Connect with us

Features

ELECTION 2017: A Silent Panic in Kenya

Fearing a repeat of the 2007/8 post-election violence, Luo and Luhya men in Nairobi and Naivasha are sending their families to their ‘rural homes’

Published

on

Hate speech bleeds
Download PDFPrint Article

About a month ago, I bumped into an old friend by sheer chance on the streets of Nairobi. Night Atieno and I grew up together in the same city estate and, although we hardly met thereafter, every encounter was an opportunity to catch up and laugh about the good old estate days.

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, Night straightaway asked me what my thoughts on the impending August general election were. “We are planning to vote very early in the morning, after which we must leave town by latest 9am,” she said. “We will then drive all the way to Mwanza. By nightfall, Inshallah, we shall be taking supper with my in-laws.” Mwanza, the second largest city, after Dar es Salaam, is the lakeshore town in the northwestern region of Tanzania.

THIS TIME, THERE’S NO GOING TO THE SUPREME COURT

Looking at me right in the eyes, she whispered: “Listen, this time, there’s no going to the Supreme Court.” She was referring to the first ever Presidential Election Petition case No. 5 taken to the inaugural Supreme Court of Kenya in March 2013 by the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), the opposition coalition led by Raila Amolo Odinga, seeking to overturn the election victory of the Jubilee coalition led by Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, today the fourth president of Kenya.

On March 9, five days after the general election that was held on March 4, 2013, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), through its then chairman Issack Hassan, announced the election results thus: Uhuru Kenyatta — 6,173,433 votes which constituted 50.07 percent of the total votes cast, beating Raila’s 5,340,546, which comprised 43.31 percent.

Suing the IEBC on March 16, 2013, Raila sought to stop the swearing in of Uhuru as a president. It never came to pass. Uhuru was sworn in as the president on April 9, 2013 at Kasarani Stadium.

The Supreme Court judges led by then Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, in arriving at their verdict, said: “In summary, the evidence in our opinion, does not disclose any profound irregularity in the management of the electoral process, nor does it gravely impeach the mode of participation in the electoral process by any of the candidates who offered himself or herself before the voting public.”

The judges further said: “It is not evident, on the facts of this case, that the candidate declared as the president-elect had not obtained the basic vote-threshold justifying his being declared as such. We will therefore disallow the petition, and uphold the presidential election results as declared by IEBC on March 9, 2013.”

That Supreme Court judgment read under less than 10 minutes cast a shadow of devastation and disquiet over the opposition’s core supporters. The promulgation of the new Constitution in August 27, 2010, had created the hitherto new Supreme Court and heralded a new confidence in a much-maligned justice system among Kenyans in all walks of life.

So, when Raila went to the Supreme Court to seek electoral justice, his loyal supporters who had just fervently voted for him, believed in the benign promise of a new court that had promised to dispense justice without fear or favour. It is not hyperbole to state that ever since the reading of that very short judgment by former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a majority of Raila’s supporters have yet to overcome the spirit of deflation that engulfed them.

When Raila went to the Supreme Court to seek electoral justice, his loyal supporters who had just voted for him, believed in the benign promise of a new court that had promised to dispense justice without fear or favour

To date, the subject of one of the shortest judgements ever passed by a Supreme Court, has become a taboo narrative among opposition supporters and even among some of the leading lawyers across the country. “Let’s just put it this way,” a prominent Nairobi lawyer who did not want his name disclosed, told me, “The Supreme Court failed in its maiden moment to inspire confidence among Kenyans. It made this worse by its mode of presentation of the verdict.” The lawyer said even among themselves as senior counsels, the conversation around the Supreme Court judgement leaves “a sour taste in the mouth.”

In a parting shot, Night, who is a businesswoman, told me “Kama mbaya, mbaya…wacha wanaume waonane.” If the worst comes to the worst…so be it. Let men face each other!

Night’s scheduled temporary migration in August is part of a silent movement that has been taking place since December among the people of Nyanza and the larger western Kenya who live in Nairobi city, Eldoret and Naivasha towns.

