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The Invisible Clan: Is Somalia Ready for a Women’s Revolution?

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Somali women enjoy few rights in a society where clan identity is passed down through male lineage. A woman who marries a man from another clan, for example, cannot pass down her clan identity to her children. It is for this reason that Somali women’s rights activists often refer to Somali women as the invisible “fifth clan”.

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The Invisible Clan: Is Somalia Ready for a Women’s Revolution?
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To my daughter I will say,
‘When the men come, set yourself on fire’.
Warsan Shire

The gang rape and murder of 12-year-old Aisha Ilyas Adan, whose body was found outside her family’s house in the town of Galkayo in central Somalia last month, has galvanised Somali women to fight against a vice that has often been described as a “normalised” epidemic. Under the hashtag #WeAreNotSafe, Somali activists are demanding that the authorities take rape cases more seriously.

Rape is one of the unspoken taboos in war-torn Somali society that few in the international development community, and Somalis themselves, have been reluctant to confront – even though it has become a constant feature of Somali women’s lives since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. Anarchy and lawlessness have embedded a culture of violence that allow men to rape with impunity.

Women paid a double price during Somalia’s civil war: not only were they expected to become breadwinners, they also became casualties of conflicts as clans fought each other for supremacy and as the country’s institutions collapsed. Rape was often used as a weapon of war. A survey by Trust Law, a project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, has stated that Somalia is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.

Most rapes in Somalia go unreported and unpunished. The few women who dare to report their cases to the authorities face a hostile audience. There have been cases of women being ostracised and even killed when they report being raped.

Women and children living in camps for internally displaced people are particularly vulnerable. In 2013, the United Nations reported nearly 800 cases of sexual and gender-based violence in Mogadishu’s IDP camps within the space of just 6 months. While human rights organisations have been documenting an alarming number of rape cases in camps for refugees and IDPs, rapes in the wider Somali society go largely unrecorded. In reported cases, clan elders resort to customary law (known as xeer) to dispense justice, which often involves the perpetrator paying a fine or the victim being forced to marry her attacker. Now women are demanding that customary law not be applied to rape cases and that there should be laws to bring rapists to justice.

How the clan system affects women

The clan system, Somali society’s main organising institution – which gained traction during the civil war when law and order broke down and when public institutions collapsed – represent a nightmare for women, say researchers Judith Gardner and Judy El-Bushra in their study titled “The Impact of War on Somali Men and its Effects on the Family, Women and Children”. The corollary of this clan-centred siege mentality is an extreme imbalance in the power relations between Somali men and women.

Somali women enjoy few rights in a society where clan identity is passed down through male lineage. A woman who marries a man from another clan, for example, cannot pass down her clan identity to her children. It is for this reason that Somali women’s rights activists often refer to Somali women as the invisible “fifth clan”. (There are four major clans in Somalia – Darod, Hawiye, Diir and Rahanweyne.)

Yet it is this “invisible clan” that has sustained Somali society during the nearly three decades of civil war. While much emphasis has been placed on harmful practices endured by Somali women and girls, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widespread in Somalia (it is estimated that 98 per cent of women aged between 15 and 49 in Somalia have undergone the procedure), little attention is given to Somali women’s role in feeding and protecting their families during the civil wars years and beyond.

Somali women enjoy few rights in a society where clan identity is passed down through male lineage. A woman who marries a man from another clan, for example, cannot pass down her clan identity to her children. It is for this reason that Somali women’s rights activists often refer to Somali women as the invisible “fifth clan”.

During the conflict, women developed a deep resilience and a practical business acumen, partly because they had no other choice, and also because they could more easily cross and access enemy territories than men, and therefore, were more likely than men to be able to trade and do business across clan lines. Woman-headed households in Somalia’s war-torn society, and even in the diaspora, became more common, mainly because physical and social disruptions caused by the conflict had eroded men’s gender roles as providers and protectors. Women became the main breadwinners during a conflict where battles between clans and “revenge killings” had decimated the male population. In cities such as Mogadishu and Hargeisa, it is common to see small-scale female traders selling khat, vegetables and even petrol.

