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SQUATTERS ON THEIR OWN LAND: Why calls for secession are likely to intensify in the coast region

10 min read.

Recent calls for secession by politicians from Kenya’s coast region point to deep-seated grievances that go back at least one hundred years. Many of these grievances are related to landlessness and historical injustices that have yet to be resolved and which have been consistently underplayed by successive governments.



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People from the coastal region of Kenya have a word for those who are not indigenous to the region – wabara, which literally means “people from the mainland”, but which is often interpreted as “outsiders”. It is a designation that reflects a mindset that views the rest of Kenya as being separate or different, a worldview epitomised by the rallying cry of the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council – “Pwani si Kenya” (Coast is not Kenya).

This worldview has been shaped by the various powers that colonised or exploited Kenya’s coastal belt, ranging from the Omani Arab sultanate in the 19th century to British colonialists in the early 20th century who turned the coast’s so-called “Ten-Mile-Strip” into a protectorate that was later bequeathed to the new Kenyan government at independence.

Today the term wabara is mostly associated with post-independence leaders who exacerbated landlessness and disenfranchisement in the region by implementing settlement schemes that provided land in the region to non-coastal people or by usurping large swathes of prime beach and other property for their own personal benefit. A major consequence of these land grabs has been land alienation and grinding poverty among the region’s people.

Despite its abundant natural resources, the coastal region is considered amongst the most impoverished region in the country. Government data shows that three of the six counties in the region, namely, Tana River, Kilifi and Kwale, rank among the poorest in Kenya. These counties generally have high illiteracy rates and extremely low rates of secondary school enrolment.

Tana River, Kwale, Kilifi and Lamu counties also have the highest levels of inequality. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, inequality in these counties is closely linked to historical injustices that left large swathes of land in the hands of non-residents. This is complicated by the fact that land tenure is ambiguous or is not officially recognised. It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of indigenous coastal people do not possess title deeds to their land and that some of these people have entered into a kind of quasi squatter-tenant agreement with land owners. In other words, a sizeable majority of the region’s people live as squatters on their ancestral land.

Despite its abundant natural resources, the coastal region is considered amongst the most impoverished region in the country. Government data shows that three of the six counties in the region, namely, Tana River, Kilifi and Kwale, rank among the poorest in Kenya

The 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC)’s report states that “there is a very close linkage between land injustices and ethnic violence in Kenya” and that “although land-related injustices have affected every part of Kenya, communities at the coast, especially the Mijikenda, the Taita and the Pokomo, have suffered the most and the longest”. The Commission further found that “failure of both colonial and post-independence governments to address the problem of landlessness is the reason individuals and communities often resort to self-help measures, including violence.”

The issues of marginalisation and land alienation should ideally have been addressed by the 2010 constitution and through the implementation of the recommendations of the TJRC report, but there is little evidence of political commitment to resolve these issues. On the contrary, there is a feeling among the local population that the land question will be further suppressed under the Jubilee administration, which has been reluctant to implement the TJRC report’s recommendations, particularly those pertaining to land.

Calls for secession, like those made recently by the Mombasa County Governor Hassan Joho and the Kilifi County Governor Amason Kingi, and before by the Mombasa Republican Council, therefore, resonate with a lot of coastal people, who have for centuries been robbed of their land and whose region has remained largely underdeveloped due to the politics of exclusion embraced by successive governments.

While Kenya’s new constitution and the TJRC report offer a blueprint to address historical injustices related to land and other issues at the coast, most Coasterians (as the wabara like to call them) are sceptical that “Kenyans” are committed to implementing their provisions. Under such conditions, it is likely that there will be increasing sympathy and support for those demanding secession, a scenario that will no doubt be met with brute force by the authorities in Nairobi.

Historical grievances and simmering hostilities

The coastal people’s land-related grievances are multi-faceted, and the result of a series of land grabs by a variety of actors in different socio-economic and political contexts. Landlessness is mostly the result of past practices that did not recognise communal land ownership of indigenous communities, which resulted in the eviction or alienation of these communities from their own land.

It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of indigenous coastal people do not possess title deeds to their land and that some of these people have entered into a kind of quasi squatter-tenant agreement with land owners

In a paper titled “The Politics of Land Rights and Squatting in Coastal Kenya” published in 2000, Dr. Karuti Kanyinga explains the genesis of the problem, which began with the Arab slave trade in the 19th century when Kenya’s coastal region was loosely federated to the Sultanate of Zanzibar and which continued when the region became a British protectorate in the early part of the 20th century and when Kenya achieved independence from Britain in 1963:

While slavery and colonialism clearly disrupted the existing structure of land tenure on the coast among the indigenous Mijikenda, the absence of a comprehensive land policy on squatters and an expanding tourist industry have further deepened the ‘Land Question complex’ in the post-colonial period. On the one hand, the growth of tourism as an economic activity around the coastal belt led to a sharp increase in the value of land and to the emergence of an active land market that extended beyond the coastal strip…On the other hand, no comprehensive policy on landlessness and squatters was formulated, nor was there a firm commitment on the part of the government to address the issue as it did with the resettlement efforts upcountry in the 1960s and 1970s.”