“In the guise of travelling upcountry for Christmas holiday 2016, many family men from the ghettos of Nairobi transported their wives and children to their rural homesteads in Nyanza and Western Kenya,” said my source who spoke to me in confidence. “The month of December was just the right time because the children were on holiday, were relocating to their rural homes and so there was ample time to transit to new schools.”

“I’m a board member of a school in Siaya County,” my confidant told me. “When we sat in January 2017, to admit fresh pupils and pupils seeking transfers, we dwelt mainly with parents from Nairobi and Eldoret.” Investigating further on where the parents from Nairobi were from, he found out they largely came from Kariobangi North, Mathare North, Mathare 4A, Ngei/Huruma and Ngomongo.

It is not for nothing that the parents from some of the toughest slums of Nairobi are sending their children and extended family back home. These slums, today divided between Embakasi North, Mathare and Ruaraka constituencies, were the sites of bloodletting following the bungled December, 2007 general election that led to at least 1,400 people getting killed and 600,000 Kenyans displaced countrywide, especially in the Rift Valley region.

These ghettos, which are inhabited largely by the two “antagonist” ethnic communities — the Kikuyus and Luos — exploded into violence on December 30, 2007, when young men from the two communities faced off with weapons such as daggers, hunting knives and, pangas.

NOBODY IS TAKING ANY CHANCES, ESPECIALLY IN THE NAIROBI SLUMS

Regardless of whatever outcome is anticipated a month from now, given the heightened tensions, “Nobody is taking any chances, least of all the people living in the slums, who bore the greatest brunt of the violence,” said my informant.

If the slums are witnessing a vertical exodus, that of families moving from the urban to the rural, the men who have remained behind have been also moving, but horizontally. In Ngei and Huruma slums, which are in Mathare constituency, and are adjacent to each other, Luo and Luhya men have been changing houses, moving closer to their kinsmen within the same area. In the sprawling Mathare slum. for example, there are areas that are predominantly populated by Kikuyus, while others are populated by Luos. This “cross-border” movement — of shifting rented accommodation to beef up and secure their respective ethnic group safety— has been going on since January.

If the slums are witnessing a vertical exodus, that of families moving from the urban to the rural, the men who have remained behind have been also moving, but horizontally

In the peri-urban areas bordering the city on the south, a similar movement has been also taking place. Non-Kikuyus, mostly Luos living in the Riruta Satellite area, too have been sending their family back to their ancestral homes in western Kenya. Riruta Satellite is a quasi-rural, quasi-ghetto,village bordering the Waithaka area, mainly populated by Kikuyus.

Translation: We have been neighbours. On 8th of August don't divide us

Translation: We have been neighbours. On 8th of August don’t divide us

Riruta and Waithaka areas are in Dagoretti South constituency, which in Kenyan political parlance “belongs” to the Jubilee Party coalition. A friend — a veteran journalist who worked for the defunct Kenya Times in the 1980s and is from the Luo community and who has lived in Riruta Satellite for close to three decades — confided to me that his kinsmen have been shipping their families back home during the December and Easter holidays.

To the north of Riruta is Kawangware, a sprawling ghetto today populated equally by Kikuyus and Luhyas. Many Luhya families were settled in Kawangware and Kangemi areas, which are in Dagoretti North and Westlands constituencies respectively, during the time of Fred Gumo when he was appointed as a City Council commissioner by former president Daniel Arap Moi in 1989. Gumo was later to serve as a three-term MP for Westlands.

GET THE AWAY FROM SODOM

The Luhya families, like their counterparts from the Nyanza region, have relocated their wives and children — “Wacha wao waende nyumbani tubaki tukilinda mji (Let the women and children be sent away so that we men can remain to guard the homes),” a Luhya man from Sodom told me. Sodom is a sprawling slum in Kangemi that stretches down to the valley that borders the leafy suburb of Lavington.

During the 2007-2008 post-election violence, Sodom, especially the area around Kihumbu-ini Primary School and Kangemi gichagi (village), became a site of violence pitting the Luhya community against the Kikuyu, who consider themselves indigenous to the area.

