, he rose to become a Secretary-General of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN) at the main campus of the university, a group which EL-Rufai admits having been a part of.

In the wake of Zakzaky’s incarceration, El Rufai would later make a broadcast in which he said, “I know El-Zakzaky personally. We were both students at the Amadu Bello University in Zaria. We were both active in the Muslim Student’s Society, so I know the animal I’m dealing with. Many of those making comments on this issue don’t know the history, I was in ABU when El-Zakzaky was dismissed, I know him.”

El-Rufai’s comment hints at a possible dissonance between these two leaders, a grievance which some believe took a fiercer nature later as they metamorphosed into more prominent figures within the northern region.

El-Zakzaky rose to the position of Vice President (International Affairs) of the national body of MSSN in 1979, the same year when Ruholla Khomeini led the Iranian Revolution that saw the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, bringing an end to a 2,500-year Persian monarchy, and ushering in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was this revolution that inspired El-Zakzaky to join the Shia faith. He would later travel to Iran and become Nigeria’s first Shia cleric, while El-Rufai would later attend post-graduate programmes at Harvard Business School and Georgetown University. Both men would continue to break new grounds and grow in influence, perhaps in a subtle bid to charm the teeming millions in Kaduna and win the heart of the state.

El-Rufai would go on to establish his own firm, making a name for himself both in the private and public sectors, up to the point of serving as Minister for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in Abuja. Soon, it was time for him to govern Kaduna, a position which would see him become number one in the state and make him one of the most influential and powerful elites within the northern region.

But that autonomous power was not to be, at least not for a while, because while El-Rufai gained political influence, El-Zakzaky was also growing very powerful in Zaria, which used to be the capital of the Hausa Kingdom of Zazzau.

Upon becoming governor, El-Rufai tried to implement some new policies. A close observation of some of these policies would have many analysts speculating that they were aimed at crippling the operations of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), which is led by El-Zakzaky. One major policy that was said to be aimed at the IMN is the introduction of a bill seeking to regulate both Christian and Muslim clerics alike. However, this could not be enforced as they were mired in controversy and were never revisited again.

El-Rufai knew something needed to be done about the IMN, lest he lose control of Kaduna, which is the home of northern elites and occupies a strategic position as the political capital of the north.

With a growing population of over four million, there were fears that El-Zakzaky might soon be running a parallel state within Kaduna. Thus, a force higher than the state seemed to be the only way to quash what seemed like an uprising agenda, which Sheikh Zakzaky is said to have been pushing for years.The spiritual leader of the IMN is believed to be committed to the goal of applying a more rigorous application of the Islamic legal and administrative system to Nigeria and ultimately turning the nation into a full Islamic state – claims that over the years have been debunked and described as unfounded and lacking in substance.

President Buhari is not and has never been unaware of the existence and operations of Zakzaky and his IMN group. In fact, there are claims that the Shiites, with the backing of the sheikh, were responsible for the 1990s violence in Katsina state where Buhari hails from.

El-Rufai had said in an interview that Zakzaky and his fellow Shiites had no regard for him as Governor of Kaduna, neither had they any regard for President Muhammadu Buhari. The Governor’s accusations bordered around treason but without valid proof, they have been viewed as mere allegations and a desperate attempt at discrediting El-Zakzaky.

President Buhari is not and has never been unaware of the existence and operations of Zakzaky and his IMN group. In fact, there are claims that the Shiites, with the backing of the sheikh, were responsible for the 1990s violence in Katsina state where Buhari hails from. Thus, this begs the question: Could it be that the president got involved in El-Zakzaky’s case as a way to pay back the sheikh for the pain his group allegedly caused him (Buhari’) and his people?

Many analysts disagree, saying that the events in the 1990s do not have so much that could tie the president directly to El-Zakzay. There are those that argue that beyond power and political struggles that characterised the north at the time and even now, the rift between El-Zakzaky and the state holds in it a deep political undertone.

The Sunni-Shia rift

El-Zakzaky is the first Shia sheikh in Nigeria, a country where Sunni Muslims make up about 50 per cent of the population. So, the Shia-Sunni dichotomy cannot be ruled out in the case between El-Zakzaky, El-Rufai and President Muhammadu Buhari. The Shia cleric was becoming too powerful and the Shia sect was growing in numbers in a state run by a Sunni Muslim (El-Rufai) within a region made up majorly of the Sunni sect, and in a country ruled by a Sunni adherent (Buhari). It was only a matter of time before his growing influence would become a thing of regional and national concern.

Sheikh Zakzaky’s troubles started as far back as the 1980s and 1990s when he was imprisoned countless times for alleged seditious speeches and calls for revolution. Reports suggest that these messages were often circulated in cassettes. El-Zakzaky’s use of the words “civil disobedience” and “recalcitrance”, especially under military regimes, saw him rise as a voice for the oppressed, giving him prominence and positioning him as a living martyr.

They say nothing endears a leader more to his people than sacrifice. Perhaps that is how El-Zakzaky won the hearts of many followers in the north and the admiration of thousands all over the world.

A letter written by the sheikh’s wife, Zeenat, to President Muhammadu Buhari revealed how the sheikh lost six sons from nine children he had. They were killed in two different military attacks on the IMN, the first being the Zaria Quds Day Massacre in 2014 and the other being the 2015 Zaria Massacre, which eventually led to the arrest of El-Zakzaky, his wife and several other members of the Shiite sect.

