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OUT IN THE COLD: Why the Kenyan diaspora must be allowed to vote

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The crisp sting of the November cold hugged me tight as I waited for the polling station at a Baltimore precinct to open up. It was four o’clock in the morning; the darkness of the just concluded campaigns still had its uncertain grip over the land.

As I waited for the chief election judge to come and open the doors, a fellow election judge joined me. We exchanged pleasantries.

After a few hours, when the voters began to trickle in, I became a neural citizen, as was required of my job as an election judge. I did not show my preferences and diligently provided my services to ensure a free and accessible election. I also observed and made useful comparisons with what I know of the Kenyan system.

I am a Kenyan, I am an American. My dual citizenship bears civic responsibilities and rights in two countries. I am invested in both the country I was born in and the country I live in, as are millions of others who live and work outside their countries of birth.

The current globalised reality has created dual and multiple citizenships that obligate citizens to water the tree from which they receive daily shade, and to nourish the distant soil that raised them because they still have loved ones there; but most important, their identity is rooted in that distant soil, a belonging that is more powerful than the foreign residence that becomes a new home.

The current globalised reality has created dual and multiple citizenships that obligate citizens to water the tree from which they receive daily shade, and to nourish the distant soil that raised them because they still have loved ones there

An interest in civic engagement led me to becoming an elections judge in the 2016 US elections for the State of Maryland. This is a volunteer position, although it does come with an honorarium that varies from state to state. Elections in the United Sates are state-regulated, with each of the fifty states dictating their own election processes.

This is different from Kenya where elections are centralised and regulated by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). This centralisation leaves the IEBC vulnerable to manipulation by incumbency politics. It has also given IEBC officials a sense of belligerence when it comes to serving a constituency such as the diaspora, a population they deem a bother, inconsequential or potential spoilers in the game of power-shifting.

The diaspora-IEBC tango

The relationship between the IEBC and the Kenyan diaspora constituency has been salty, rife with litigation and deliberations that produce no results.

The Kenya Diaspora Alliance (KDA), an organisation that has championed the collective civic engagement aspirations of the diaspora since the 2012 elections, has several times sued the elections body for failure to implement diaspora voting rights. Winning a lawsuit in 2015 in which the Supreme Court directed IEBC to enable the diaspora to exercise their right to vote has not made a difference.

The IEBC, while promising to honour the constitution, uses Article 82 (1)(e) “progressive registration of citizens residing outside Kenya, and the progressive realisation of their right to vote”, to keep the diaspora disenfranchised. “Progressive realisation” is a grey area subject to interpretation that suits whoever holds the keys to diaspora participation. The phrase suggests that you can allow just one extra person to vote every election and that can pass for progressive.

The argument also needs to be made that the “progressive realisation” phrase should to be expunged from the constitution as it leads to the suppression of the rights of an estimated 3 million Kenyans far into an unseen future. Article 257 (1) allows for amendment of the constitution by popular initiative that gathers at least one million signatures.

The IEBC, while promising to honour the constitution, uses Article 82 (1)(e) “progressive registration of citizens residing outside Kenya, and the progressive realisation of their right to vote”, to keep the diaspora disenfranchised.

The frustration of unrealised rights has carried over to the current election season. In January, 2017, KDA made another public threat that appeared in the newspapers to sue IEBC as the body had made empty promises and failed to implement satisfactory mechanisms for diaspora voting.

To its short-lived credit, the IEBC had, towards the end of 2015, released the IEBC Diaspora Policy that guides the registration and voting exercise for Kenyans abroad, or what some have come to call the 48th county.

Disappointingly, the IEBC continues to fail the test of trustworthiness. Upon persistent inquiry as to why the body failed to honour its publicised plan to start the registration of Kenyans at embassies, the official response cited lack of funds as the reason. Often, IEBC has also mentioned that it lacks reliable statistics to implement registration processes.

These excuses are disingenuous as diaspora representatives have made presentations of diaspora-led solutions to IEBC, and the IEBC officials had found the i-Vote.net solution quite impressive. i-Vote.net is a fully functional and secure digital platform for counting and mapping Kenyans in the diaspora, and recording the demographics in real time. It also has online voting capability. The system is an initiative of Kenyans in the diaspora.

An official endorsement of such a solution would immediately begin to solve the problem of lack of funds or statistics as it would allow a great number of diaspora Kenyans to count and provide the needed statistics. There has been zero political will to create productive partnerships. Change can come through one person with a million dollars or through a million voices with one purpose. The platforms that the diaspora has created can be used to raise a million voices.

The IEBC gets its funding from the government, and also from foreign donors, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Denmark and Norway. The failure to budget for a constituency of millions of Kenyans is not just negligence, it is criminal.

Diaspora as marginalised citizens

Article 82 (1)(c) calls for “the continuous registration of citizens as voters”, which can be used to press for the treatment of Kenyans in the diaspora as deserving of their rights as any other citizen. In nation-building, no real unity is ever achieved until all communities that are part of that nation are accorded equal realisation of their rights.

The discrimination of citizens using geographical location has historically affected the communities in the northern parts of Kenya, driving them to extreme socio-political and economic marginalisation. This discrimination has become a reality for the diaspora, notwithstanding this constituency’s economic clout.

Voting leads to the right to representation, which lends a voice to communities that might not otherwise be heard. It is this voice that the diaspora seeks.

The diaspora’s potential to build the country cannot be overstated. Unlike the courtship of foreign donors by African governments, which sustains an unpleasant trail of neocolonisation, courting diaspora partnerships should be easy as this is a population with its heart already invested in their home country.

For the diaspora, this includes the ability to access those in power in order to establish local businesses, to make social impact investments, such as schools and hospitals, and to lobby for policies that are friendly to both Kenya and the diaspora.

With diaspora remittances now amounting to KSh160 billion ($1.6 billion) annually, 10 percent of this amount can go a long way towards realising these aspirations, putting thousands of Kenyans to work and reducing the amount of money Kenya now borrows from China for its infrastructural needs.

In 2015, the National Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich, mentioned that more than half of these remittances are sent through unofficial channels that cannot be traced for taxation. At the time, he estimated untraceable remittances at KSH120 million annually. Finding solutions to tapping a percentage of these hidden remittances is best achieved by involving diaspora Kenyans in making direct investments in national infrastructure. The diaspora’s potential to build the country cannot be overstated. Unlike the courtship of foreign donors by African governments, which sustains an unpleasant trail of neocolonisation, courting diaspora partnerships should be easy as this is a population with its heart already invested in their home country.

It is the mindset of cutting off diaspora involvement while scheming to get its money that has deepened disillusionment. Many Kenyans abroad have complained about being used as cash cows to fund establishment interests, especially alluding to the standing ultimatum by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) for diaspora Kenyans to file their taxes.

The KRA cannot legally demand to tax Kenyans who do not have fiscal residency in Kenya, a status that requires a residency of an aggregate 183 days or more in a fiscal year, regardless of one’s citizenship status. The attempt at double-taxing diaspora Kenyans has been an emotive issue that cannot be resolved through multilateral tax treaties alone.

A government’s efforts to use laws and institutions selectively fail when it does not involve all parties, in this case, the diaspora constituency, in everything diaspora-related. There are active diaspora organisations that have a history of handling diaspora issues.

An example of the forceful attempt to milk a diaspora without building civic engagement bridges is Eritrea’s government, which introduced a 2 per cent Recovery and Reconstruction Tax (RRT) on individual diaspora income. This led to the 2011 UN Security Council intervention through Resolution 2023 which “decides that Eritrea shall cease using extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea from its nationals or other” (Article 11). However, this reprimand was also linked to the Eritrean government’s use of the 2 per cent tax levy to fund its civil war.