The slumlords who had built the timber shacks rented by the Luhyas quickly changed sides and, as the violence spiralled into us vs them, meaning the Kikuyus versus anybody else, whoever was deemed not to have voted for president Mwai Kibaki was harassed and even killed.

Mungiki, whose peripheral meaning is translated as the multitude, is a Kikuyu youth movement that began in the plains of Ng’arua and Sopili in Nyahururu around 1987. Over the years, it mutated into a militia for hire by the political elite.

Thiong’o, who is a landlord in Kangemi, told me there is a silent face-off between the Kikuyus and Luhyas: “Right now, we are not talking to each other [meaning no discussions that may lead to politics] until August 8. But we are ready for them. If they think they will be voting Raila so they can be paying reduced rent… they are in for a rude shock. We landlords have agreed that in the very unlikely event Raila is sworn in as president, we would rather burn the houses than see these western people dictate to us the rents we charge.”

Still, with all his bravado and ethnic machismo, Thiong’o nevertheless whispered to me that once he has voted, he will be gone to his rural home in Murang’a to follow the vote count among his relatives.

“Kikuyu tenants too have been changing houses and moving closer to their fellow kith and kin,” said a tenant I interviewed recently. “If you may recall, there used to be a village called Kijiji cha Chawa (the louse village), sandwiched between Huruma and Mathare 4A, that was largely inhabited by Kikuyus. Many of them were killed [during the 2008 post-election violence]; those who were able to escape, ran away, and whatever was left was destroyed youth from the Luo community.” Today, what used to be a slum dwelling is a playing field connected to Huruma by a footbridge.

“The Kikuyu landlords are aware of these movements, but they will not talk about them openly,” said a landlord from Huruma, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In fact, some of them are abetting these movements, as they also prepare to secure and safeguard their property.” Once bitten, twice shy. Landlords who burnt their fingers in the violence following the 2007/8 general election have come up with ingenious ways of ensuring their steady income is not interrupted and their property not destroyed.

“Kikuyu landlords, the majority of whose tenants are Luos, have evolved a symbiotic relationship with them. The tenants have been given the freedom to pick one of their own as the buildings’ caretakers, collecting rent on the landlords’ behalf, as they also ensure that the buildings are well maintained.”

In the Kibera slum, quiet movements have been taking place. For instance, Kikuyu families living in Gatwekera village, which is largely composed of Luos, have been relocating to Laini Saba village, nearer to their fellow Kikuyus

The horizontal movements have not only been taking place in the northeastern slums of Nairobi. In the infamous Kibera slum, quiet movements have been taking place as the country hurtles towards elections. For instance, Kikuyu families living in Gatwekera village, which is largely composed of Luos, have been relocating to Laini Saba village, nearer to their fellow Kikuyus.

The regrouping of the menfolk along ethnic lines in the major ghettos and peri-urban areas of Nairobi is to create buffer zones, just in case the violence of 2007/8 is repeated. “It is as if you were watching a pantomime: There are a lot of rhythmic motions by silent men, who very well know what they are plotting against each other, but nobody has the guts to stop and say; ‘But why are we doing this to one another?’,” observed my confidant.

Barely 100km northwest of Nairobi, Naivasha, one of the towns in the Rift valley region that was badly affected by the 2007-2008 post-election violence, is witnessing its own vertical and horizontal migrations. Presiding over a memorial service in the town in mid-June, Nakuru Catholic Diocese head Bishop Maurice Muhata observed, “Some families are transporting their children to their rural homes ahead of the election and this is very wrong.”

A cosmopolitan town mainly populated by Kikuyus, Naivasha nonetheless has a minority migrant labour force mostly drawn from Nyanza and western Kenya, who are employed as casual labourers in the large mechanised flower farms in Karagita, Kawere and Kongoni on the Moi South Road. Ten years ago, as the violence spread into the inner towns, Naivasha and Nakuru’s migrant workers bore the brunt of revenge violence by marauding Mungiki youth imported into the towns to murder and pillage the Luo people and their property.

