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Missionaries or Mercenaries? How the Church in Kenya Lost Its Religion



MISSIONARIES OR MERCENARIES? How the church in Kenya lost its religion
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As the world marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is a good time to reflect on the present schism between the clergy and the congregation in the Kenyan church. If the clergy is the proverbial shepherd and the congregation is the flock, then this shepherd has passively abdicated his duty and we need to discuss this.

First off, if you are one of those dogmatic Christians who cannot stomach any criticism levelled at the church, you may want to stop reading now, lest your delicate sensibilities are needlessly offended. This is not a conversion exercise; it is a shameless sermon to the choir. Conversions while appreciated are purely incidental.

Matters religion are always a sensitive subject and in a country where Christianity is the dominant faith, calling out the church is asking for a double dose of trouble. Then again, 500 years ago, in the Middle Ages, a young Jesuit priest faced a similar moral dilemma under worse circumstances. On October 31, 1517, he called out the Catholic church on its misdemeanours and changed the course of Christianity. The Ninety-Five Theses, or if you prefer, Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, was the religious Pandora’s box of the Middle Ages.

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion argues that religion is rarely critiqued because it is held as a sensitive and personal issue; hence it is shielded from overt demystification and criticism. Despite this perception, we can’t deny that religious arguments hold great sway in normative and even legal arguments that guide behaviour in our societies. For example, debates on issues of access to birth control, arguments on abortion and arguments on euthanasia are passionate and intense because religious arguments heavily influence these conversations that take a contrary position to science.

Matters religion are always a sensitive subject and in a country where Christianity is the dominant faith, calling out the church is asking for a double dose of trouble.

In circumstances where prevailing religious dogmas have been successfully questioned, ramifications of these have been felt in the public sphere of human lives. Jesus Christ questioned Judaism’s religious practices and established his ministry with societal outcasts whom he sought “to seek and save”. His disciples, the Pharisees (teachers of the existing dogma) and other followers interrogated his ideas, posing all sorts of tricky questions, which he skilfully and relentlessly deconstructed.

The Pharisees weren’t too pleased with this. For being such a pain in the posterior, they put out a contract on Jesus and Judas Iscariot took the bait, kissing and outing Jesus. Jesus was crucified, and his death became the martyrdom that made way for Christianity to become a new and more inclusive faith than Judaism, accepting of previously excluded people and practices. Jews were punished for killing Jesus, and they have been persecuted through history (even Luther had anti-Semitic views) till they found reprieve in 1948 through the formation of Isreal.

What Martin Luther did

In the same vein, Martin Luther’s move to call out the Catholic’s church’s moral excesses set off a series of domino waves that affect us to date.   Two key things stand out. First, Luther’s actions ignited the movement that eventually resulted in Protestantism, which reduced the influence of the Catholic church. Luther’s second influence was more profound. By translating the Bible into different languages, he removed the monopoly of knowledge of scriptural teachings from the priesthood, diffusing it to the people. In a move reminiscent of the temple curtain tearing at Christ’s death, Luther brought the people closer to God by bringing his word closer to them. Of course, there is an element of serendipity here that we must acknowledge; the Gutenberg Press and the Renaissance.

Then Europe was coming out of the Middle Ages and there was a renewed thinking about the relationship between man and God. The prevailing dogma was a pessimistic one – that man was a creature that had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and thus worthy not of his grace. In its place, a new school was emerging, arguing that man was created in God’s image and reflected God’s genius. As such, it was man’s duty to use all his abilities as bestowed by God to express dominion over the earth. The Renaissance Movement, which included science and innovation that marked the end of the Dark Ages, was partly inspired by this dogmatic shift on the image of man.

The technological invention of the Gutenberg printing press was the perfect medium to allow Luther to disseminate Christ’s teachings to the public and to translate them into local languages. So next time you read your Bible in Latin, thank Luther for it and feel free to buy your local Jesuit priest a drink in Luther’s honour.