The uneasy relationship between the diaspora and the Kenyan government dates back to the Moi dictatorship years when those who moved abroad were labelled as dissidents. The establishment of organisations, such as the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA), allowed for an organised struggle that saw the constitutional realisation of dual citizenship, against great odds, and later voting rights.

The victory that ushered Kenya’s “second liberation” fighters into establishment politics allowed the diaspora organisations to pursue diplomatic engagement, which later developed into the search for a slippery détente, especially with the Washington DC embassy. When the DC embassy sneezes, the rest catch a cold. There has been progress to be sure, as with two steps forward, one backward. The diaspora itself also bears responsibility for that one step back.

Attaining unity of purpose among Kenyans abroad has been a great challenge. Partisan and ethnic divisions have in the past contributed to rancour that spread its poison through social media exchanges; this was witnessed especially during the 2007 election period. Some continue to maintain a grotesquery of nationhood that elevates deep tribal loyalties in foreign lands. These are inconvenient truths that the diaspora does not like to see published, but they need to be reflected back and acknowledged often until the reflection in the mirror is altered by its bearer.

American tribalism

The thought about the diaspora’s struggle with tribalism snaps me back to what America just went through: the most bizarre campaign period that saw the rise of Donald Trump. My Kenyan understanding and experience of tribalism made me grasp the demagoguery of Trump as a tribal kingpin funnelling primitive emotions for his own gain.

Looking at the phenomenon through the neorealist spectrum, one could see that the extremist members of the Caucasian tribe had succeeded in defining the interests of the country as primarily those of the white race. Trump is the embodiment of animus dominandi, or the obsessive desire for dominance that, at any cost, procures the interests of a race that feels threatened by subjugation, the said subjugation being real or imagined. It is quite reminiscent of the 41-against-1 rhetoric in Kenya.

Attaining unity of purpose among Kenyans abroad has been a great challenge. Partisan and ethnic divisions have in the past contributed to rancour that spread its poison through social media exchanges; this was witnessed especially during the 2007 election period.

A section of White America has been observing the dwindling numbers of its own race and the rise of minority groups in demographics, political power and consumption of resources. Like animals in a jungle, animus dominandi dictated that power must be grabbed back for the sake of survival and greatness.

Trump’s followers were not just driven by their frustration with Washington politics – that swamp that needed to be drained – they were also driven by a primal fear that found its perfect camouflage in the slogan “Make America Great Again”. The entire scenario mirrored what I knew to be true in my country, Kenya. American tribal politics had driven a wedge between a people that should have built a nation as one people.

The US voting system

Every polling station in the United States has a trained team of election judges whose job is to execute a fair and accessible election. The team is led by a chief election judge whose job is to: ensure early arrival of all voting material under tight security provided by the police department; set up the polling station; coordinate the judges; field questions from journalists and observers; tally the votes at the top of every hour and post the results hourly at a publicly visible place within the polling station; and ensure that voting machines are emptied and locked at the end of the day.

Each step is witnessed by party agents; this ensures the auditing process is incorporated from the beginning to the end. It is also a chief election judge’s job to ensure the storage device that contains the final tally in digital format is securely transported to the Board of Elections counting center where canvassing is done. Canvassing in this case refers to the final tallying, verification and audit of the votes, which produces the official count. This included absentee ballots, provisional ballots, vote-by-mail ballots and early voting ballots. The results that come out of the polling stations, before official count, are believed to be a true reflection of the people’s choice because the auditing starts right from the first hour of the voting process. Claims of voter fraud have been debunked by various political forensics. Out of 135 million voters, there were only a reported four cases of voter fraud, a negligible percentage.

My experience as an election judge showed me just how near-impossible it is to rig an American election process, even with voter registries that have a good number of dead people. A voter who comes in to vote as one of the dead persons has to go through biometric verification before getting a ballot. That is the same safeguard the Kenyan system is intended to provide. The rigging with Kenya comes in when one party is known to have access to IEBC voter rolls and can manipulate the numbers as the election proceeds. This was the case in the 2013 elections, which resulted in the machines declaring over a million spoilt votes, leading to the abandonment of a system that had cost billions of shillings and using manual counting. Rigging robs a country of massive resources.

Trump is the embodiment of animus dominandi, or the obsessive desire for dominance that, at any cost, procures the interests of a race that feels threatened by subjugation, the said subjugation being real or imagined. It is quite reminiscent of the 41-against-1 rhetoric in Kenya.

At the moment, Kenyans are struggling with trusting registries that are confirmed to have thousands of dead people still registered. This should not be a point of worry. The diligence of election officials at polling stations should be enough to stop anyone trying to appropriate someone else’s identity. Death is a daily guarantee, and it should be no mystery that names of deceased persons appear on registries for a period of time. Voter purging should be as frequent as practically possible to remove deceased persons.

However, in the current US situation, there’s fear that the federal government wants to control voter data in order to do its own targeted purging. Because voting is state-controlled, each state is able to independently deny the request of the president’s commission to release voter data; this hinders any attempt by a rogue establishment to engage in large-scale voter suppression.

Bold legacies

Absentee voting is the method most commonly used by US residents living abroad. They register online through the Federal Voting Assistance Program that sends them absentee ballots. Once filled out, these are mailed back to the voter’s claimed state of last residence in the US. Should an absentee ballot not be received on time, one can still vote online through the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot.

The US diaspora also faces the challenge of counting the uncountable. While the State Department puts that population at 7.6 million, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) states, “Despite efforts by American organizations and the U.S. government to achieve more consistency, current estimates vary from 2.2 million to 6.8 million — a substantial range.” The lesson here should be that the challenge of statistics, though important, should not be used as an excuse to delay the enfranchisement of Kenyans abroad.

A constituency that is bound by unique characteristics provides an opportunity for innovative solutions. Diaspora voting for Kenyans abroad has become a problem child for IEBC and the government, yet it presents one of the most exciting frontiers in the science of voting methods and technology. All it requires is one bold and visionary official who welcomes the challenge with a determination to leave a legacy. There has to be a beginning, one that must break through the doubts and fears of rigging and manipulation of a diaspora vote.

The implementation of online voting for the diaspora constituency should still be seriously considered. In 2013, we attended a workshop organised by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Washington, DC. A team of expert computer programmers led by Dr. Alex Halderman, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, made a presentation on the danger of online voting. While he and the IEBC team were impressed by our i-Vote platform devised for diaspora voting, they cautioned that online systems were not ready for use. This may be true, but that does not mean we cannot conquer new frontiers. Estonia is fully aware of all the pitfalls of online voting, but that did not stop that small country from embracing the technology, and efficiently implementing e-government in all its sectors. It has presented itself as a case study, willing to fail and reinvent and conquer. This should be the spirit that guides Kenya.

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Ms Hall is a freelance writer based in the USA

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The Real Story Behind the Hustler Narrative

Deputy President William Ruto’s political campaign is not a class struggle; it is a struggle for power – for himself. He is organising and mobilising his political base the same way the political sons of the late Daniel arap Moi organised their politics – through transactional methods that exploited human need, greed and ambitions for power.

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The Real Story Behind the Hustler Narrative
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Deputy President William Samoei Ruto has hit the campaign trail hard. He has provocatively billed the next presidential election the “hustlers versus dynasties” duel, which broadcast journalist Joe Ageyo thinks is new to Kenya’s politics.