Zeenat, in her letter, narrated how in July 2014, the army under the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan, extrajudiciously killed three of her sons among 35 Muslims exercising their constitutional rights of assembly. She wrote of how she and other members of the Shia sect in Nigeria believed that with the emergence of Buhari as a Muslim president, they would get justice, but that was not to be. The sheikh’s wife went on to speak of how in December 2015, the army under the command of Buhari’s General Tukur Buratai “massacred about 1,000 Shia Muslims across Zaria after some members of the sect blocked the General’s convoys”.

According to Zeenat’s letter, the army would later carry out further assaults, destroying the sect’s properties across six locations in Zaria. They would go on to bomb and demolish El-Zakzaky’s family home, killing another three of the Sheikh’s sons. Zeenat further claimed that under the Kaduna state government led by El-Rufai and on General Buratai’s command, the army went in the dead of the night to secretly bury members of the Islamic Movement whom they had killed. The sheikh’s wife said that both men, women and children were buried in an unmarked mass pit at Mando cemetery.

There has been no exhumation of the graves, no apologies made, no list of names of victims published, no investigation, no reports on findings and no atonement.

President Buhari had set up a judicial panel headed by Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna, but while that was being set up, the sheikh and his wife were taken into custody by security operatives. They were detained at an unknown location without charges…It would take well over two years before El-Zakzaky and his wife were charged.

The army came out to debunk the sect’s claims, saying that the clash between it and the sect was stirred by a provocation from the group. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen Tukur Buratai, went on to tell the National Assembly that he escaped being assassinated by members of the Shiite Muslim sect. He told them of how, contrary to claims by the sect, its members were heavily armed, and they violently confronted him and his convoy on their way to Zaria.

President Buhari had set up a judicial panel headed by Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna, but while that was being set up, the sheikh and his wife were taken into custody by security operatives. They were detained at an unknown location without charges. They remained in detention and the world kept asking what their crime was. It would take well over two years before El-Zakzaky and his wife were charged.

In April 2018, the Kaduna state government levelled an eight-count charge against the sheikh, his wife and two others. Their offences included the murder of a soldier (a corporal named Yakubu Dankaduna). Other counts included alleged acts of abetting the unlawful assembly of members of the IMN and inciting of disturbance by encouraging members of the sect to block major roads, including Sokoto road, Sabon Gari and others within Zaria and its environs. They were also accused of promoting unlawful assembly even though the Kaduna state government did not proscribe them until after the 2015 clash.

The proscription of the IMN and the continued detention of El-Zakzaky and other members of his sect, as well as the continued arrest of Shiites across Nigeria’s northern region, have only gone further to push the narrative of anti-Shi’ism moves all over the world, making El-Zakzaky the new face of Shia prosecution globally.

Analysts argue that the moves made by the state and federal governments against the IMN are not unconnected; they reveal the prejudice, hatred, discrimination and violence against Shia Muslims because of their religious beliefs, traditional and cultural heritage. This bias stems from a dispute over the right successor to Prophet Muhammad, leading to the formation of two main sects; the Sunni and the Shia. Many Sunni rulers perceive the Shia as a threat both to their political and religious authority, a scenario which critics believe is playing out between El-Zakzaky (a Shia sheikh) and two Sunni leaders (Governor Nasir El-Rufai and President Muhammadu Buhari).

There have been several claims linking the Shia sect in Nigeria to extremists groups like Boko Haram and Hezbollah, but many experts on security issues disagree, especially because even the Boko Haram terror group see Shiites as infidels that should be ousted.

Analysts believe that the Saudi Arabia-linked Sunni denominated northern political and clerical establishment is using the machinery of the Nigerian government to stage a war against fellow Muslims and rivals – Iran-linked Shia Muslims. And though the Nigerian government may seek to absolve itself of any blame in this case against the IMN, it still faces charges of operating with impunity by keeping Shia leaders in custody even after the courts have granted them bail.

There have been several claims linking the Shia sect in Nigeria to extremists groups like Boko Haram and Hezbollah, but many experts on security issues disagree, especially because even the Boko Haram terror group see Shiites as infidels that should be ousted. Moreover, no interactions between Boko Haram and the Shiites have ever been established, nor has there been any established link between the leadership of the IMN and any terror group, including the jihadists that operate in Nigeria’s northeastern region.

In light of the fact that almost every theory about El-Zakzaky fails to hold water, why should he still be languishing in state custody? Critics believe that the only bias at play in this case is the Shia-Sunni dichotomy. They argue that the chasm of social distance between the mainly Sunni northern political and clerical establishment and their rank and file is accessing economic and political opportunities, which are largely viewed as the preordained preserve of a religious order, a premise which the Shiites vehemently dispute.

Saudi-Iran proxy war

It is worrisome that Nigeria tends to be inching dangerously towards becoming the next theatre of the Saudi-Iran proxy war stirred by the great schism that occurred in 632 AD upon the death of the Holy Prophet Muhammad over who was his rightful successor, ultimately resulting in the Sunni-Shia divide. This is especially more troubling in the rise of reports that there is a plot to Islamise Nigeria.

There are fears that the state’s crackdown on Shiites will cause the group to go underground and wage an insurgency war like the Salafi-jihad group Boko Haram, though that seems a bit far-fetched. However, if the IMN continues to use protest marches as its tool to fight for the freedom of its leader, one fears that the situation might degenerate if the sheikh eventually dies in custody or more of its members continue to be arrested and killed in clashes with military operatives.