Since the trashing of the presidential petition on March 30, 2013, the silent narrative out there among the opposition’s legion of supporters has been that there is no turning to the (Supreme) Court and there is no crying foul in case their party is (at least to their minds) unfairly defeated yet again. Beginning in 2016, this resolve has been gaining currency, telling opposition supporters that they should be prepared for any eventuality.

WE ARE NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS LYING DOWN

The National Super Alliance (NASA) presidential flagbearer Raila Odinga seemed to feed into this urgency when in an exclusive press interview at his home in Nairobi’s Karen suburb, he told the interviewer on January 28: “I have said clearly, we are democrats. We would like to have a fair game. If we lose unfairly, we will not accept… We are saying we are not going to take it lying down this time round.”

Roundi hii kutawaka nare” (this time round, there will be real fire), a fiercely loyal supporter of the opposition told me last year. “Ile gwoko ya 2007, itakuwa chai ya saa nne,” (The violence that erupted in 2007 will be likened to ten o’clock tea). Middle-aged and going by the moniker Roger Millah, the Luo man declared, matter-of-factly: “Electoral theft cannot be allowed to continue unchecked; this thing has to be sorted out once and for all.”

For Florence Kanyua, a vocal Bunge la Mwananchi (people’s parliament) activist from Nairobi, there is no mincing of words: “Every Kenyan is hoping for a peaceful election, but a peaceful election does not mean we should not demand justice and when that justice is taken away, we are expected ‘to move on’, just because, apparently, Kenyans love their peace. This time, Kenyans will say no monkey business. The governing coalition has been warned that it cannot steal the election once again and hope to get away with it.”

Kanyua was addressing her fellow Bunge members, who have created their own space at the cross-section of Mama Ngina Street and City Hall Way, right in the CBD centre. Here, the members congregate in the evenings from 6.pm-8.30pm to dissect the day’s political happenings. When we met, she had a special topic she wanted to lecture them on.

“The church does not know what it’s talking about, because it has been overtaken by events. Its peace message is tired and useless — what we need is justice, not peace,” her tenor voice boomed, reverberating beyond the ethnically diverse group of men who surrounded her. “In 2007, when the peace message would have made sense, the church was nowhere to be found or heard; it had compromised itself by taking sides in the politics of the day.”

The result, Kanyua told her crowd, was that the church lost its credibility because it had become partisan. “Kenyans were killed in a church in Burnt Forest in Eldoret — where was the voice of the church when Kenyans needed that voice most? It was nowhere. Why? Because the church became part of the post-election violence. The church ought to know Kenyans are a peaceful people: what they are craving for is justice. The church should not douse us with its peace rhetoric.”

The truth of the matter is Kanyua was not saying anything new. Months after a peace agreement had been ironed out between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga in February 2008, with the help of former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, I had a long chat with a Diocesan Catholic priest from the Archdiocese of Nairobi.

Every Kenyan is hoping for a peaceful election, but a peaceful election does not mean we should not demand justice and when that justice is taken away, we are expected ‘to move on’, just because, apparently, Kenyans love their peace. This time, Kenyans will say no monkey business

“Why did the Catholic Church — the largest, most influential and powerful church in the country — fail Kenyans in the 2007-2008 post-election violence?” I asked him. “The church did not fail Kenyans in 2007/8,” said the priest, who spoke to me on condition that what we were discussing was strictly between a parishioner and his confessor. “The post-election violence was the culmination of a church that had ceded its moral authority to the state five years earlier. The church was reaping the fruits of its lack of moral indignation and its overt indulgence of a state that had come to regard the Catholic Church as its ruling partner.”

In the 1990s, the Catholic Church had thrown it weight behind a fledging opposition that was continually harassed by former president Daniel arap Moi. When, in 2003, Mwai Kibaki, the compromise opposition candidate, floored Moi’s protégé Uhuru Kenyatta, the Church celebrated with the new President.