In a Citizen TV talk show, Ageyo suggested that Ruto might be doing politics differently, mobilising and organising his political base along the dominant social-economic cleavages, and not the usual ethnic-regional conundrum – often presented as transient ethnic kingpin coalitions during general elections.

Certainly, Ruto’s invocation of an existing socio-economic cleavage between those in power and unemployed youth lends Kenya’s notoriously ethnicised politics a class overtone. Has William Ruto, a wealthy, self-styled born-again Christian politician, whose long political journey that began earnestly as the organising secretary of the surreptitious Youth for Kanu 92 (YK’92), undergone a Road-to-Damascus-like political conversion? Or is this vintage Ruto, grabbing any opportunity he can find to ruthlessly pursue his interests to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming president?

Hustler nation

Speaking in Nyamira County recently, Ruto said, “Some people are telling us sons of hustlers cannot be president. That your father must be known. That he must be rich for you to become the president. We are telling them that even a child of a boda boda or a kiosk operator or mtoto wa anayevuta mkokoteni (child of a cart pusher) can lead this country.” In a country that is tottering on the brink of economic meltdown, a youth budge and political despair, this is music to the ears of a desperate youthful population.

The deputy president’s chief critics remind him that surnames have hardly ever handicapped one’s presidential ambitions. Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, and Mwai Kibaki’s became president, and their fathers’ names were totally unknown to Kenyans. Only Uhuru Kenyatta, who Ruto ably assisted to win the presidency in the last two presidential elections, has a father who is known to Kenyans because he was the country’s first president.

Ruto, the self-styled spokesman of “the hustler nation,” also stated, “On dealing with hustlers, Raila should leave that to me. He does not understand the plight of hustlers. He is the son of a vice president and he was born being driven around.”

So why does Ruto proudly claim to be the “hustler-in-chief”? Hustler means different things to different people, but for many Kenyan youth, it signifies humble beginnings or means of eking out a living – respectable or otherwise. Being a hustler means one has found a way to stay afloat, particularly in hard economic times. The ambivalent feelings this word evokes match the legal and moral ambiguities that Ruto has built around his political career.

The deputy president has the gall to identify with the very youth whose present and future the Jubilee government has committed to misery by mismanaging the economy. He is appealing to youthful voters who will comprise the majority of first-time voters in 2022.

Wheelbarrownomics

But more than assuming their identity, what the deputy president has ably done is to locate the youths’ anxiety: their discontentment and deep frustration with the government. Frederick Kariuki, 29, a qualified accountant and a budding entrepreneur in Nairobi, is the latest convert to the political movement that is seemingly sweeping the country: The Hustlers. He told us that Ruto’s “wheelbarrownomics” (a word coined by Kenyan economist David Ndii) has struck the right note with the youth who believe Ruto could be their saviour.

“Those talking ill of the wheelbarrow gifts are pretenders to middle class, pedantic mandarins associated with President Uhuru’s wing of the Jubilee Party that is fighting Ruto. After lying to youth during the 2017 presidential campaigns, afraid and embarrassed by the swelling hordes of youth without work who are threatening to explode, the government belatedly came up with kazi mtaani (casual wage labour). What is the difference between kazi mtaani, where college graduates are being supplied with slashers for cutting grass and paid 400 shillings (which is still stolen from them) and Ruto’s dishing of wheelbarrows and push carts?” posed Kariuki.

The deputy president has the gall to identify with the very youth whose present and future the Jubilee government has committed to misery by mismanaging the economy. He is appealing to youthful voters who will comprise the majority of first-time voters in 2022.

“Ruto has correctly seized the moment to sell his hustler narrative, which has caught on like bush fire, even if it means bringing down a government he helped install in power. And why not? He has outwitted his nemesis through his tactical political manoeuvres and that’s what realpolitik is all about.

“A wheelbarrow costs 4,000 shillings and a pushcart 20,000 shillings. A cursory visit to Nairobi markets – Gikomba, Githurai and Marigiti – will show you what difference a wheelbarrow can make to a fruits’ hawker. The wheelbarrow is what many youth are using to hawk their wares. Many a youth in the ghetto, hoping to enter into the business of selling water, cannot because they simply can’t raise 20,000 shillings. Ruto then comes along and gives you a push cart. Between kazi mtaani and wage labour of unguaranteed 400 shillings, which would you rather have? What has President Uhuru’s government and those politicians criticising Ruto offered the youth? Nothing. They should keep quiet. I’ll be voting Ruto very early in the morning and pushing his agenda between now and 2022.”

Muigai, a friend from Fly Over, which is 50 kilometres from Nairobi and on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway, returned to the country just after the 2017 double presidential elections. Despite being armed with a college degree from a prestigious university, he has yet to find work. He was full of expectations; at 24 years of age, he believed the world was his oyster. But every single day, he sees his word crumbling before him.

His relatives encouraged him to come back home because they believed that Uhuru Kenyatta would create jobs for the youth, especially Kikuyu youth. “Since returning home, I’ve seen my family’s increasing disenchantment with President Uhuru Kenyatta,” said Muigai.

“At Soko Mjinga Market, the wheelbarrow is king, and they dare criticise Ruto? What has Uhuru himself offered other than destroying our businesses?” asked Muigai’s angry maternal uncle. “The Building the Bridges Initiative? They may say all they want about Ruto, that’s the person we’ll be voting for and we cannot wait to do it. The Kenyatta family will know we’re no longer their slaves.”

The underdog narrative

When Ruto teamed up with Uhuru in 2013 to form the Jubilee coalition, he wore shirts emblazoned with the president’s name. In April 2011, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, at Gatundu Grounds at the Kenyatta family’s ancestral home in Kiambu County, lay hands on her son Uhuru and his International Criminal Court (ICC) co-accused William Ruto after stating: “I’m sure Uhuru and Ruto will go to The Hague and come back so that we can proceed with nation building.”

Ruto had already set his eyes on the prize: the presidency. He was supposedly the smarter one of Jubilee’s so-called “dynamic duo” who reeled off “facts and figures” at political rallies as he rode on Uhuru’s back, family name, and deep-state connections to the State House. For a man who was tried at the ICC for crimes against humanity, allegedly for his role in the 2007/8 post-election violence against the Gikuyu walala hoi of Rift Valley region, he has successfully circumvented the established Gikuyu elite gatekeepers since 2013, and won the hearts and minds of a significant cross-section of the Gikuyu rank and file.

“I’m from Ishaweri, in Gatundu and I can tell you, there’s nothing to report home about the president coming from our midst,” said Peterson Njuguna. “The Gatundu youth spend their time drinking illicit liquor, loitering and engaging in petty crime. In Gatundu, poverty glares you in the face. Why? The president cares less about them. He doesn’t know who they are, he’s least bothered whether they drink themselves to death or not, and here he and his minions are criticising Ruto who dares to give the youth some equipment.

Ruto had already set his eyes on the prize: the presidency. He was supposedly the smarter one of Jubilee’s so-called “dynamic duo” who reeled off “facts and figures” at political rallies as he rode on Uhuru’s back, family name, and deep-state connections to the State House.

“The Kenyatta family is so mean, they never mix with anyone, leave alone offering any kind of help or hope. But they will be quick to rubbish anyone who seemingly steps in to do something. So what if Ruto is doing it for politics? What has Uhuru himself done for politics? I’ve heard some Kenyans ask: how many wheelbarrows can you give people? Here is a government that promised the youth jobs and more jobs under their watch. Instead what happened? They have systematically presided over the destruction of the economy, so that they can offer slashers to graduates and President Uhuru loyalists have the temerity to talk about Ruto’s symbolism. Uhuru should just go home and leave us alone. We can’t wait for him to bring along the BBI, that’s the day he’ll know the fury of an awakened lot.”