Many Kenyans are nostalgically remembering when some within the church fearlessly called out the moral and legal inconsistencies that characterised the excesses of the Moi regime in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many, such as Bishop Alexander Muge and Father Anthony Kaiser, paid with their lives.

So, 500 years later, we need to have a conversation about the church in Kenya. First things first. This is not about the spiritual relevance of the church in its congregants’ lives. Dawkins will call me cowardly, but I will avoid that; God knows my views on the church and as an actor in public spaces I offend enough sensibilities as it is. What I want us to reflect on is the role and influence of the church in our public spaces and outside of our churches on Sunday. The Kenyan state is going through turbulent political times in which the church has barely weighed in. Where it has made its voice heard, it has made statements that are largely ineffectual, offering very few solutions that are in themselves escapist.

The country is experiencing political uncertainty that has seen the credibility of the electoral management body questioned over and over, lending the recently concluded elections a legitimacy crisis that refuses to go away. While courts can give legal direction on aspects of law and process, the law is but a tool of politics, subject to and vulnerable to political whims and machinations. Thus, it can only help us so far given that this is a moral rather than a legal problem. The opposition has called for civil disobedience, relabelling itself a movement (which is perfectly legal, by the way). Which is why the law can do only so much to save us from this political crisis.

Many Kenyans are nostalgically remembering when some within the church fearlessly called out the moral and legal inconsistencies that characterised the excesses of the Moi regime in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many, such as Bishop Alexander Muge and Father Anthony Kaiser, paid with their lives. That’s why when the current Kenyan clergy acts like the biblical church of Laodicea (to the chagrin of St. John), going all lukewarm on us, we the congregation are confused. This shepherd has turned his back on his flock and we need to understand why. Then we need to ask how we deal with this shepherd who is guilty of desertion.

Initialising Project Genesis

When one can’t make sense of the present, one goes back to the history of the problem. To what extent is the church separate from the state? Where the church extends itself, and becomes an actor in affairs of the state, then it must be called to accountability and scrutiny just like other institutions.

The Kenyan story with the church begins with colonialism. The missionaries came to spread the gospel and change our lives for the better.   They built schools, hospitals, and churches where they taught us that we must be obedient to our masters, aka the colonialists. (Anecdote, depending on who you believe, they also instructed natives in Polynesia how to have sex in acceptable civilised positions, hence the missionary position, but I digress).

The church, being in bed with the colonial government, had access to large tracts of land, where they could do their missionary work. It’s instructive to note that the early church in Kenya never called out the colonial government for its forced displacement of   Kenyans from fertile highland areas and neither did it call out the use of forced labour, introduction of taxation (hut tax) or the kipande system. Why bite the hand that feeds you? With the ownership of land, a key scarce and hotly contested resource, the church in Kenya adopted multiple identities. While it serves the role of spiritual shepherd, by owning land, it is also an economic actor, which makes it an interest group with great political influence.

Now to the fight for pluralism. The church spoke with one voice for the cause for pluralism. One of the reasons that much, though not all, of the clergy was united about this was because the fight for pluralism did not compromise the economic interests of the church.   Thus, the shepherds rose to the occasion and guided their flock, using captive audiences every Sunday, issuing pastoral letters, and using their spiritual influence to influence the political decisions of their flock. As the clergy spoke with one voice against the Moi regime, we the congregation saw that it was good and were immensely pleased with our shepherds.

The land question

With political pluralism came freedom of expression, creating space for many voices hitherto unheard. Naturally, the land question, a question as original as colonialism, came to the fore. Calls for constitutional reform wanted to contain an all-powerful executive in Kenya as well as resolve the land question. From issues of displacement to land tenure to taxation on land, all these touched a nerve among the owners of large tracts of land in Kenya, including the church. As such, while the church was united in opposing Moi as a powerful executive, they were less singular in supporting a new constitution whose reform was based on revising and checking executive powers to avoid a repeat of Moi 2.0 in the future. Why the inconsistency? Because the land question affected the church as landowners.