After all, he was a Catholic, “But fundamentally, the then head of the Catholic Church in Kenya, retired Archbishop Ndingi Mwana ’Nzeki, was a friend of Kibaki,” the priest reminded me. “The Church literally went to bed with the state. A criticism of the government was considered to be a criticism of the president himself.”

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH LOOKED THE OTHER WAY

The Catholic Church is very hierarchical, just like the military – you must obey your superiors without question. “Individually, a priest is a mere cog in the institutional, powerful wheel that is the Church. You do not want to mess with it — you can be easily crushed.” The priest told me president Kibaki indulged the Church and did its bidding. In return, the Church unquestioningly looked the other way, as his government took the Church’s support for granted, and engaged in wanton corruption.

“I knew the Church had completely lost its moral compass, when in the lead up to the 2007 general election, our brother priests in Central Kenya openly canvassed for president Kibaki from the pulpit.” The priest told me that some of his fellow priests went beyond their call of duty to invite politicians to politick from the pulpit itself. “The Church had become the state and the state had become the Church.

“Should it shock anyone that when political violence threatened to blanket the country, the Catholic Church did not stand up to be counted?” asked the priest. “The post-election violence aftermath divided the Episcopal Conference of Bishops so much that they never could agree on anything for a long time. The violence had divided the bishops on ethnic fault lines with great bitterness and so too the legion of priests working in the thousands of parishes spread all over Kenya.”

The priest nostalgically told me how he longed for the days when the Church was led by the late Michael Cardinal Maurice Otunga. “Yes, he was conservative, yes, he was pro-establishment — but pro-establishment with checks and balances.” The priest told me even president Moi knew his limits with Cardinal Otunga. “In his reign, as cardinal, he never allowed the Church to be divided along ethnic lines and would never have allowed any politician —including president Moi — anywhere near the Catholic Church pulpit.

“How we miss the pastoral letters penned by the Episcopal Conference of Bishops then: They were direct, powerful and spoke to the heart of the nation. After addressing the nation and the government through the letter, Cardinal Otunga would direct the letter be read and communicated to the Catholics parishes all over the country.”

Two days before Raila and his NASA team went to campaign in Tharaka Nithi County in Meru on June 16, 2017, I visited a printing press on River Road in downtown Nairobi. The press, owned by a Tharaka man, was incidentally printing flags and posters to be used in NASA’s rally. Out of the blue, he said: “Hawa watu wamezoea kuiba kura za Raila, wajaribu tena… kutawaka moto. (These people who are used to stealing Raila’s votes, we dare them to try again….they will be starting a fire).”

THE SPECTRE OF VIOLENCE HAUNTS KENYA

Although I have been conducting my interviews in formal English and Kiswahili and very often in Sheng, not even that lyrical “rebel” language spoken in the ghettos and county council estates of the Eastlands area aptly captures what Kenyan writer Yvonne Owuor calls the third official language of Kenya — the language of silence (after English and Kiswahili). As these “political” realignments in the ghettos of Nairobi take place silently, but openly, in anticipation of an ominous “uncertainty” a spectre could be haunting Kenya — the spectre of violence.

“Uncertainty is not a good experience,” a Kenyan university don told me recently. “Since 2007, uncertainty in the Kenyan political terrain has come to mean a foreboding of violence.” We were having a sumptuous lunch in an exclusive Nairobi club, where the nouveau riche pontificate on the shifting sands of Kenyan politics far from the madding crowd.

The Kikuyus living in the North Rift would be well advised to take leave before August 8. They live there at the mercy of the Kalenjins. They should not wait to be collateral damage

“Let us not us not kid ourselves,” said the professor, who asked that I should not reveal her designation. “After the post-election violence of 2007-2008, our national politics has never been the same again.” The don, a Kikuyu, teaches at Kabianga University in Kericho County. “I timed my 2017 annual leave to fall in the month of August. I am not taking any chances.”

She observed how her boss, a Kalenjin professor, had, with a light touch, teased her about being timid. “I thought now we are on the same side?” She said she laughed about it, but still presented him with her leave form. “It is better to be safe than sorry.”