Ruto’s love for his hustler tag dovetails with his “chicken-seller-who-became-president” fib. With every media appearance featuring a jua kali artisan, a wheelbarrow, or an evangelical clergyman, his public image is that of a God-chosen wretched of the earth’s presidential candidate in 2022.

An evangelical group of Christians in Nairobi who have already aligned themselves with Ruto’s campaign told us that the deputy president is indeed “a fearful man of God and God is prepping him to take over the reins of power after Uhuru Kenyatta. His wife (Rachel) is a prayerful woman and they have even erected an altar of the Lord in their house, so they wake up at night to fervently pray and commune with God”.

The group reminded us that Ruto has been very helpful to churches, contributing to their expansion and growth. The group did not seem to be bothered by the source of the money: “It is not for us to judge, the temple of the Lord is for all of us – the righteous and the wicked. At the end of the day, it’s God to judge. There are people who talk a lot, yet we’ve never seen what they have done for the house of God.”

The deputy president casts himself as the rich and powerful politician who rose from selling chicken to the dizzy heights of the presidency. His grass-to-grace underdog narrative, his “humble” birth vis-à-vis his rivals’ “privilege”, and his difficult childhood encapsulate the identity, dreams and aspirations of millions of unemployed youth. Like Donald Trump in 2016, he is using the rhetoric of the “outsider” who has come to save an underclass trampled on by the undeserving upper class.

Ruto has set the political tone of the 2022 presidential election; the rest are merely reacting to it. Ruto’s presidential campaign has seized on something that resonates with many, especially the have-nots in difficult economic times. The “hustler’s narrative” serves Ruto’s campaign as a moral allegory for anyone who loves a good underdog story.

The narrative has also cast Ruto as the would-be saviour of the Kenyan have-nots, someone who feels and knows their suffering. He is the God-fearing, battle-ready general, leading the war against the Raila Odinga-aided Kenyatta family political gimmicks. It sets the hungry underclass against the Uhuru-Raila attempts to monopolise Kenya’s state power and economy through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

No one exemplifies the success of this hustler narrative than the Ngara Market traders, who specialise in second-hand (mitumba) clothes in downtown Nairobi. When we paid them a visit on one sunny Saturday afternoon, we found them in the middle of a heated argument about Ruto’s brand of politics.

“My wife was teacher in a private school until a few weeks ago,” said one trader. “Then one morning, the school proprietor sent her an email telling her he had converted the school premises into exhibition stalls. That was it. My wife was reduced to a hawker, peddling avocados on a wheelbarrow.

The narrative has also cast Ruto as the would-be saviour of the Kenyan have-nots, someone who feels and knows their suffering. He is the God-fearing, battle-ready general, leading the war against the Raila Odinga-aided Kenyatta family political gimmicks.

“We cannot wait for Uhuru and Baba (Raila Odinga) to bring on the BBI referendum. They’ve been telling us Ruto is the government thief. Is he the one who stole COVID-19 money?” asked one of the traders. “If Ruto is a thief, it is because they have been stealing together with Uhuru.”

Said Kipkemei Bunei, “Ruto is a thief who has been giving back (to the society). What have the other thieves been doing?”

Ruto’s campaign infantilises the 2022 presidential debate by deflecting adult conversations that would scrutinise his long political career since he burst into the national limelight in 1990s. He tells the rags-to-riches chicken seller-hustler story to stoke the youth’s anger against the very government he is still a part of, but which is now being propped up by Raila Odinga and his ODM party. The narrative flattens the complex histories of political families and individuals – an erasure ably aided by Raila’s support of the incompetent Jubilee government.   The hustlers’ rallying call rattles his competitors and rouses his supporters. He only needs to mention the word “dynasty” to communicate who his political enemies are.

“Ruto has won the war of narratives,” said Gakuo Munene, who has openly stated he will support the deputy president in his presidential bid for 2022.

The electoral strategy is clear: set the majority without known surnames against the minority who have widely recognised surnames because their fathers were cabinet ministers, vice presidents, or even president. And the “hustlers” are spoilt for choice.

Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya. However, to merely acknowledge that such a deep rift exists, to crudely name it as “hustler versus dynasties”, and to constantly remind the walala-hoi of their suffering is not to wage a class struggle. As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves.”

Ruto’s political campaign is not a class struggle; it is a struggle for power – for himself. He is organising and mobilising his political base the same way the political sons of the late Daniel arap Moi organised their politics – through transactional methods that exploited human need, greed, ambitions for power. Despite its class warfare undertones, Ruto’s acerbic political rhetoric is not a rallying call to the wretched of the earth to take on their oppressors or to organise for such a war.

Baronial politics

Like Francis Atwoli, the bejewelled trade unionist-turned-political kingmaker, who has taken to summoning the rich and powerful to his Kitengela home, Ruto also summons a few hand-picked hoi polloi to his palatial homes in Karen and Sugoi. Both Ruto and Atwoli perform acts that clearly show what power asymmetry is all about, who is the host and who is the guest, who pays the piper and who calls the tune, even though they have divergent political projects.

So, the jua kali artisans or the delegation of Christian clergy troop to Ruto’s official residence in Karen or Sugoi not as the deputy president’s equals, but as carefully selected guests with a prescribed role to play in Ruto’s political script. It has the hallmarks of what former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga calls “baronial politics”. Ruto has yet to discover progressive democratic politics. His “hustlers” are guests, not equals, who are summoned for PR stunts. Their images are exploited for whatever legitimacy a paid-for and stage-managed association with a jua kali artisan or a Christian pastor can lend his presidential bid.

True to script, the guests or delegates are paraded for the cameras next to wheelbarrows or beauty salon equipment as any lucky winner of a sports betting lottery would be. It sends a message to the walala-hoi to keep betting on Ruto’s leadership because that holds a lottery ticket that might just win big in the next grand draw if they elect him.

Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya. However, to merely acknowledge that such a deep rift exists, to crudely name it as “hustler versus dynasties”, and to constantly remind the walala-hoi of their suffering is not to wage a class struggle.

Ruto seeks to distinguish himself from his nemeses by performing and publicising such acts. As the Elgeyo Marakwet Senator, Kipchumba Murkomen’s tweets suggest, such events show that Ruto, unlike Raila and Uhuru, is both rich and generous, a politician who gives motorcycles and car-washing machines to unemployed youth. However, his tweets say little about why thousands of hard working youth who desire to own small or medium-sized businesses cannot afford the start-up capital needed for such items, or why so many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have shut down since the Jubilee Party took control of the government.

Ruto’s hustler narrative may tug at the heartstrings of the millions who are poor and unemployed, but it’s simply a pithy campaign phrase that is ideologically as empty as the Building Bridges Initiative – a promise of a qualitative change in living conditions that will not materialise because there is no qualitative change in the political leadership.

Ruto may now be viewed as being against the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests, but he’s not yet a pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens’ politician. He may successfully stoke and channel the anger of hungry citizens against the political elites, but there is no evidence yet that he’s organising along existing class cleavages, awakening the consciousness of the exploited about the nature and identity of their exploiters, or forming alliances with autonomous organisations of exploited classes.