Frail Shia-Sunni relations are blamed by many for what is now seen as the persecution of Shiites who make up about 5 per cent of the Muslim population in Nigeria. The nation has the largest Muslim population in Africa, predominantly Sunni of the Maliki school of thought. However, there is a significant Shia minority in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina and Sokoto, the most visible form of the Shia movement in Nigeria being the Islamic Movement in Nigeria led by the embattled Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky.

There are fears that the state’s crackdown on Shiites will cause the group to go underground and wage an insurgency war like the Salafi-jihad group Boko Haram, though that seems a bit far-fetched. However, if the IMN continues to use protest marches as its tool to fight for the freedom of its leader, one fears that the situation might degenerate if the sheikh eventually dies in custody or more of its members continue to be arrested and killed in clashes with military operatives.

Nigeria already has a lot on its plate with regard to ethno-religious violence. The Christian-Muslim gulfs are yet to be properly bridged and this has led to so many clashes across the nation, including the farmer-herder crisis in several parts of the country. Whether keeping El-Zakzaky unlawfully behind bars is in the best interest of the nation or if it is a subtle war between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, Nigeria does not need another ethno-religious fracas, hence the need to handle the Shiites appropriately.

Seventy-six-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari has won the 2019 presidential race, which was somewhat bumpy and could easily have been marred by violence. Perhaps there are some Shia members who had hoped that he (Buhari) would be defeated by a more liberal Muslim opponent (Atiku Abubakar), but that was not to be.

Now that the president must continue to steer the course of the nation for the next four years, one wonders what will become of Shiites in Nigeria. Will Buhari release Sheikh El-Zakzaky and grant him his freedom? Or will Buhari’s second term and the cleric’s continued incarceration be seen as an opportunity that the Sunnis can use to crush the rising Shia population in Africa’s most populous nation, and by extension oust its rivals from West Africa and Africa as a whole?

Continue Reading

Features

Zimbabwe Dared to Be Free, Then the Military Arrived

What has emerged since that “military-assisted transition” is a Zimbabwe that is now policed by the military. Democratic-constitutional institutions have been subverted and the rule of law has been shredded. The dominant political class has become a network of very powerful military elites, or what can be referred to as military-nationalists.

Published

on

Zimbabwe Dared to Be Free, Then the Military Arrived
Download PDFPrint Article

In the late afternoon of the 21st November 2017, Zimbabweans went ecstatic on the streets. The celebrations went global and stretched from the green lawns of the imposing Rainbow Towers in central Harare, through the dusty streets of urban ghettos and snaked through several capitals of the world. Robert Gabriel Mugabe, three months shy of his 93rd birthday, had handed in his resignation to the Speaker of Parliament in a joint session of the House of Assembly and the Senate. Outside the joint seating that was considering an impeachment motion, citizens draped in the Zimbabwe flag danced, played drums and whistled. Cars blasted their horns and one longtime activist, Vimbai Musvaburi, shed tears in an interview with the BBC, saying, “It felt like a prison had been opened”. The 37-year rule of one of Africa’s authoritarian leaders was folded into history with military tanks, soldiers and army vehicles stationed across the country. It was no mean feat.

What has emerged since that “military-assisted transition” is a Zimbabwe that is now policed by the military. Democratic-constitutional institutions have been subverted and the rule of law has been shredded. The dominant political class has become a network of very powerful military elites, or what can be referred to as military-nationalists.

In the early 1980s, when he was Prime Minister, Mugabe had attempted to build a socialist one-party state. In the late 1980s, he brutalised the opposition and swallowed it through the Unity Agreement of 1989. Zimbabwe become a de jure one-party state. In the 1990s, the labour movement protested against increasing levels of taxation. When civil society mobilised for constitutional reform, Mugabe simply subverted the process. In the 2000s, the major opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was subjected to heinous brutality, with Mugabe boasting that “we have degrees in violence”. The elections were brazenly rigged and this culminated in the Government of National Unity (GNU) from 2008 till 2013. In that fateful month of November 2017, the “Ides of March” finally knocked on the Blue Mansion of the ageing president and the system finally burst open and turned its brutal fangs on its “Godfather”.

Exit Robert Gabriel Mugabe, enter the military-nationalists

What has emerged since that “military-assisted transition” is a Zimbabwe that is now policed by the military. Democratic-constitutional institutions have been subverted and the rule of law has been shredded. The dominant political class has become a network of very powerful military elites, or what can be referred to as military-nationalists. This class is composed mainly of men (and a few women) who constituted the military ranks of the national liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s. When they took over power in November 2017, they quickly dispatched out-of-state structures, the “old guard nationalists” who did not have any military training.

In post-colonial independent Zimbabwe, the military-nationalists operated behind the political throne under a shadowy state-security structure called the Joint Operation Command (JOC) comprising the military, intelligence services, police and the prison services. In the 2000s, especially since the violent election of 2008, the military assumed a much more political role. This came to a head when they marched onto the streets and forced Mugabe out. With the threads of state power in their hands, the military-nationalists have become the final arbiters of political and electoral contests. In that matrix of state and national political power, the general election of 2018 was just a fig leaf over a very patent fact – the new sheriff in Harare is a military junta with swanky imported suits.