As the TJRC report has noted, the process of land adjudication, consolidation and registration was never conducted in the coast region after independence, leaving many families without evidence of ownership of the land they occupied, which made their land more vulnerable to grabbing by outsiders.

The land issue in Lamu County is complicated further by the fact that prior to the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, all land in Lamu was considered government land….It is estimated that the indigenous local population owns only between 10 and 20 per cent of land titles in Lamu County.

Worse, settlement schemes in the region, such as the Lake Kenyatta Settlement Scheme in Lamu West, instead of focusing on the indigenous population, were geared towards resettling landless Kikuyus from upcountry. Many of the locals who were pushed off these settlement schemes ended up becoming internally displaced; many were forced to move into slums in urban areas or had to migrate to other parts of Kenya or to Tanzania. These settlement schemes have thus been the source of much tension and conflict among the local population.

The land issue in Lamu County is complicated further by the fact that prior to the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, all land in Lamu was considered government land. This categorisation was greatly abused by the political elite, who dished out land in Lamu to those deemed loyal to the administration. It is estimated that the indigenous local population owns only between 10 and 20 per cent of land titles in Lamu County. What’s worse, those who own or acquire titles often sell the land because of poverty or because of the costly land adjudication processes.

Simmering conflicts between the indigenous population and the settlers and landowners from outside the region came to the fore in June 2014 when Al Shabaab militants brutally killed more than 60 men from the ethnic Kikuyu community in the villages of Mpeketoni and Poromoka in Lamu West. Most Kenyans were not even aware that there was a large Kikuyu community living in Lamu until the attack. Mpeketoni is one of the settlement schemes that was set up by the late President Jomo Kenyatta in the 1970s for poor and landless Kikuyus from the central highlands of Kenya. Although the Kikuyu settlers are not indigenous to the area, they have lived relatively peacefully for decades with the local Bajuni and Swahili populations and have even turned Mpeketoni into a thriving rural settlement.

Politicians and politically-connected individuals from the coast region during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi eras have been among the main beneficiaries of illegally acquired land at the coast

However, given the endemic landlessness and historical grievances of indigenous coastal communities, Mpeketoni stands out as a community that has benefitted from political patronage and favouritism, and is, therefore, often viewed with suspicion by the locals. The settlement schemes in Lamu West have even been described by some locals as a “cultural invasion” or what Professor Abdalla Bujra, a respected scholar from the coast region, describes as “internal colonialism”. As one Lamu resident lamented: “How do you go to someone’s home, grab their land, kick them out, bring your own family members, and recreate and rename the neighbourhoods after your own villages upcountry?”

However, some of those who have been settled under these schemes, or who acquired land legally, say that the “Kikuyu problem” is often used as a scapegoat to gloss over injustices that predate the arrival of the settlers. As Kinyua Thuku, an engineer based in Mombasa, explained to me in an e-mail:

Now, I’m in no way downplaying the issue of historical injustices. As someone who lives and has spent a considerable time at the Coast, I’m well acquainted with the issues. However, one issue that rarely gets mention is the fact that a significant chunk of land in Mombasa is owned by absentee landlords of Arab descent who live in Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. A cursory look at Mombasa’s history will show you how these lands were forcefully acquired from the Mijikenda during the Sultanate era. In Shanzu, Mshomoroni and Utange, vast tracts of land are owned by these absentee landlords while the indigene population stay there as squatters. There is land around Changamwe which is still under the administration of the pre-colonial Waqf Commission! However, when the ‘historical injustice’ issue is talked about, it is displayed as one where greedy upcountry people invaded and grabbed all prime land.

Thuku says that the problem is not the smallholder farmers from the Kikuyu community who have acquired land through settlement schemes but the politically connected Arab/Swahili tycoons who incite locals to repossess their land while they sit on acres of land that they themselves grabbed. “If it is justice we are talking about, then it should apply both ways,” he argues.

Political patronage

Thuku’s assessment is right on at least one count: politicians and politically-connected individuals from the coast region during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi eras have been among the main beneficiaries of illegally acquired land at the coast. In Lamu and Mombasa, some of these politically connected individuals were allocated prime beach properties without any consultation with the indigenous population, who were not even compensated for the land.