For the first time in decades, Kenya’s middle class progressives – the numerically small and tenacious civil society groups, which have always punched above their weight – seem to have been totally eclipsed by Ruto’s middle class rabble-rousers. Kenya’s progressive middle class may still have a credible story to tell on democracy, constitutionalism, and the strengthening of devolution, but it seemingly has no candidate to stand with in the 2022 presidential election.

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The Fading Fortunes of Lamu Port

Dramatic geopolitical shifts taking place in the Horn of Africa suggest that Kenya might be staring at a white elephant project in Lamu. The much-hyped LAPSSET project no longer interests landlocked Ethiopia and South Sudan, which are now looking for sea trade routes in Eritrea, Somaliland and Djibouti.

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The Fading Fortunes of Lamu Port
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The first three of the proposed 32 berths at the Lamu port are almost ready for use. The state has postponed the official launch of the first berth several times since it was completed last year. The first launch was planned for December, with Maersk, a Danish-based container shipping line, indicating that it would call at the facility loaded with transshipment cargo.

From the onset, it is important to point out that Lamu port was not premised as a transshipment hub. Rather, it targeted two transit markets: Ethiopia, with a population of over 100 million, and South Sudan a new state with a population of about 12 million that was anticipated to import a lot of materials for reconstruction after many years of war.

A year before his second term ended, President Mwai Kibaki was joined by the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir in laying down a foundation plaque of the project. The Sh2 trillion port, part of the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) was projected to contribute between 2 and 3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Kenya’s economy.

But now questions are now being raised about the viability of the proposed Lamu port and even whether the project will be able to attract private investors to complete the remaining berths as initially envisaged.

When Uhuru Kenyatta succeeded Mwai Kibaki in 2013, his administration gave the LAPSSET project a wide berth. Instead, he threw his entire weight on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line as his legacy project, which he finished earlier than scheduled.

The government has since failed to allocate sufficient resources to the project, with the first berths taking over 8 years to complete. For instance, the National Treasury will disburse Sh6 billion towards the project in the current financial year, which is down from the Sh10 billion allocated in the 2019/2020 fiscal year.

As Kenya was taking its time to develop LAPSSET infrastructural projects, dramatic geopolitical shifts were taking place in the Horn of Africa, which put into question whether the country was staring at another white elephant project in the making.

When Uhuru Kenyatta succeeded Mwai Kibaki in 2013, his administration gave the LAPSSET project a wide berth. Instead, he threw his entire weight on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line as his legacy project, which he finished earlier than scheduled.

Dr. Kilonzo Mutule, who was a lead consultant in the project’s formative years, developed a concept paper on the LAPSSET project in 2008 and set some parameters for its economic viability. In his concept paper, Dr. Kilonzo identified six components of the project. In order to become a transport and commercial hub for the region, he noted, Kenya would have to, at a minimum, develop: (a) a commercial port of international standards capable of handling high volumes of containers and other goods traffic; (b) a free trade zone along with the port to foster the growth of trade and commercial activity to make the area into a  commercial hub; (c) a new beach resort city having facilities of international standards for native and international tourists; (d)  an airport capable of being an air hub for the region; (e) a railway network to enable movement of goods from the port and the free trade zone to other parts of Kenya and the countries of the region; and (f) a road highway network to support the capacity of the railway network and provide for greater movement of goods into more areas.

Lamu: The proposed sea route for Ethiopia and South Sudan

The LAPSSET project was envisaged as an immediate project for landlocked Ethiopia, which has over the years been desperately seeking connections to more sea routes. Its direct line of sight with Addis Ababa allowed for the shortest railway link between the Addis and Lamu.  Ethiopia’s dependence on imported goods had shifted 98 percent of its traffic to the Djibouti port, which was about 85 percent of the whole port’s traffic in 2009.

A study carried out by the African Trade Policy Centre (ATPC) in 2009 indicated that exorbitant charges incurred by Ethiopia at the port of Djibouti had seen the landlocked East African country’s economy hit the doldrums. An alternative port looked like a great idea for the country.

The high charges involved, reduced free time for imported cargo, and the inadequacy of storage facilities were some of the factors that had ballooned Ethiopia’s total logistics cost for its import and export of commodities, the study noted. “The estimated total transit costs have been consuming over 16 percent of Ethiopia’s foreign trade value, which is about $2 million per day, which literally bleeds the economy,” stated the study.

According to Dr. Kilonzo’s concept paper, the long-term solution to Ethiopia’s transport problems lay in the construction of a second port in Lamu. Indeed, Ethiopia had completed the building of a good tarmac road from Addis Ababa to Moyale quite a while ago.

For South Sudan, several options of seaports to that country left Lamu port as the most convenient route. The considerations for this choice took into account several factors, including security, number of borders to crossing points, nature of the terrain, length of the route, and accessibility to the West and East by sea.

South Sudan was expected to export crude oil. Traditionally, it has been doing so through a pipeline currently connecting its oil fields to the Red Sea at Port Sudan in Sudan, a country it had been at war with for many years. It was proposed that a pipeline be constructed alongside the railway line, thus linking the South Sudan’s oil fields to the Lamu Free Port. At Lamu, some of the crude would be refined for the sub-regional market while the rest would be exported to various destinations. Single Buoy Moorings (SBM) would be put in place at the port to facilitate tanker loading in the high seas. It was also proposed that a second pipeline going the opposite way could be constructed from the Lamu refinery to Addis Ababa to transport oil products to Ethiopia.

However, things have not been good for South Sudan, which has since independence from Sudan faced numerous challenges. The government has struggled to build new governance institutions while dealing with low human and institutional capacity. It has not been able to diversify revenue streams or to provide basic services to its population, half of which is estimated to be illiterate and living below the poverty line.

Enter Eritrea, Somaliland and Djibouti

But things now look completely different due to significant developments in Ethiopia, the main target market. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the new Ethiopian leader, accelerated efforts the country had undertaken in the last decade to tackle its logistics nightmares, which played out to Kenya’s disadvantage. The new prime minister forged a truce with Eritrea, an arch-rival player. He struck a deal with President Isaias Afwerki that included restoring Ethiopian access to the ports of Massawa and Assab.

Since Eritrea gained independence in the early 1990s, Ethiopia became a landlocked country, which hampered its ambitions to emerge as an economic and political powerhouse in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea, a former province of Ethiopia, hosted the major port for Ethiopia until 1998 when the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea erupted. Ethiopia had been using Assab port, which is 887km northeast of Addis Ababa, as a major logistics hub.

Ethiopia has also put its focus on another port in Somaliland. With this new move, the Somaliland port of Berbera is set to become the most modern port in the Horn of Africa early next year when its first phase is completed. In a strange turn of events, and with Arab Gulf states’ growing interest in the Horn of Africa region due to geopolitical and strategic considerations, in May 2016, DP World, a global port mega-operator agreed to develop Berbera port and manage the facility for 30 years. Ethiopia acquired a 19% interest in the port project. The other partners in the project are DP World, with a 51% share, and Somaliland, with a 30% share. The total investment of the two-phased port project will reach $442 million. DP World will also create an economic free zone in the surrounding area, targeting a range of companies in sectors from logistics to manufacturing, and a road-based economic corridor connecting Berbera with Ethiopia.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the new Ethiopian leader, accelerated efforts the country had undertaken in the last decade to tackle its logistics nightmares, which played out to Kenya’s disadvantage.