New rhetoric and old Mugabe-like tactics

The new president has fanned out his strategies, jumping onto Facebook and Twitter, giving more interviews and also paying lobbyists in Washington DC to do the regime’s bidding. After his first inauguration, President Emmerson Mnangagwa wrote in the New York Times, that:

I am working toward building a new Zimbabwe: a country with a thriving and open economy, jobs for its youth, opportunities for investors, and democracy and equal rights for all… There are voices both at home and abroad who have sought to convince the world that nothing has changed in Zimbabwe. I refute those unfair and unfounded claims and commit that we are bringing about a new era of transparency, openness and commitment to the rule of law.

Many months later, in another opinion article in The Guardian, Mnangagwa stated that “the role of opposition leader is critical to democracy’s function” and that “the incoming administration will be weaker if not held to the checks and balances that parliament provides”.

In the face of a severe socio-economic crisis, Zimbabwe’s political rulers have resorted to Mugabe-like tactics, blaming “enemies” in the West and accusing the opposition of being “saboteurs”. That crisis boiled over in the second week of January 2019 as citizen anger over a 150 per cent fuel price increase led to a national shutdown called by the labour movement.

However, as Zimbabwe’s political economy continues its downward descent, the narrative has shifted back to the Mugabe years type of blame-shifting and brinkmanship. The “new rulers” have been very quick to jump into a worldwide public relations exercise that has come at a heavy price to the truth and to the public purse. The propaganda has also been Pan-African in its reach; the government has dispatched envoys to the African Union (AU), the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), and strategic countries like Kenya, South Africa and Botswana, arguing that Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has been as a result of sanctions, especially those imposed by the US.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Hope and fear in Zimbabwe

Read Series: Zimbabwe

In the face of a severe socio-economic crisis, Zimbabwe’s political rulers have resorted to Mugabe-like tactics, blaming “enemies” in the West and accusing the opposition of being “saboteurs”. That crisis boiled over in the second week of January 2019 as citizen anger over a 150 per cent fuel price increase led to a national shutdown called by the labour movement. Street barricades went up in urban areas, police had running battles with young people, wide-scale looting took place, and economic activity came to a standstill. The government response was a nationwide ruthless military crackdown. The army was accused of rape, opposition activists were abducted and rights groups, such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), recorded 17 deaths from gunshot wounds.  The Internet was shut down and, in a leaked document, the government blamed “hostile intelligence services”, “regime change agents”, and “unfriendly civil society organisations”. The ruling class has simply re-dusted the old script of seeing local and international enemies all around.

The president boasted at a political rally in the local language, Shona, saying, “tirikuvazvambura” and “vari kuzvamburika”, meaning “we are beating them up brutally” and they “cannot resist that brutality”. Not less than five opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) have been arraigned before the courts for “subversion”, “inciting violence” and “treason”. To sum up the type of military-state/party machinery that the ruling strata is building, we have to turn to that theoretician and practitioner of the African revolution, Frantz Fanon, in his seminal book, The Wretched of The Earth, where he put it more succinctly:

There exists inside the new regime, however, an inequality in the acquisition of wealth and in monopolization. Some have a double source of income and demonstrate that they are specialized in opportunism. Privileges multiply and corruption triumphs, while morality declines. Today the vultures are too numerous and too voracious in proportion to the lean spoils of the national wealth. (1963:171).

Taken together then, this deliberate rhetoric of a “new dispensation”, “open for democracy”, “second republic”, on the one hand, and a deliberate crackdown on the opposition, restricting the democratic space and subverting the institutions established by the Constitution of 2013, on the other, are designed to keep the military-nationalists in charge of the party and the state machinery, and by implication, to maintain their hold on Zimbabwe’s national treasury and natural resources.

The Minister of Finance, Professor Mthuli Ncube, admitted that the budget suffered as a result of runaway expenditure and mismanagement. The minister did not disclose that the excessive borrowing has been a blank cheque to fund the decadent lifestyles of those in political office.

Zimbabwe’s melting political economy: The ambers underneath

To get a sense of how Zimbabwe has fallen from glory, one has to look at the historic Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and per capita figures over time compared to Kenya. At the end of 1970s, Kenya’s GDP was estimated at US$2.9 billion, with a population of about 14 million and Zimbabwe’s’ GDP was US$3.5 billion with a population of 7 million. Fast forward to 2017 and Kenya’s GDP now stands at almost US$75billion and Zimbabwe’s GDP stands at a mere US$17billion.  In Harare, one can contrast sewage flowing openly in the ghettos and the sprawling green lawns and well-paved streets in North Harare, which is full of Beverley Hills-type mansions. Over the past 40 years, Zimbabwe’s export industries have been decimated, infrastructure has decayed, agricultural production has collapsed and there have not been any major capital projects to revive the economy. State-owned companies, in railways, transport like airlines, agriculture, mining and the list goes on, have been systematically looted. The political economy collapse has resulted in mass emigration of both skilled and unskilled labour and a severe social crisis of poverty

The Minister of Finance, Professor Mthuli Ncube, admitted that the budget suffered as a result of runaway expenditure and mismanagement. The minister did not disclose that the excessive borrowing has been a blank cheque to fund the decadent lifestyles of those in political office. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) dished out loans in excess of US$1.2 billion to elite-linked companies, and state-owned companies raked billions in debt and all this has been transferred to the Treasury. Calls for a national debt audit were rejected. The public financial management system is deliberately in shambles, the public tendering system directly feeds into the pockets of the political elites and the Public Service Commission (PSC) has been used to employ thousands of “youth officers” who are effectively a notorious party militia known as “green bombers”. Foreign and domestic debt has gone out of control; 90 per cent of expenditure is on salaries and allowances for government workers. Foreign currency reserves have dried and Zimbabwe cannot access credit lines from international financial institutions. The new minister has proposed selling off state enterprises that formed the bedrock of Zimbabwe’s pre-independence industrial base, and it is highly likely that these public assets will be doled out cheaply to feed a crony capitalist class linked to political power. In a word, Zimbabwe’s political economy collapse is self-inflicted.