However, while women have been running businesses and holding their families together, they still do not have decision-making powers, which are largely in the hands of clan elders and men. Somali women are expected to be strong and resilient, yet they do not enjoy the same rights as men, nor do they have real economic power even though the civil war forced women to take on a more important economic roles within the family. In the context of civil war, gender roles became confused and distorted, with women taking on greater financial responsibilities but with little authority within the family.

Gardner and El-Bushra found no evidence that the dominant patriarchal ideology underpinning Somali society has been substantially damaged by the civil war or state collapse, despite the increasingly important economic role of women. However, they note that not all clans in Somalia have similar attitudes towards women. Obedience to a wife is valued among the largely agriculturalist “Bantu” clans, for instance, but considered anathema amongst pastoralists.

Absentee fathers

While much attention has been focused on the impact of the civil war on Somali women, particularly their changing gender roles as breadwinners, the impact of the war on Somali men has not been investigated as much. Ironically, United Nations and international NGO interventions to empower Somali women might have ended up disempowering Somali men, who are not only denied services (such as welfare benefits in which only female heads of households qualify as recipients) but who are less likely than women to seek psychological treatment or social support services, which are crucial for people dealing with trauma.

Somali women were literally left holding the baby. In Somalia’s urban centres, men tend to while away their time in coffee and tea shops (a phenomenon I have also witnessed in coffee shops in Nairobi) while their wives and daughters go off to work and take care of their families. A phenomenon observed among Somali communities living in places such as London and Minnesota is that of jobless or absentee fathers; they say that Somali women adjust better to their new environments in Europe and America, and are, therefore, more easily absorbed in the labour market. Men, especially those who held high positions in Somalia or who hold advanced degrees, find it much harder to adjust to working in low-paid or low-status jobs that are available to refugees or new immigrants. Hence, many remain jobless or resign to becoming recipients of the welfare state. The resulting marital discord has led to high divorce rates, particularly among Somalis is the diaspora.

Others desert their families out of shameful pride, leaving their wives to take care of the children. Researchers have found that the most common absentee fathers are those who may remain married but who are not physically present in their children’s lives, those who abandon their families by re-marrying or those who are so addicted to khat that they become completely dependent on their wives.

Khat addiction and mental illnesses emerge both as causes and effects of male failure to fulfil family responsibilities. Khat dens are full of young married men who can’t find jobs or who have simply become addicted to the habit. Medium- and long-term use of khat, the mild stimulant that is widely consumed in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, has been associated with depression, aggression, paranoia, insomnia and mouth cancers; it has also contributed to parental absenteeism.

Khat has also been known to deaden emotions, such as guilt or shame. Some observers claim that it could have even contributed to prolonging the civil war in Somalia and might be a factor in the alarming cases of sexual violence. The negative social consequences of khat on Somali families and societies have not been widely acknowledged but they are gaining prominence, which has forced an increasing number of European countries to ban its importation.

‘Bravery and dry eyes’

Most Somali men will not admit to being addicts or emotionally traumatised, even by war, as “bravery and dry eyes” are considered crucial markers of a Somali man. Admitting that one is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or mental illness is one of the biggest taboos in Somali society, as I came to learn. Most Somalis don’t talk about or openly admit that they might be suffering from trauma, yet, as any psychologist or medical doctor would tell you, it is not possible for people who have endured prolonged conflict and forced displacement to not exhibit the anxieties and psychoses that sustained violence breed.

“When instability and conflict and mayhem have gone on for as long as they have in Somalia, not only is everyone suffering from some sort of mental illness, mostly chronic post-traumatic disorder, but there are certain habits that people develop as a result of the events,” says Mulki Ali, a Swedish Somali blogger. Among these habits and attitudes are feelings of powerlessness, cynicism and a learned helplessness, also known as “victim mentality”. Violence thus becomes a “self-fulfilling prophesy” and rape is normalised. In such a scenario, says Ali, traumatised young men and boys become susceptible to “cults” like Al Shabaab, which provide a sense of belonging and restore “manhood” among youth who feel otherwise powerless to change their situation.