When people don’t own the land they live on, their economic prospects are further diminished, which is why the land issue has become so critical.

Even in cases were the locals were compensated, they were often deceived about the land’s real value or intended use. The Save Lamu Coalition has documented a case where land was procured in the Magogoni area in the 1990s. The locals were told that the land was to be used as a naval base when in fact it was registered privately in the name of a former senior navy officer, who later sold the land to a notorious Mombasa-based business tycoon who is associated with drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

During the Daniel arap Moi era, Kanu politicians, politically connected business tycoons and senior civil servants were illegally allocated land in and around Mombasa. When the extent of the land grabs in Mombasa were revealed by the Ndung’u Land Commission, there were demands for the illegally acquired land to be returned to the government. As a result of these demands, the Kanu-linked businessman Rashid Sajjad returned 18 plots of land worth Sh.1.6 billion to what was then known as the Mombasa Municipal Council. However, these plots are just a drop in the ocean of an estimated 400 properties, including government houses, road reserves, cemeteries and public beach plots, that have been stolen from the public.

Some might argue that beach property that has been grabbed and then used to build hotels and resorts boosts tourism in the region, and therefore contributes to the local economy. However, it is worth noting that few of these hotels are owned by locals – most are owned by foreigners or multinational chains. Further, it is estimated that between 40 and 70 per cent of tourism revenue generated does not stay in the region or even in the country because of package tours where payments for airlines and hotels are made abroad.

Tourism in the region is also seasonal and does not provide a steady source of income to the local population; in the low tourism season, or whenever there is a slump, as happened in the recent past after a series of Al Shabaab terrorist attacks, entire households and communities suffer and poverty levels escalate. When people don’t own the land they live on, their economic prospects are further diminished, which is why the land issue has become so critical. Unemployment in the region is also made worse by the fact that the local economy has not been sufficiently diversified beyond tourism.

Moreover, while tourism is often cited as the economic lifeline of the coastal region, it has also been blamed for eroding the locals’ culture and for introducing vices such as sex tourism, drug trafficking, heroin addiction and prostitution. Malindi, a favourite destination of Italian holidaymakers, has become notorious for being the site of child sexual exploitation, so much so that some local NGOs, with the Italian government’s support, even started a campaign some years ago to stop foreign tourists from engaging in sex with children. The vice had become so alarming that many beach hotels in Mombasa and other coastal resorts began putting up signs warning tourists not to engage in paedophilia.

While tourism is often cited as the economic lifeline of the coastal region, it has also been blamed for eroding the locals’ culture and for introducing vices such as sex tourism, drug trafficking, heroin addiction and prostitution

Beach property was not the only land that was grabbed; agricultural land was also illegally or fraudulently acquired. According to the TJRC report, at independence many communities in Taita- Taveta settled on land that they believed to be public land in the hope that that the government would officially resettle them. This did not happen; on the contrary government officials and senior civil servants loyal to the government of Jomo Kenyatta were allocated the land. In 1972, the Kenyatta family itself, in partnership with the Greek Criticos family, acquired thousands of acres of land in Taveta to establish a sisal plantation, which rendered the indigenous population homeless once again. Over time, the Criticos family has sold off a substantial part of its land to the government at concessionary rates so that the government could settle the squatters. However, this has not materialised so far.

In 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta, in a rare gesture of generosity, handed over 2,000 acres of his family’s 30,000-acre plantation in Taveta to squatters. However, this piecemeal approach to landlessness in the region has had little impact on the estimated 20,000 landless people in Taveta. It also reflects a patronising attitude that assumes that a “gift” of small parcels of land will resolve decades-old disputes that should ideally be determined through a comprehensive land policy that takes into consideration local people’s concerns.

The settlement schemes in Lamu West have even been described by some locals as a “cultural invasion” or what Professor Abdalla Bujra, a respected scholar from the coast region, describes as “internal colonialism”.

There are also ecological and environmental concerns in the coast region that are not being addressed in a consultative or participatory manner, such as the construction of the controversial coal-powered energy plant in Lamu, which local politicians and groups, such as the Save Lamu Coalition, have been resisting due to its negative health and environmental implications. The complete disregard for local people’s views on projects such as this have further created an impression among the locals that their opinions do not count and that they exist just to be exploited by those in power.

Although an increasing number of people are going to court to lay claim on their ancestral land – and some are even winning their cases – it is evident that without a comprehensive land policy that addresses historical injustices and without a firm commitment by the government to take the local population’s grievances seriously, land will be an issue that people in Kenya’s coast region will continue to agitate for, especially now since devolution has emboldened communities to speak out about historical injustices. Calls for the secession of the coast region from the rest of Kenya are also likely to intensify.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).