Austerity for citizens and a Thatcherite largesse for the elites

 The Minister of Finance, in the latest budget statement, proposed what he called “Austerity for Prosperity”. He argued that Zimbabwe “needs pain” before the economy becomes productive, just like a patient who needs surgery. The Treasury chief has introduced a 2 per cent tax, has increased fuel prices by almost 150 per cent, is trying to liberalise the foreign currency market, has introduced a local “virtual” currency called RTGS dollars, has hiked custom excise duty and has demanded that all car imports be paid for in foreign currency. The dramatic effect has been to feed inflation upwards, erode income for workers, and scare away investors. The prices of basic commodities have spiraled out of control and all major trade unions have already engaged in some strike action or are in the process of organising one. Here are the words of the Treasury chief:

The only way to a stronger economy is to restructure, rebuild and reform. This plan involves some painful measures to get our national budget under control. These measures will be felt by all of us, but are unavoidable if we want to get our economy back on track. These measures are those of a doctor performing a life-saving operation. They cause pain, but the pain is the only thing that will lead to a recovery. As Margret Thatcher once said, “Yes, the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it in order to live. (Speech by Professor Mthuli Ncube)

The 2 per cent tax has been bringing in over $100 million a month. Stretched to a year, that is a whopping $1.2billion extracted from financial transactions with no relationship to the productive capacity of the economy. The political economy meltdown has been compounded by a drought that has led the United Nations to issue a special food appeal:

Nearly 5.3 million people in Zimbabwe are estimated to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection during the 2018/2019 lean season (October – April) and beyond. …In addition, 1.5 million people in urban areas, including major towns and secondary cities, are estimated to be facing severe food insecurity, while people in multiple locations across the country are faced with acute shortages of essential medicines. (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, February, 2019)

This is against loud sloganeering statements that Zimbabwe’s “command agriculture” system run by a former air marshall has been a success. The Minister of Finance had to admit that Zimbabwe’s chaotic land reform programme resulted in land becoming a “dead asset” and this is despite the government setting up a National Land Commission that has remained largely moribund as a matter of design because the military-nationalists continue parceling to each other, for free, the country’s most productive land.

We need to understand the character of the political economy emerging in the post-Mugabe era in order to grasp how the state machinery is being fashioned. Firstly, the military-nationalists are now in charge of the ruling party machinery. There is a preponderance of retired army personnel in the running of the party, including the electoral campaign of July 2018, which was run by the retired Major-General Engelbert Rugeje.

Crony capitalism, the military class and state authoritarianism

We need to understand the character of the political economy emerging in the post-Mugabe era in order to grasp how the state machinery is being fashioned. Firstly, the military-nationalists are now in charge of the ruling party machinery. There is a preponderance of retired army personnel in the running of the party, including the electoral campaign of July 2018, which was run by the retired Major-General Engelbert Rugeje.

Secondly, the cabinet is dominated by ex-military generals who executed the coup of November 2017, including the Vice-President (General Chiwenga), the Minister of Agriculture (Air Marshall Perence Shiri), and the Minister of Foreign Affairs (General Sibusiso Moyo). The president announced the retirement of four generals who played a critical role in the coup but they were immediately deployed to diplomatic postings.

Thirdly, the military elites have been deployed to the criminal justice system, including no less than 100 “special prosecutors”, which the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional.

Fourthly, the military elites have also become discreet silent partners in enterprises that do business with the state. They have entered into agreements with foreign corporates and have access to mining concessions, thus effectively becoming a state-backed surrogate business class of the buccaneer type.

The business interests of the military class stretch back to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a UN investigation unearthed the plundering of natural resources. In the report, “The Expert Panel Reports on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, the findings of the investigation were presented. This report was presented to the UN Security Council. Here is an excerpt:

The key strategist for the Zimbabwean branch of the elite network is the Speaker of the Parliament and former National Security Minister, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. Mr Mnangagwa has won strong support from senior military and intelligence officers for an aggressive policy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo…Other prominent Zimbabwean members of the network include Brigadier General Sibusiso Busi Moyo, who is Director General of COSLEG. Brigadier Moyo advised both Tremalt and Oryx Natural Resources, which represented covert Zimbabwean military financial interests in negotiations with State mining companies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Air Commodore Mike Tichafa Karakadzai is Deputy Secretary of COSLEG, directing policy and procurement. He played a key role in arranging the Tremalt cobalt and copper deal. Colonel Simpson Sikhulile Nyathi is Director of defence policy for COSLEG. The Minister of Defence and former Security Minister, Sidney Sekeramayi, coordinates with the military leadership and is a shareholder in COSLEG. (United Nations, S/2002/1146)

Having learnt these tactics and with the war in the DRC cooling off, the same military network turned its eyes to Zimbabwe’s economy. The military, police, intelligence and political players muscled into lucrative farming land, rich diamond fields and gold concessions. (Chinese companies often have military representatives on their boards.) Jabusile Shumba summed up how Zimbabwe’s military class has spread its tentacles in the country’s political economy in his book, Zimbabwe’s Predatory State: Party, Military and Business (UKZN Press, 2018).