“I was there when the March 2016 Kericho Senator seat by-election took place,” she explained. “Although it was strictly a family feud, there was an eerie feeling that if matters were to get out of hand, violence would erupt.” Seemingly thinking aloud, she added: “The Kikuyus living in the North Rift would be well advised to take leave before August 8. They live there at the mercy of the Kalenjins, They should not wait to be collateral damage. I mean if things were to go wrong…”

The crux of the matter is that the relationship between the Kikuyus and Kalenjins in the Rift Valley region has always been fragile and frosty. Since the orgy of violence that visited the North Rift after the 2007 general election, the area has remained a powder keg of bottled up emotions.

The International Crisis Group addresses the professor’s fears in its latest report, Kenya’s Rift Valley: Old Wounds, Devolution’s New Anxieties. It quotes a governance expert saying: “The alliance between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin following Jubilee’s 2013 election victory lulled many into believing historical foes were on an ‘irreversible’ course to overcoming animosities. Yet Rift Valley reconciliation remains superficial. What we have is negative peace … calm.”

This false calm seems to have reared its ugly head once again in Eldoret town and its environs. After the shambolic and bruising Jubilee Party nominations in April, the battle for the Uasin Gishu County governor’s seat has boiled down to a fight between the incumbent Jackson Mandago and Zedekiah Bundotich Kiprop alias Buzeki, a middle-aged, lean, bespectacled nouveau riche, who is running on an independent ticket and looks poised to snatch the seat from Mandago.

Feeling the heat from Buzeki, the exiting governor has resorted to the time-tested politics of us versus them in his bid to fend off the younger contestant, invoking the lingo of “aliens amid our people.” Mandago and his allies have been sending a menacing warning to outsiders who must know their place or else… vacate the county forthwith.

The aliens being referred to here are the Kikuyus, who are mostly to be found in Eldoret town itself and in its satellite towns such as Turbo. In Turbo, most Kikuyus are concentrated in Huruma ward, the most populous ward, so much so that the Member of the County Assembly is also a Kikuyu. Ditto Market ward in Eldoret town. It is populated by Kikuyu people, most of whom are traders. Market ward’s MCA is also a Kikuyu.

Why do the Kikuyus in the North Rift find themselves, once again, in the shadow of the valley of death — even though “they are on the same side with the Kalenjins?”

When the violence of 2007/8 erupted in the North Rift, Huruma and Market wards were the most affected. No prizes for guessing why.

In 2014, I travelled to Karatina, a market town about 100 km north of Nairobi, on the Nairobi-Nyeri highway, to meet one Njeri from Nyeri town. Njeri had been one the biggest mitumba (secondhand clothes) traders in Eldoret town. She had lived in the town — to be precise, in Market ward — for 15 years. “I had built my business from scratch. Every Eldoret resident knew me as ‘Njeri wa Mitumba.’ I was successful, I had made it. But then the 2007 general election came and everything all of a sudden went topsy-turvy.”

Between sips of cold White Cap beer at Star Bucks Hotel, Njeri narrated to me how on December 30, 2007, her world came crashing down. “The arsonists specifically went looking for my godown. They bayed for my blood. But before they got me, they torched the godown and my Ksh5 million stock went up in flames.”

What saved her life, she told me, was that her Kalenjin friend called her in the dead of the night and asked her to leave the town immediately. “Don’t take anything — just go.”

How has this old man ever wronged us? If Raila led this country, what would happen? Let him now lead so that there can be fireworks. We the Kipsigis people are tired of the chicanery shown to us by these two thugs , Uhuru and Ruto

“I went back to my folks’ place in Nyeri town, where I grew up, with nothing but the clothes I had on.” Seven years later, she was yet to rebuild her life — not so much in terms of capital to start a new life, but that she had yet to adjust to Nyeri life. “Eldoret had been my home. I went there as a determined young girl ready to sacrifice and work my arse off.”