The port deal with Somaliland, a region that declared autonomy from Somalia in 1991, but which is still not internationally recognised by the international community, gave Somaliland some clout as an independent state. Port Berbera is now the closest sea route to Ethiopia, a journey of 11 hours by road. It has opened the route needed for huge growth in the import and export of livestock and agricultural produce.

The United Arab Emirates-based DP World Group port officials said that the port, which currently has the capacity to handle 150,000 container port traffic- Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs), is expected to expand into handling one million TEUs of 20 and 40-foot mixed units, not so far from 1.3 TEUs Mombasa port is managing.

In addition, Djibouti has made far reaching development of its port. Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) was officially inaugurated in July 2018. The initial phase, a 240-hectare zone, is the result of a $370 million investment and consists of three functional blocks located close to all of Djibouti’s major ports.The project also creates major business opportunities for Djibouti and East Africa as the region’s export manufacturing and processing capacity is expanded in key sectors such as food, automotive parts, textiles and packaging.

Doraleh Multipurpose Port, Port of Ghoubet and Tadjourah have all been completed in recent years. The Doraleh Port is strategically located, connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. It can handle between two and six million tonnes of cargo a year on its bulk terminal and breakbulk terminal respectively.

Another key milestone for Djibouti port is the standard gauge railway (SGR). A 750-kilometre SGR line connecting Addis Ababa with the port in Djibouti has since been constructed, cutting a three-day journey down to 12 hours. In an ambitious road-building programme, flagship projects include a 200km expressway connecting Hawassa, home to the country’s largest industrial park, with the capital Addis Ababa.

Djibouti has also received global attention due to its strategic location. Virtually, all of the sea trade between Asia and Europe passes along the Red Sea on its way to or from the Suez Canal. As a result, Gulf and Middle Eastern powers, China, the United States and France have developed great interest on this route. The country today hosts 5 military bases.

A different strategy

LAPSSET authority chief, Mr Sylvester Kasuku, in a TV interview this year, acknowledged that there is a need for a paradigm shift on rolling out the LAPSSET project partly due to the delay in developing onshore infrastructure to connect the corridor.

Apart from the construction of the first three berths, Lamu port has already been connected to the national power grid. The government has also constructed the 500-kilometre Isiolo-Moyale road. Lamu-Garsen route is already undergoing construction while the Garsen-Moyale route is being rehabilitated.

With a natural depth of 18 months, transshipment business should now be a key area of focus to keep Lamu port busy. However, a new strategy of marketing the port as a transshipment hub would be needed, according to Gilbert Langat, the Chief Executive Officer of Shippers Council of East Africa (SCEA), since as a country, Kenya has not performed well on this port business segment.

Out of 1.3million TEUs the port handled in Mombasa, transshipment cargo constituted a paltry 121,577 TEUs in 2018 and 211,604 TEUs in 2019. In February 2016, Phase I of Kipevu Container Terminal was completed, adding 550 000 TEUs to Mombasa port’s container capacity, which created room for country to experiment in transshipment cargo as a new business frontier for the port.  However, this berth is currently being used by Maersk, the biggest shipping line at the Mombasa port that commands over 30 per cent of the port’s cargo volume. Phase II is expected to provide an additional 450 000 TEU.

Kenya Ships Agents Association (KSAA) CEO, Juma Tellah, said that Mombasa port transshipment has a huge potential only if the government relaxes some of the measures it has put in place. Due to some challenges at Dar es Salaam port, some shipping lines occasionally use Mombasa for transshipment to Tanzania.

Port Berbera is now the closest sea route to Ethiopia, a journey of 11 hours by road. It has opened the route needed for huge growth in the import and export of livestock and agricultural produce.

The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) still requires shipping lines to lodge entries with customs. Although shipping lines successfully lobbied to be allowed to lodge the entries without the aid of freight forwarders, which came at an extra cost, the delays still take a huge toll. Shipping lines have been pushing for the use of inward and outward manifests to reconcile movement of cargo in and out of the port, which is a common practice all over the world.

Although the government has held its ground that this can only be canvassed through the East Africa Community Customs Management Act (EACCMA), Tanzania, a signatory, does not require shipping lines to lodge transshipment cargo entries, according to Tellah.

Zanzibar and other East African islands are popular destinations for Kenya’s transshipment cargo, with volumes going as far as the Far East. According to Langat, Lamu can also be an ideal location for the transshipment of goods destined for Europe.

The other option for making the LAPSSET corridor viable is for the counties it traverses to leverage on the project and open up their economies. The Government’s LAPSSET Corridor Development Plan has already divided the Northern Eastern region into nine growth areas: Lamu growth area, Garissa-Bura growth area, Wajir growth area, Moyale growth area, Lokichogio growth area, Turkana growth area, Isiolo-Meru Archers Post growth, area and the Mwingi growth area.

Each of the growth areas has an identified set of economic activities and investment opportunities that are set to spur economic growth of the area and the Northern Eastern region. These include the Isiolo-Meru area being a logistics centre along the corridor and a resort city and the Moyale, Wajir and Garissa-Bura growth areas mainly for the establishment of of Export Processing Zones for livestock and animal by-products.

Directly related to the Lamu port is the potential of Isiolo, Lokichogio and Moyale for the setting up of inland container depots, which may increase transport efficiency, and facilitate cross-border trade with neighbouring countries that will be linked by LAPSSET.

It is expected that public sector resources will be sourced to develop physical and social infrastructure to facilitate investment. To achieve such accelerated integrated development, the government should ensure an enabling business environment that fosters investment.

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No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea

Thirty years after Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia, there has hardly been any meaningful development in this small nation in the Horn of Africa. On the contrary, the government’s authoritarian policies have undermined democracy and forced young people to flee the country.

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No War, No Peace: Life and Death in Eritrea
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Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941. Following the defeat of Italian forces by the Allied Forces during World War Two, Britain occupied Eritrea until its federation to Ethiopia in 1952. However, by 1962 Emperor Haile Selassie had annexed Eritrea, declaring that it was part of Ethiopia, and in this way ending the federation.

In 1961, a year before the annexation, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) started an armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia. The armed struggle continued for 30 years against successive Ethiopian regimes until 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), who had replaced the ELF, defeated the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea. Eritrea became formally independent following a United Nations-supervised referendum in 1993.

From the beginning, the EPLF (now the People’s Front of Democracy and Justice – PFDJ)’s strategy for achieving liberation and national unity was for it to dominate all social, political, and economic spaces. The PFDJ implemented a highly centralised and opaque two-track system of administration: an unseen, powerful inner circle of elites; and public structures that projected an image of egalitarian self-sufficiency. This centralised and opaque model of governance continues today.

Since liberation, PFDJ has banned all opposition parties and treats all non-mass-movement organisations (i.e. independent civil society) with suspicion; hence there are no independent national civil society organisations in the country. Without any consultation, the PFDJ has nationalised all land; it has established a unitary form of government, and it has changed the administrative boundaries within the country. Despite these totalitarian tendencies, in 1994, the PFDJ, as the Provisional Government of Eritrea, set up the Constitutional Assembly to draft the Constitution. The task was completed in 1997. But the Constitution remains unimplemented.

Border dispute

In 1998, hostilities and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed over border demarcation issues, particularly in the town of Bademe. By December 2000, the two countries signed the Algiers Peace Agreement and established the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) to determine the limits of their shared border.

The EEBC delivered its border decision on 13th April 2002, placing the town of Bademe, the flashpoint of the border conflict, on the Eritrean side. The Ethiopian government contested the allocation of Bademe to Eritrea. Therefore, a situation of “no war, no peace” ensued between the two countries as President Isaias Afewerki refused any dialogue on the issue because the parties had agreed that the decision of the EEBC was final and binding.