The business interests of this predatory class are highly speculative and very non-industrial, meaning that the structure of the post-colonial economy has continued to rely on raw exports (like tobacco) and on exploiting natural resources (like minerals). Effectively, there is no skill development or technological transfer.

Secondly, this form of crony-capitalism is ecologically destructive. In Zimbabwe there have been heated debates as Chinese mining companies have been eying vast swathes of land, including nature reserves. In some cases, they use ecologically-destructive mining methods and zero land rehabilitation after mining is done.

Fourthly, by deliberately prioritising military-linked business interests (especially in mining, agriculture and hotels), a new form of an unaccountable “shadow state” is emerging, with access to state and private resources.

Thirdly, Chinese state-related corporates are entering into agreements that are loading the public with huge debt, especially in energy and other infrastructure projects. The loan collateral, interest payment and conditions are always shrouded in secrecy and the return on investment is dubious, if not extortionist. And as a matter of common practice, these deals are not open to public scrutiny and accountability.

Fourthly, by deliberately prioritising military-linked business interests (especially in mining, agriculture and hotels), a new form of an unaccountable “shadow state” is emerging, with access to state and private resources.

Constitutionalism and the Pan-African liberation promise

Looked at broadly, Zimbabwe’s recurring crisis can be viewed as the collapse of the Pan-African project of national liberation. At the core of that crisis is the non-fulfilment of Africa’s very agonising de-colonisation project in which state power and its institutions were supposed to be fashioned to serve the goal of social and economic emancipation and not the accumulation projects of a limited elite.

Military-nationalists in Zimbabwe, authoritarian leaders and politico-dynasties (in Kenya, for example) are making peaceful electoral political change almost impossible. This is dangerous because Africa’s population is growing younger and their exclusion from the political economy is breeding an explosive concoction of youthful disenchantment. The rise of Julius Malema in South Africa, Bobby Wine in Uganda and the popularity of Nelson Chamisa in Zimbabwe point to this disconnect between those with political and economic power, who are usually older, and the younger citizens who feel excluded, almost like non-citizens.

The Kenyan political analyst Nanjala Nyabola has brilliantly exposed this disconnect in a book called Digital Democracy: Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya. Her analysis can be generally extended to the rest of Africa, including Zimbabwe. We Africans need to be brutally honest with ourselves. As the de-colonisation leader Amilcar Cabral said, “Claim no easy victories and tell no lies.” In the wake of the military crackdown, Fadzai Mahere, a young advocate, activist and political contestant summed it up well:

The wounds afflicting injured survivors may one day heal. But our politics will remain toxic as long as the military is at the centre of it. Any dialogue about the future must involve concerted, concrete plans to demilitarize Zimbabwean politics. Only then can the promise of a new Zimbabwe truly blossom. (The Guardian, 26.01.2019).

The post-colonial trajectory of coercion, corruption and a development impasse can only begin to be settled, not only through the implementation of the Constitution of 2013 and respect for democratic institutions, but most importantly through a genuine process of national peace-building and de-polarising of state-social relations. This means a return to the Pan-African liberation project of transformation based on building political economies that place people at the centre and disciplines state power when it becomes recalcitrant and captured by a few.

Continue Reading

Features

Black Votes Don’t Matter: The Shrinking Civic Space of African Immigrants in the US

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

Published

on

Black Votes Don’t Matter: The Shrinking Civic Space of African Immigrants in the US
Download PDFPrint Article

The United States of America has excelled in projecting an extraordinary image of itself as a free nation with a thriving democracy, where anyone can come and work their way towards a better life through civic participation. However, what the past few years in particular have peeled away betrays a somewhat different truth: that voting in the United States is hard and getting steadily more so. And there’s one group of people who face a particular set of difficulties when seeking to cast their ballot: African immigrants.

Some historic context is needed regarding voting issues within the US. First and foremost, there is a historic precedent of voter suppression in the US that is unequaled within the modern Western world. Much of the targeting of such efforts has directly affected African Americans and people of colour. After slavery was abolished, states would go to incredible lengths to suppress the black vote, including implementing taxes on voting, forcing black people to produce extraneous forms of personal and family identification and making would-be black voters pass vaguely worded and lengthy “literacy tests” in order to cast their ballot. These systems, a part of the infamous Jim Crow laws, were struck down as illegal in 1965 when the country passed the Voting Rights Act.

In the years that followed, those who sought to seek the vote sought out ways to circumvent the law and keep the voter turnout low. Since the latter half of the 20th century, high voter turnout translated to a more liberal result. Take, for example, that a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote once since 1988 (George W. Bush in 2004). In the cases of the victories of Donald J. Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush, they skated to victory through the electoral college; a system that traces its roots to suppress the popular vote.

When looking at US politics, it isn’t as much a matter of high voter turnout as it is who comprise the voters that are showing up to vote. The most telling demographic, the group with the highest disparity of aligning with Democrats over Republicans, is African Americans. Hillary Clinton carried the black vote by an 80 point margin – 88 per cent to 8 per cent over Trump in the 2016 election. This margin, coupled with the United States becoming more, not less, diverse has left those seeking to suppress the vote scrambling for answers.