Njeri told me that when, in 2013 Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto teamed up to run for the presidency, she was devastated. “My fellow Kikuyus from Nyeri could not understand me, but then how could they, I had spent my adulthood in the Rift Valley diaspora and that is when it dawned on me that there is a huge difference in how ancestral Kikuyus and diaspora Kikuyus view national politics.”

AN ARMISTICE WRITTEN ON QUICKSAND

As I headed back to Nairobi and she to Nyeri, she stated that political violence will always stalk the Kikuyus in the North Rift. “Have the people who perpetrated the violence ever been punished? The artificial armistice between the Kikuyus and Kalenjins is written on quicksand.”

The rumour in the town is that Buzeki, whose wife is allegedly Kikuyu, will attract the Kikuyu votes – which, if that happens, could be the game changer. The intra-Jubilee Party political squabbles are nowhere near safer for the Kikuyu community in the tumultuous North Rift than they were in the lead up to the December 2007 general election. “We will count the votes Buzeki gets and if he gets 100 votes, then a certain community will have to move out of Eldoret,” Mandago is quoted to have said.

Yet something more sinister allegedly took place in Eldoret that went unannounced. Early in February 2017, when the IEBC opened voter registration centres countrywide, Mungiki youth were purportedly shipped from towns such as Nairobi and Nakuru to register in Eldoret North constituency, Deputy President Ruto’s former constituency. It did not take long for the local community to realise there were “strangers” among them. According to reports, the young men were thrown out of town and the story did not reverberate beyond Eldoret.

All this despite the fact that Deputy President William Ruto, whose International Criminal Court case once threatened to tear up the manuscript on which the Kikuyu-Kalenjin truce was written, has stayed united with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The International Crisis Group report notes that the “dismissal of Ruto’s case [in April 2016] brought particular relief in Rift Valley, where uncertainty over his fate was beginning to sow division within the governing coalition. Claims Kenyatta was not doing enough to get his Deputy President off the hook fed Kalenjin mistrust, heightening fears of renewal of inter-communal tension.”

Yet, with a section of the Kalenjin nation seemingly throwing its support behind the opposition coalition NASA, it is likely that were violence to start, it would consume Bomet County and the adjoining towns of Kericho and Sotik, says Ali Abkula. Abkula was The National Alliance (TNA) political director in the lead-up to the 2013 general election. TNA is the political vehicle that President Uhuru used to ascend to power.

Bomet County Governor Isaac Ruto in April 2017 joined the NASA Four — Raila Odinga, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula — to form the Pentagon. Ruto is a Kipsigis, the largest and the most populous of the nine Kalenjin sub-tribes. They mostly inhabit the South Rift and for the better part of Jubilee rule, have been complaining of how they have been receiving the short end of the stick from the Jubilee government, even after voting for the coalition en masse in 2013.

On the weekend of June 17-18, Ruto addressed a rally in Nakuru town and hit out at both President Uhuru and his Deputy William Ruto (no relation). Reminding them that the country does not belong to two tribes — the Kalenjins and Kikuyus — he accused them of sending the country down the drain. He told the crowd what the electorate wanted was justice and not war. “Sisi hatutaki vita….tunataka kupiga kura kwa amani ndio tupate haki… wasitutishe. (We do not want war…what we want is to vote peacefully and get justice…we will not be threatened).”

Among the Kikuyu speakers, an eight-minute video clip has been making the rounds through the social media, warning them of relinquishing power to the opposition

The community’s beef with the senior Ruto, the Deputy President, who himself is a Kipsigis, but grew up among the Nandis of Eldoret after his parents migrated north in the late 1960s, is that he dished out all the plum state jobs to the Nandis and neglected to fulfil the development promises he lured them with.

An elderly Kipsigis man, having tea in a kibanda (roadside shack) in Kericho town in early June, got into an argument with fellow tea customers about the forthcoming elections. In a fit of anger and fury, he stood up and said: “Saa yote huyu mzee…. Saa yote huyu mzee… Huyu mzee ametukosea nini? Kwani Raila akiongoza itakuwa nini? Wacha sasa aongoze moto iwake. Sisi Kipsigis tumechoka na uongo wa hawa majambazi wawili (Every time this old man….Every time this old man. How has this old man ever wronged us? If Raila led this country, what would happen? Let him now lead so that there can be fireworks. We the Kipsigis people are tired of the chicanery shown to us by these two thugs (Uhuru and Ruto).”