President Isaias Afwerki, who is also the chair of the PFDJ, took advantage of the strained relationship with Ethiopia to:

  1. indefinitely postpone the implementation of the 1997 Constitution as well as the general elections;
  2. arrest and disappear dissenters, especially University of Asmara students and the members of the government known as G15 who promoted a democratisation process (2001);
  3. close the independent media and arrest journalists (2001);
  4. abolish the Eritrean National Assembly (i.e. the Eritrean Parliament) (2002);
  5. maintain a high level of militarisation of the country.

To maintain a high level of militarisation, the government vertically integrated the National Service to the National Development Programme (i.e. the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme) and to Education. This integration allows the Eritrean government to move students into the National Service and the National Development Programme from high schools (i.e. Grade 12) and indefinitely extends the period of service of the conscripts, hence taking full control over the working population.

In 1998, hostilities and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia resumed over border demarcation issues, particularly in the town of Bademe. By December 2000, the two countries signed the Algiers Peace Agreement and established the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) to determine the limits of their shared border.

Through the integration of the National Service into the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme and Education, the government has limited the citizenship rights of conscripts who while in service cannot: legally obtain a mobile phone or SIM card; get or renew a business licence; access land; and access travel documents and exit visas. Deserters or objectors are denied any rights and cannot access state services. Thus, the official Eritrean concept of citizenship is intrinsically linked to conscription and the fulfilment of National Service duties.

The National Service is a combination of military training and civil service, working for little pay in non-military activities such as agriculture, the construction of roads, houses and buildings and mining. The Warsay National Development Programme relies on the deployment of te National Service (Warsay) and defence personnel (Yikaalo) as a labour force. The programme operates under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence.

Since 2003, the government has closed the University of Asmara (the only university in the country). It has also required that all Eritrean students complete Grade 12 at the Sawa military training camp. Students who have not completed their final year of secondary school at Sawa and have not sat for the National School Certificat, cannot access college education. The PFDJ has replaced Asmara University with regional colleges, which are administered jointly by an academic director and a military director.

National Service conscripts work for an indefinite period on development projects, the administration of ministries and local authorities, as well as in PFDJ-owned businesses. Such work is carried out for very little pay and in conditions that a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea described as “forced labour”.

The Eritrean authorities’ control over the people includes the restriction of movement both internally and externally. Therefore, all Eritreans aged five and above cannot leave the country without an exit visa. The government will not issue an exit visa to any Eritrean above the age of five, irrespective of their situation (i.e. family reunification, health, etc.)

The government’s control over the Eritrean people is a political, social and economic process of deprivation and human rights violations for which it refuses to take any responsibility. It is systematically impoverishing the population. Therefore, Eritrean youth face having to choose between the life of slave labour or exile. They describe their situation as slavery: “[The] situation in Eritrea and long time ago with slaves is the same. We build the houses of the elites without money. We work on farms of government officials for no money. If you are educated, they deploy you to anywhere…for a short time, you can tolerate it…but this is for life.”

Faced with accusations of human rights violations, the government reverts to “threat” mode. It labels any reference to human rights violations as “lies” and “ploys” of its enemies to undermine the state. The PFDJ Head of Political Affairs, Mr Yemane Gebreab, dismissed the findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human rights by saying: “….[it is] really laughable……There is no basis to the claims of the Commission of Inquiry…”

The Eritrean authorities’ control over the people includes the restriction of movement both internally and externally. Therefore, all Eritreans aged five and above cannot leave the country without an exit visa.

In addition to taking control over the working population, the government also took control of the economic sectors, including finance, import and export, transport and construction. It has achieved control over the economic sphere through a process of unfair competition with private business, facilitated by the fact that it does not pay taxes and does not comply with labour, environmental, and other regulatory requirements. Also, as the regime has control over the working population, it has unlimited access to a large pool of free labour, effecting a net transfer of the workforce away from the private sector. This policy of moving human resources to labour sites identified and controlled by the government has crippled the private sector, especially the agricultural industry, which still relies to a large extent on subsistence farming.

The government’s control and domination of the economy have not increased economic activity or productivity. The economy is stagnating, further weakening the private sector and restricting economic opportunities for Eritreans.

Notwithstanding PFDJ’s rhetoric, Eritrean youth experience the state as an albatross around their necks. They understand the state in terms of spy networks; as a human rights violator curtailing civil, political, and economic rights and as the as the source of torture and deprivation. They see it as the source of all restrictions and deprivations. This is the reason why they flee the country.

Peace Agreement with Ethiopia and its aftermath

In April 2018, the Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy announced the acceptance of the EEBC decision, in particular the allocation of the flashpoint town of Bademe to Eritrea. In this way, he started a process that led to the signing of the Ethiopia Eritrea Peace Agreement in July 2018, thus ending two decades of “no war, no peace”. The land borders opened to much jubilation in 2018. However, by April 2019, the Eritrean government had closed them all. So far, the only achievements of the Peace Agreement are the reopening of embassies and telecommunication lines and the resumption of flights.

The signing of the Peace Agreement immediately raised expectations that there would be a normalisation of relations between the two states. It also raised expectations regarding reforms within Eritrea that would lead to a reduction in the number of Eritrean youth fleeing the country. Soon after the signing of the Peace Agreement, the Eritrean Catholic priest Aba Teklemichael pointed to the sweeping reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abiy in Ethiopia, and urged the Eritrean government to also undertake necessary reforms in Eritrea and to democratise the government. By Easter 2019, the Eritrean Catholic bishops were also calling for a constitutional government and the rule of law. They also encouraged the government to release political prisoners and start a process of reconciliation within the country. However, to date there have been no reforms in the country, a state of affairs confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea who at the start of this year reported that she had: “ ……no tangible evidence of a meaningful and substantive improvement in the situation of human rights in Eritrea”.

The signing of the Peace Agreement immediately raised expectations that there would be a normalisation of relations between the two states. It also raised expectations regarding reforms within Eritrea that would lead to a reduction in the number of Eritrean youth fleeing the country.

The ongoing peace process is not transparent; it has mostly remained an elite political level agreement unable to deliver on the economic front or to resolve the issue of Bademe as both Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias Afewerki have marginalised the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for political motives. The Eritrean government has increasingly identified the Tigray State and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as an existential threat to Eritrea, thus justifying the maintenance of a high level of militarisation. Consequently, Eritrean youth continue to flee the country. In 2018, UNHCR ranked Eritrea as the ninth-largest refugee-sending state in the world.

Ailing health sector

The totalitarian agenda of the Eritrean government did not spare the health sector either. The task of reconstructing the Eritrean health system after the liberation struggle and following the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia border war was monumental. It was an undertaking that the late and former Minister of Health Saleh Meki undertook with passion, commitment, and zest from 1997 to 2009 when Ms Amina Nurhussein replaced him.

In his efforts rebuild the Eritrean health system, Saleh Meki sought to establish strategic partnerships with critical international health institutions, private practitioners, faith-based organisations, such as the Catholic Church, as well as professional members of the Eritrean diaspora. The former Minister of Health carried on with his efforts despite the enormous pressure to conform to the dictates of President Isaias Afwerki, and the concerns generated by the closure of international non-governmental organisations, as well as the restriction of movement imposed on all organisations working in the country. Against all the odds, he re-established the medical school known as the Orotta Medical School.