Who Won Kenya’s “Nominations”?

Being nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine grass-roots legitimacy but it is hard not to suspect that some of the losers in the nominations process might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn.



Who Won Kenya’s “Nominations”?
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Who won Kenya’s “nominations”, the tense and often unpredictable political process through which parties select which candidates they want to represent them in the general election scheduled for 9 August? That may sound like a silly question. Social media is full of photographs of smiling candidate clutching their certificates of nomination—surely we need to look no further for the winners?

But maybe we do. Beyond the individual candidates in the contests for nominations, there are other winners. One may be obvious: it seems the general feeling is that Deputy President William Ruto came out better from the nominations than did his principal rival in the presidential race, former opposition leader Raila Odinga—about which more below. However, for some, coming out on top in the nominations may prove a poisoned chalice. Where nominations are seen to have been illegitimate, candidates are likely to find that losing rivals who stand as independents may be locally popular and may gain sympathy votes, making it harder for party candidates to win the general election. This means that there are often some less obvious winners and losers.

One reason for this is that nominations shape how voters think about the parties and who they want to give their vote to, come the general election. Research that we conducted in 2017, including a nationally representative survey of public opinion on these issues, found that citizens who felt that their party’s nomination process had not been legitimate were less likely to say that they would vote in the general election. In other words, disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out. In 2017, this appeared to disadvantage Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), whose nomination process was generally seen to have been more problematic—although whether this is because they were, or rather because this is how they were depicted by the media, is hard to say.

In the context of a tight election in 2022, popular perceptions of how the nominations were managed may therefore be as significant for who “wins” and “loses” as the question of which individuals secured the party ticket.

Why do parties dread nominations?

The major parties dreaded the nominations process—dreaded it so much, in fact, that despite all their bold words early on about democracy and the popular choice (and despite investments in digital technology and polling staff), most of the parties tried pretty hard to avoid primary elections as a way of deciding on their candidates. In some cases that avoidance was complete: the Jubilee party gave direct nominations to all those who will stand in its name. Other parties held some primaries—Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) seems to have managed most—but in many cases they turned to other methods.

That is because of a complicated thing about parties and elections in Kenya. It is widely assumed—and a recent opinion poll commissioned by South Consulting confirms this—that when it comes to 9 August most voters will decide how to cast their ballot on the basis of individual candidates and not which party they are standing for. Political parties in Kenya are often ephemeral, and people readily move from one to another. But that does not mean that political parties are irrelevant. They are symbolic markers with emotive associations – sometimes to particular ideas, sometimes to a particular regional base. ODM, for example, has been linked both with a commitment to constitutional reform and with the Luo community, most notably in Nyanza. So the local politician who wants to be a member of a county assembly will be relying mostly on their personal influence and popularity—but they know that if they get a nomination for a party which has that kind of emotive association, it will smoothen their path.

Disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out.

This means that multiple candidates vie for each possible nomination slot. In the past, that competition has always been expensive, as rival aspirants wooed voters with gifts. It occasionally turned violent, and often involved cheating. Primary elections in 2013 and 2017 were messy and chaotic, and were not certain to result in the selection of the candidate most likely to win the general election. From the point of view of the presidential candidates, there are real risks to the primary elections their parties or coalitions oversee: the reputational damage due to chaos and the awareness that local support might be lost if a disgruntled aspirant turns against the party.

This helps to explain why in 2022 many parties made use of direct nominations—variously dressed up as the operation of consensus or the result of mysterious “opinion polls” to identify the strongest candidate. What that really meant was an intensive process of promise-making and/or pressure to persuade some candidates to stand down. Where that did not work, and primaries still took place, the promise-making and bullying came afterwards—to stop disappointed aspirants from turning against the party and standing as independents. The consequence of all that top-down management was that the nominations saw much less open violence than in previous years.

So who won, and who lost, at the national level?

Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates. That brings us to the big national winners and losers of the process. Odinga—and his ODM party—have come out rather bruised. They have been accused of nepotism, bribery and of ignoring local wishes. This is a particularly dangerous accusation for Odinga, as it plays into popular concerns that, following his “handshake” with President Kenyatta and his adoption as the candidate of the “establishment”, he is a “project” of wealthy and powerful individuals who wish to retain power through the backdoor after Kenyatta stands down having served two-terms in office. In the face of well-publicised claims that Odinga would be a “remote controlled president” doing the bidding of the Kenyatta family and their allies, the impression that the nominations were stage-managed from on high in an undemocratic process was the last thing Azimio needed.