Determined to slice off a chunk of the huge Kalenjin consolidated vote, Governor Ruto has stoked real fear in the heart of the Jubilee coalition. “Sometime early this year, the Kipsigis elders met and gave the Governor the go-ahead to form an alliance with the opposition NASA,” an elder from the community said to me.

On June 17, Emurua Dikirr outgoing MP Jonathan Ng’eno was in Narok North attending a funeral service. Looking visibly agitated he asked the congregation: “Kwani tukipigia Raila kura tutakufa? (If we choose to vote for Raila, are we going to die?)”

“The intransigency and the digging in by both Jubilee Party and NASA is ominous,” says Ali. “It does not augur well for the country. Like in the 2007 general election, the August 8 election involves the unseating of an incumbent.” Such a scenario, he says, is always fraught with overtones of political violence.

On the same day Ng’eno was telling his constituency they could vote for the opposition leader Raila Odinga, Raila himself was telling the Maasai people in Kajiado County to not dispose of their land hastily. The comment was quickly hijacked by Jubilee Party aficionados who used this remark to paint Raila as a warmonger. No sooner had Raila finished uttering those words than leaflets were already in circulation in the county.

“We woke up the following day to find leaflets strewn everywhere and pinned on electricity poles saying that ‘foreigners’ such as Kikuyus and Kisiis should vacate Kajiado,” said Mzee Kanjory who lives in Corner Baridi. Mzee Kanjory said that many of the leaflets were dropped off in the Pipeline area. Pipeline is the stretch between Isinya and Kiserian towns.

“This area is really cosmopolitan; Kikuyus, Kisiis, Luhyas, Luos, Maasais all have invested in this area,” said Mzee Kanjory. “It would be a good starting place to foment ethnic tension in Kajiado County.” If violence were to occur in Kajiado, the Mzee assured me, it would be brutal and genocidal.

“This is a county that has been harbouring festering wounds for a long time among the local Maasai people, who, even though they sold their land on a willing-buyer willing-seller basis, still feel they were cheated. It would only take a small trigger to ignite an inferno.”

The forthcoming general election, which is already showing signs of being the hottest contested ever, has put Kenyans on edge. Among the Kikuyu speakers, an eight-minute video clip has been making the rounds through the social media, warning them of relinquishing power to the opposition. Entitled Mt Kenya Group — Ngai Emwena Witu — “God is on our side,” the video is a montage of Kikuyu popular songs carefully selected to evoke ethnic passions, as well as to create a siege mentality among the larger Kikuyu community.

The lyrics disguised as a clarion credo to rally The House of Mumbi — a catchphrase used by ethnic bigots to evoke a sense of emotional oneness among the Kikuyu nation — are a subtle call to arms if the opposition NASA coalition were to wrest power from the Kikuyu.

CALING ALL KIKUYUS

Calling all Kikuyus, wherever they are, to vote for President Uhuru Kenyatta, the jingoism expressed in the amateur production is frighteningly unabashed and unapologetic in its war cry: “We must protect Uthamaki (political king) at all costs. We must stop the opposition from capturing power by all means. We will not accept to be defeated, because defeat does not exist in our lexicon. Therefore, the House of Mumbi cannot be defeated.”

In a bizarre request to the Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet, the Kiambu County governor seat candidate and Kabete MP Ferdinand Waititu asked him to deploy only Kikuyu police officers to the county. “The deployment is the only way our people will effectively communicate to the police and therefore boost security,” said Waititu on June 29.

With a fidgety ruling coalition seemingly under siege from a resurgent opposition, determined to snatch power from a faltering coalition — but one with immense powers of incumbency — we could be headed for a civil war if the election is not properly conducted.

Comments
Avatar
Read all articles by

Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

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