Saleh Meki died on 2nd October 2009. Soon after his death, all the medical missions of international organisations that he had worked so hard to bring to Eritrea ended. By 2011 the Eritrean Government forced the closure of all private medical clinics. And, by 2018 a total of 29 Catholic health facilities providing maternal and child health support and serving some of the more remote communities in the country were closed. The seizure and closure, of the Catholic health facilities was carried out in complete disregard to the health and safety of the patients, most of whom were left to fend for themselves.

There was no clear justification for the closure of the private health facilities. However, the closure of the Catholic health facilities was justified as an enforcement of the 1995 Proclamation to standardise and articulate religions institutions (Proclamation No 73 of 1995). The Proclamation prohibits religious bodies from engaging in social and welfare services. This position is contested by all faith-based organisations, especially since there was no consultation in the development of the law. The Eritrean Catholic bishops’ communication with the government on the seizure and closure of their health facilities point out that the facilities operated by abiding with all the requirements of the Ministry of Health.

Poor COVID-19 response

The closure of health facilities has reduced the number of available beds and the overall capacity of the health system. Hence, Eritrea, with a score of 0.434, was ranked 182nd out of 189 countries by the 2019 Human Development Index. The low Human Development Index combined with a hospital bed capacity of 7 beds for 10,000 people, and no available data as to the number of health professionals (i.e. doctors and nurses) available per 10,000 people, suggests that the situation might be even more dire. And the poor connectivity of the country (i.e. mobile phones, internet, broadbands) means that the country’s capacity to deal with pandemics such as COVID-19 is low.

The low capacity of the Eritrean health system to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic was also of concern to the diaspora Eritrean Healthcare Professionals Network (EHPN), which urged the Eritrean government to immediately implement the World ealth Orbanization (WHO) and Centre for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and advisories to contain the pandemic. EHPN expressed concern that the country lacks the necessary prerequisites to implement hygiene measures because: “There is a shortage of water, disinfectants, laboratories that carry out diagnostic tests and medical professionals, including nursing and technical staff. There is also a lack of functioning intensive care units with adequate ventilation equipment needed to properly treat patients. The reality is that many Eritreans will not be able to seek and obtain medical treatment in their homeland or neighbouring countries. In short, the Eritrean health system is not adequately prepared for COVID 19.”

Fears regarding the poor state of the Eritrean health system were further heightened when the Eritrean government refused COVID-19 emergency supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group. Mr Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, the head of Economic Affairs in the ruling PFDJ, justified the rejection of Jack Ma’s donation by saying that it was unsolicited.

The government’s willingness to reject donations has, however, launched a COVID-19 appeal among citizens. The appeal is remarkable for the lack of information as to how the funds raised will be used. There is no single COVID-19 emergency response bank account designated for the appeal; hence, in the diaspora, funds are collected in different foreign bank accounts set up by Eritrean embassies. Consequently, there is a real danger that the funds will never enter the country and will disappear into the government’s opaque offshore financial system. Also, there is no information as to how the Ministry of Health will use the funds. Reports by Eritrean human rights activists say the appeal is coerced, confirming the lack of transparency and accountability of the fundraising process.

There is also no transparency in the COVID-19 data that the Eritrean government is providing. It reported the first four COVID-positive cases on the 21st and 23rd of March. One patient was an Eritrean national resident in Norway, and the other three positive patients were Eritrean nationals returning from Dubai. Because of these events, by 26th March, the government banned all commercial passenger flights for two weeks. It also closed schools. And, by 1st April, it imposed COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Fears regarding the poor state of the Eritrean health system were further heightened when the Eritrean government refused COVID-19 emergency supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group. Mr Hagos “Kisha” Gebrehiwet, the head of Economic Affairs in the ruling PFDJ, justified the rejection of Jack Ma’s donation by saying that it was unsolicited.

The lockdown measures did not include the closure of the Sawa military training camp or the release of political prisoners. The government has recently released 27 Christian prisoners, who were imprisoned without charge or trial for as long as sixteen years. Their release is conditional on their family lodging their property deeds with the government as a guarantee that the people released will not leave the country.

While maintaining a strict lockdown, the Eritrean government has allowed mass gatherings to celebrate the graduation of the 33rd round of Sawa military training camp graduates as well as the transfer of Grade 12 conscripts to the facility.

From 1st April to 18th April, the Eritrean government reported 39 COVID positive cases, all linked to Eritreans visiting or returning from their travels. Then, for two months, there were no new cases reported. After that, the number of COVID-positive cases increased, and by the 12th of October, Eritrea reported a total of 414 COVID-positive patients and 372 recoveries.

Though the government makes repeated references to quarantine centres, it has not shared a list of the centres, their location or capacity. It is also not reporting the daily number of COVID tests. Nor has it reported any COVID-related deaths or any community transmission of the virus. It continues to attribute all the new COVID cases to Eritreans returning through “irregular land and sea routes” from Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen. But there is no explanation as to why so many nationals are travelling despite the government’s strict lockdown procedure that prohibits all movement between towns and that restricts te movement of any vehicles, including buses and taxis, which require movement permits. Such permits are not easy to obtain.

Finally, there are only five incidents of Ministry of Information reporting the number of individuals tested or in quarantine:

  1. 3,000 quarantined – 8th May 2020;
  2. 5,270 quarantined – 3rd June 2020;
  3. 7,158 nationals returned through irregular land and sea routes. Not clearly stated but the implication is that they were all quarantined – 14th June 2020;
  4. 18,000 citizens allegedly returned through irregular land and sea routes. This movement occurred in the last four months. Again, not clearly stated but the implication is that they were all quarantined – the 12th October 2020;
  5. 41,100 tests – 12th October 2020.

In a recent report, the Eritrean Ministry of Information asserted that the rate of COVID infection in the country was “a paltry 0.02%”, based on one (1) positive result during 4659 random tests done in Asmara”. The data shared by the government (41,100 tests and 414 COVID-positive cases) suggests that the rate of infection is just 1 per cent.

The COVID lockdown in Eritrea, like in other countries, has brought economic activities to a standstill. The difference between Eritrea and other countries is that the Eritrean economy was already on its knees before the lockdown and the Eritrean government has not made any attempt – beyond extorting donations from its citizens – to alleviate the suffering of the people with economic support packages. Consequently, Eritreans are hungry and desperate and have started to ignore strict lockdowns. They are on the streets selling all kinds of goods. Women are out in the streets, making tea and cooking food for sale. Family and friends describe Asmara, the capital city, as full of mobile tea shops.

In a recent report, the Eritrean Ministry of Information asserted that the rate of COVID infection in the country was “a paltry 0.02%”, based on one (1) positive result during 4659 random tests done in Asmara”. The data shared by the government (41,100 tests and 414 COVID-positive cases) suggests that the rate of infection is just 1 per cent.

The Eritrean Afars have, through the Red Sea Afar Human Rights Organisation (RSAHRO), issued a press statement, describing their situation under lockdown as a: “… siege imposed by the Eritrean regime on the citizens of the region.”. They warn of the danger of hunger in their area. They also describe confiscation of boats, camels and supplies by the military, closed health centres, unprepared quarantine centres, as well as lack of medical supplies. The human rights organisation also accuse General Tekle Manjus of confiscating trucks of emergency food sent from Asmara for distribution among the Afar.

The Afar coastal area is not the only area in danger of hunger. The information from Eritrea is that hunger is very real all over the country. The government media and social media accounts do not report the danger of hunger or any of the difficulties that the people are facing during this COVID-19 emergency. Their postings give the impression that Eritrea is doing just fine.

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