Moreover, perhaps because Odinga seems to have been less active than his rival in personally intervening to mollify aggrieved local politicians, the ODM nominations process seems to have left more of a mess. That was compounded by complications in the Azimio la Umoja/One Kenya Alliance Coalition Party (we’ll call it Azimio from now on, for convenience). Where Azimio “zoned”—that is, agreed on a single candidate from all its constituent parties—disappointed aspirants complained. Where it did not zone, and agreed to let each party nominate its own candidate for governor, MP and so on, then smaller parties in the coalition complained that they would face unfair competition come the general election. That is why the leaders of some of these smaller groups such as Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua made dramatic (or theatrical, depending on your view) announcements of their decision to leave Azimio and support Ruto.

Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates.

So Ruto looks like a nomination winner. But his success comes with a big price tag. His interventions to placate disgruntled aspirants involved more than soothing words. A new government will have lots of goodies to distribute to supporters—positions in the civil service and parastatals, diplomatic roles, not to mention business opportunities of many kinds. But the bag of goodies is not bottomless, and it seems likely that a lot of promises have been made. Ruto’s undoubted talents as an organizer and deal-maker have been useful to him through the nominations—but those deals may prove expensive for him, and for Kenya, if he wins the presidential poll.

Money, politics, and the cost of campaigns

Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword. In the short term, many of them will have saved considerable money: depending on exactly when the deal was done, they will have been spared some days of campaign expenses—no need to fuel cars, buy airtime for bloggers, pay for t-shirts and posters, and hand out cash. But that will be a brief respite. The disappointed rivals who have gone independent will make the campaigns harder for them—and likely more expensive. The belief that they were favoured by the party machinery may mean that voter expectations are higher when it comes to handouts and donations on the campaign trail. And the fact they were nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine their grass-roots legitimacy.

Others may experience a similar delayed effect. Among the short-term losers of the nominations will have been some of the “goons” who have played a prominent physical role in previous nominations: their muscular services were largely not required (although there were exceptions). The printers of posters and t-shirts will similarly have seen a disappointing nominations period (although surely they will have received enough early orders to keep them happy, especially where uncertainty over the nomination was very prolonged). The providers of billboard advertising may have seen a little less demand than they had hoped for, although they too seem to have done quite well from selling space to aspirants who—willingly or not—did not make it to the primaries. But where the general election will be fiercely contested, entrepreneurs will likely make up any lost ground as the campaigns get going. In these cases, competition has been postponed, not avoided.

Those in less competitive wards, constituencies or counties—the kind in which one party tends to dominate in the general election—are unlikely to be able to make up for lost time. These “one-party” areas may be in shorter supply in 2022 than in the past, due to the way that the control of specific leaders and alliances over the country’s former provinces has fragmented, but there will still be some races in which it is obvious who will win, and so the campaigns will be less heated.

Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword.

More definite losers are the parties themselves. In some ways, we could say they did well as institutions, because they were spared the embarrassment of violent primaries. But the settling of many nominations without primaries meant not collecting nomination fees from aspirants in some cases, and refunding them in others. That will have cost parties a chunk of money, which they won’t get back. That may not affect the campaigns much—the money for campaigns flows in opaque and complex ways that may not touch the parties themselves. But it will affect the finances of the parties as organizations, which are often more than a little fragile.

Are the losers actually the biggest winners?

Some losers, however, are really big winners. Think about those candidates who would not have won competitive primaries but were strong enough to be able to credibly complain that they had been hard done by due to the decision to select a rival in a direct process. In many cases, these individuals were able to extract considerable concessions in return for the promise not to contest as independents, and so disrupt their coalition’s best laid plans. This means that many of the losers—who may well have been defeated anyway—walked away with the promise of a post-election reward without the expense and bother of having to campaign up until the polls.

It is hard not to suspect that some of them might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn. In fact, some of them may have been aiming at this all along. For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome. Instead of spending the next three months in an exhausting round of funerals, fund-raisers and rallies, constantly worrying about whether they have enough fifty (or larger) shilling notes to hand out and avoiding answering their phones, they can sit back and wait for their parastatal appointment, ambassadorship, or business opportunity.

For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome.

For these individuals, the biggest worry now is not their popularity or campaign, but simply the risk that their coalition might not win the presidential election, rendering the promises they have received worthless. Those whose wishes come true will be considerably more fortunate—and financially better off—than their colleagues who made it through the nominations but fall at the final hurdle of the general election.

Separating the winners of the nominations process from the losers may therefore be harder than it seems.

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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.



Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.



Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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