In an ironical twist, an unholy alliance even, the mainstream churches teamed up with large-scale land owners in opposing the draft constitution of 2010. While the landholding elite were obvious about their reservations about land reform, including issues around community land and lease tenure, the church cloaked its opposition to the new constitution in congregation friendly positions, such as half-baked arguments on abortion, gay rights and Islamic courts. Cheap and dirty propaganda tactics were not beneath the moral etiquette of the church; it was survival time after all. From leaflets with outrageous interpretations of the Bible to parading prepubescent girls in front of congregations and alleging that the draft constitution would allow them access to contraceptives, the church employed every weapon in its bag of tricks. Never has the moral compass of the church faced south as it did then.

In an ironical twist, an unholy alliance even, the mainstream churches teamed up with large-scale land owners in opposing the draft constitution of 2010.

Which brings us to the present. The church in Kenya today cannot speak with one voice on political issues that threaten its status quo. And this has nothing to do with our souls. The stairway to heaven hasn’t changed; it’s still all about fat camels and tiny eye needles. It’s not even about remorse about the church’s diminished moral authority after the position it took in the 2010 constitutional referendum. It’s the congregation numbers, stupid. When the politics is about issues that are a live wire threatening church power dynamics and the loyalty of congregations, making political statements is hara-kiri. Being no brave samurais, the church avoids this scenario by simply not taking a side. Hence the feeble and mostly ineffectual statements we have been subjected to in the face of this political crisis.

To pick a side, even a moral or ethical one, in the current political debate would mean taking a position and risking alienating half of the flock. The flock and its spiritual dependence on the church is what keeps the church relevant. The flock’s loyalty to the church is what provides a modicum of decency to the economic interests of the church, especially where they concern land. It is not in the church’s interest to take a political position that will see it lose sections of their congregation. So rather than alienate its money maker, the shepherd, aka the church, is sitting this one out (sorry flock).

The case of the Catholic church in Kenya is particularly illuminating. It is certainly not in the realm of outrageousness to imagine that the Catholic church wants a Catholic president, especially if the president comes from a family that is the largest landowner in the country. Why would you chide this bloke? You are taking care of his spiritual needs now (and his soul in death) and he is safeguarding your material possessions on earth, quid pro quo, neat. Sounds sordid? Maybe, then again, most realpolitik is that; sordid, dirty, self-serving, amoral, inward looking, forget Bentham and utilitarianism. Besides, the shepherd needs to be well fed and rested and comfortable to take care of his flock, right?

Lost sheep

Which brings us to our current dilemma. What do we do with the shepherd who has absconded his duty? That is the question the congregation must deal with. What must be made clear is that to the extent that the church has a political voice that it exploits through action (and inaction), it must be held accountable for it political positions. In the same light, the church must come clean about its economic grip on the country, if for nothing else than for purposes of disclosure.

To pick a side, even a moral or ethical one, in the current political debate would mean taking a position and risking alienating half of the flock. The flock and its spiritual dependence on the church is what keeps the church relevant.

The church and state are far from separate; they are joined at the hip. In the meantime, the church has failed the country by failing to speak up, to take a position and to provide direction in this time of crisis. The church has failed the country by putting itself and its interests before those of its congregation.

In the Divine Comedy, Inferno, Dante Alighieri famously said, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” Feel free to take a moment to ruminate on the irony of the Kenyan clergy having a special place in hell, if Dante is to be believed.

Meanwhile dear flock, the shepherd is not reporting for duty. The flock can choose to wait all rudderless till the shepherd resumes duty or, like Martin Luther some 500 years ago, the flock can revisit its relationship with the shepherd. For what good is the church as a leader when it offers us promises of spiritual riches while watching from afar as the vices of the flesh consume us here on earth? Not to put a fine point to it, but perhaps we should be asking ourselves, what would Martin Luther do?

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Akoa Wesonga is a thinker and a dreamer, currently preoccupied with fighting the necessary vices that are Coffee and Tsundoku.


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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