In 2013, efforts to suppress voters gained a major boost when the US Supreme Court overturned section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which outlined that states and districts that had previously been involved in voting discrimination needed pre-clearance of the validity of their electoral processes. The conservative judges ruled this as unconstitutional, that the section “punished” states for past mistakes, not for possible future successes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg dissented strongly, stating that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

The Voting Rights Act had been brought before court in the wake of a series of issues across the US, primarily having to do with controversial voting ID laws, reports of voter suppression and other forms of disenfranchisement. In a theme that runs across America’s election process, the black community was disproportionately affected.

This brings the issue to focus on African immigrants in the United States. The issue of immigration in the United States has currently brought the federal government to a shutdown for over a month. There is constant rhetoric from the Trump administration targeting illegal immigrants as a major obstacle to the security and economic future of the United States. The issues of building a border wall with Mexico and continuing to provide guaranteed safeties (such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, which offers protections to the children of illegal immigrants into the US) are being used as bargaining chips at the government level.

A difficult time

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation, but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

African immigrants in the US are a small but rapidly rising group. The increase has been marked since 1970, especially amongst sub-Saharan Africans. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of African-born individuals heading to the US increased nearly 250 per cent between 2000 and 2015, from 881,000 up to 2,060,000. Africans are also the fastest growing demographic among black immigrants, increasing by 137 per cent between 2000 and 2013.

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation, but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

In the US, a major aspect of any voting rights issue is where in the US you’re living. Different states hold different standards, different regulations and varying requirements. When examining how voting standards impacts African immigrants, there needs to be a brief examination of where African immigrants live.

The five states with the highest African immigrant population are California, New York, Texas, Maryland and Virginia. Cities such as Atlanta, Georgia and Minneapolis also have high numbers of such migrants. This is where context becomes even more important; California and New York are known as more immigrant-friendly destinations, and their major metropolitan areas are regarded as “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants. New York and Minnesota don’t require a photo ID whereas California may require one for a first-time voter (newly-naturalised US citizens are always first-time voters). Maryland holds a similar policy.

Texas, Virginia and Georgia, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely. Virginia requires a valid photo ID in order for an individual to vote in person. Texas and Georgia are both mired in controversy over the stringent regulations put in place regarding the standards for voter IDs. The state of Texas is currently mired in litigation over the voter ID laws, with opponents arguing that it disproportionately impacts minorities.

In Georgia, where over 70,000 African immigrants reside in the Atlanta metropolitan area, the man who was presiding as the Secretary of State (the office which controls the conducting of elections, a possible conflict of interest) won narrowly and controversially over Stacey Abrams, who would have been the first black woman elected to be a state governor in the US. Abrams repeatedly made claims that there was voter interference, particularly amongst black precincts, where electronic voting was in disarray and reports of voter suppression were rampant. These claims had much of their basis in and around Atlanta, Georgia.

Why does voter ID matter and how does it affect Africans living in America? For starters, the path to US citizenship (which is needed to vote in America) is extremely arduous, long and difficult. The paperwork hoops to jump through are staggering. On average, it takes an immigrant a minimum of five years of continuous residency to become a naturalised US citizen. In cases that need further legal counsel, it can take even longer as the legal side of American immigration courts have become steadily more choked and congested in the new millennium.

Why does voter ID matter and how does it affect Africans living in America? For starters, the path to US citizenship (which is needed to vote in America) is extremely arduous, long and difficult.

For immigrants, the issues surrounding voter ID can often be much murkier. For instance, immigrants can gain driver’s licenses within the United States, which is one of the key forms of identification needed in states with more stringent regulations. This doesn’t mean that immigrants have the appropriate information explained to them regarding the IDs being obtained. The African Advocacy Network of California notes that although driver’s licenses are applied for successfully by immigrants who aren’t naturalised, the fact that they are still unable to vote due to their status isn’t explained to them. This can lead to immigrants attempting to vote, unknowingly engaging in an illegal act of fraud. The penalties for such fraud in the US are harsh. Both illegal and legal immigrants can face deportation if found to be involved in fraudulent voting. Cases of actual voter fraud involving illegal immigrants are incredibly rare, but that doesn’t stop Trump from repeatedly claiming that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because of millions of “illegals” somehow managing to cast ballots.

Illegal immigrants in Trump’s America

The Obama administration was noted for its strict approach to illegal immigration, deporting hundreds of thousands between 2009 and 2017. That same administration, however, did focus on expanding a programme called the H1-B visa, which encouraged workers from outside of the United States to enter the country to work. Many prominent corporations, including Amazon, Google and Microsoft, heavily leaned on the programme as it eased the transition for professionals to gain a foothold in the US workforce. In addition, the H1-B programme made the path to a Green Card visa (an initial step towards US citizenship) markedly smoother, encouraging immigrants to engage in the process of becoming a citizen.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has taken a significantly different approach. The current White House passed an executive order titled “Buy American, Hire American” that directly encourages American companies to hire only the most skilled workers from outside of the United States. This will have a long-term impact on the number of H-1B applicants who can head down the path of gaining citizenship.

The Obama administration had an unfortunate track record of harshness regarding immigration, including reopening and examining case files of naturalised citizens (immigrants who gained their citizenship in the US). The Trump White House has, of course, seized on this idea and expanded it. Under this administration, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (U.S.C.I.S.) has created a new task force to look into cases and possibly “denaturalise” citizens for often muddied reasons, such as making a clerical mistake on a form. In essence, this leaves millions of naturalised United States citizens’ status at the discretion of officials appointed under the Trump administration, one noted for its blatantly anti-immigrant rhetoric.

A prominent path to Green Card visas for African immigrants is the Diversity Lottery programme, which grants visas to citizens from all over the world. Given the administration’s track record, it comes as little surprise that the White House has looked repeatedly into cutting the programme entirely. As egregious as this is, perhaps the repeated ransom holding of the so-called “dreamers” (children of illegal immigrants born in the United States and granted legal protections) is even more insidious. Trump has made a repeated talking point of ending protections for the dreamers, even going so far as to offer continued protection as a bargaining chip for $5.7 billion of funding for a border wall in January of this year.

The Obama administration had an unfortunate track record of harshness regarding immigration, including reopening and examining case files of naturalised citizens (immigrants who gained their citizenship in the US). The Trump White House has, of course, seized on this idea and expanded it.

So how does this apply to African immigrants, specifically? The numbers indicate that immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are the fastest growing group, and that the vast majority of this immigration has occurred after 1960. This translates into African immigrants having less of an established civic network than other immigrant groups in the US.

Less civic engagement

Less network means less community engagement and less protection for Africans now calling the US their home. This, in turn, translates into issues surrounding social integration facing Africans in America. Those in questionable status are likely to eschew anything to do with getting on the record, including engaging in civic discourse. One example saw the city of San Francisco engaging with members of the African immigrant community to get involved with the local school board elections, despite many holding illegal immigrant status. Illegal immigrants worry about what will happen to their information and whether it will end up in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

This is compounded by the constant shifting and swirling of regulations surrounding immigration within the US. Frankly put, in America, thing currently seem extremely uncertain. Those who would have gained the path to citizenship by being granted immigration visas are suddenly on the outside looking in. Immigrants from Libya, Sudan and Somalia (the three African nations affected under the Trump administration’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority nations) are suddenly unsure of their status.

Noticeably, despite all of his talk of walls and increased military presence, Trump has not issued a travel ban to a Latin American country. The current administration is seemingly preoccupied with all things immigration, how to stop it, how to grandstand from it, how to flex political muscle by stopping it. In fact, in 2017, despite overall numbers of deportations falling, ICE deported a record number of African immigrants, more than double of the total from 2016. There were reported instances of poor treatment and abuse of deportees by ICE agents. While the numbers are comparatively small, increases in deportation can push African immigrant communities even farther outside of the democratic process. What was the number one country for African immigrant deportations from the US? Somalia.

Less network means less community engagement and less protection for Africans now calling the US their home. This, in turn, translates into issues surrounding social integration facing Africans in America. Those in questionable status are likely to eschew anything to do with getting on the record, including engaging in civic discourse.

Ilhan Omar, herself a Somali immigrant to the US, is now a first-term Congresswoman from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her election is an indication of a potential future of US politics: that African immigrants can find a voice in politics, in part due to the rallying of their communities. She’s become an outspoken advocate for the Somali community in Minnesota while continually deriding the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies.

Since her election, Omar has been a frequent target of scathing criticism from the conservative media and the Republican Party, who have even claimed that some of her pro-Palestine comments are blatantly anti-Semitic. While her election to the US Congress is historically significant (she’s the first African-born refugee in the history of the United States Congress), Omar is still just one member of Congress, one voice for an ever-growing population that seems ever-more targeted by executive orders of the Trump administration. Think of it this way: Omar wouldn’t be able to enter the US under the travel ban of Muslim majority countries passed down by Trump.

In essence, this message to newcomers to the US is: DON’T BOTHER GETTING ENGAGED BECAUSE THE CONSEQUENCES COULD OUTWEIGH YOUR EFFORTS. To those emigrating to the US from Africa, this messaging can appear even more insidious, as Adoubou Traore (who himself emigrated from the Ivory Coast), the director of the African Advocacy Network in San Francisco outlines: “Many Africans have inherent doubts about the legitimacy of elections, they’re a headache, their experience makes them not believe that their voices matter. When there is no guarantee that their information won’t be subject to being exploited, from their view: what’s the point?” There isn’t much that would prevent them from holding such views in America. It becomes a community question of why organise if doing so can only lead to more headache?

With issues surrounding racism against black people in America being dissected and moved further towards prominence in national dialogue, it would, at least on the surface, seem as though the communities of African Americans would provide a steady ally for Africans adjusting to life in America. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. There is a noted divide between Africans and black Americans, one that many coming to the US find difficult to bridge. Some of this gap is historically entrenched, some of it is due to the truly lacking breadth of coverage in the US education system regarding African history and culture. The awkward truth is: Africa as a topic in the US is regarded as a monolithic punch line to a bad joke, and is hardly rendered an after-thought in terms of democratic engagement.

In terms of vulnerability to less-than-democratic interests, there are myriad of groups in the United States that could use additional legal and outreach protections. Practically anywhere in America that can’t be categorised as white and suburban finds itself victim to voter suppression efforts. In the US context, the black community is systematically targeted the most.

Laws are seemingly rolled out in force yearly in dozens of states, implementing further restrictions and using scare tactics, lies and intimidation to influence local and national elections with a conservative slant.

The unavoidable truth is that Africans in the US find themselves at an ugly modern crossroads: the centuries of subversive efforts to reduce the so-called “urban” vote at a crossroads with the modern iteration of all-American xenophobic fervour. Though growing fast in population, the democratic influence has not kept stride.

Continue Reading

Trending