“When instability and conflict and mayhem have gone on for as long as they have in Somalia, not only is everyone suffering from some sort of mental illness…but there are certain habits that people develop as a result of the events,” says Mulki Ali, a Swedish Somali blogger. Among these habits and attitudes are a feeling of powerlessness, cynicism and a learned helplessness, also known as “victim mentality”. Violence thus becomes a “self-fulfilling prophesy” and rape is normalised.

The civil war eroded and distorted men’s raganimo (roughly translated as “manhood”), which in a highly patriarchal society, can be devastating for male self-esteem and dignity. In their inception study, Gardner and El-Bushra found that the definition of raganimo in Somali society is inextricably linked to men’s ability to not just protect the family, but the clan as well:

“Boys from pastoral clans are taught at a young age to show fearlessness and never publicly cry or show other signs of emotional weakness. To do otherwise is un-manly and humiliating, for the individual and by extension for his clansmen and women. A male’s raganimo is enhanced if he survives an attempt to humiliate or intimidate him without showing fear… Findings also make clear that a ‘real man’…is one who excels in fulfilling both his family and clan responsibilities…How successfully an individual is able to attain and sustain his manhood depends on many factors but two conditions stand out as critical: his access to livestock or other forms of wealth, and being married with children, particularly sons.”

Inability to fulfil one’s family or clan responsibilities deepens frustration, exacerbates trauma and can lead to depression and violent behaviour.

Women’s resistance

However, as researchers are quick to point out, even with women’s relatively new status as breadwinners, the basic values attached to gender identity among Somalis remain unchanged; in Somalia’s deeply patriarchal society, women are still believed to be inferior to men in all aspects, particularly in the political sphere, where women are discouraged from participating in public affairs.

Some younger Somali women, particularly those living in Western countries, are beginning to question Somali society’s deeply patriarchal clan structures, and becoming more vocal about sexism. New female voices, such as the UK-based poet Warsan Shire and the writer Nadifa Mohamed, are redefining Somali literature with a female-centric slant. Others are openly questioning traditional practices that impact women’s sexuality, a taboo subject among most Somalis. The prominent Somalilander, Edna Aden Ismail, for instance, has gained global recognition for establishing a maternity hospital in Hargeisa that treats women and girls who suffer from FGM-related ailments or who have been victims of sexual violence.

Yasmin Maydhane, a London-based human rights advocate, among others, are particularly critical of FGM, which is often portrayed as a Somali or Islamic practice, even though it has its roots in the pre-Islamic Egypt of the Pharaohs. While all religions are about controlling women’s sexuality, she says, in Somalia “men use religion to police our vaginas, to control what it looks like, what it feels like and who is allowed to access it…Our brand of patriarchy is built around sexual control…Everything and everyone is silenced with deference to ‘God’s plan’, a phrase that indicates that we are done thinking and talking,” wrote Maydhane in a July 2015 edition of Media Diversified.

Yet many forget that before the civil war, Somali women enjoyed more freedoms than they do today. President Siad Barre enlarged women’s rights; women were not expected to stay at home or to cover their bodies from head to toe. During his “secularist” dictatorship (which he claimed was a form of “scientific socialism”), women held important positions in public life and as professionals. Until the full-body veil for women was introduced to Somalia in the early 1990s – when the deeply conservative Wahhabism imported from Saudi Arabia gained more influence – Somali women wore their veil “lightly”; they only partially covered their heads with scarves and wore long colourful skirts and blouses.

Yasmin Maydhane, a London-based human rights advocate, among others, are particularly critical of FGM, which is often portrayed as a Somali or Islamic practice, even though it has its roots in the pre-Islamic Egypt of the Pharaohs. While all religions are about controlling women’s sexuality, she says, in Somalia “men use religion to police our vaginas, to control what it looks like, what it feels like and who is allowed to access it…

Imported Wahhabism also entrenched a Sharia-focused mentality that shunned secular institutions. Al Shabaab, which purports to be carrying out an Islamic jihad in Somalia, has not made women’s lives any easier; its strict code of conduct in the areas the group controls has significantly curtailed women’s freedom and choices.

However, with growing resistance to a male-centric society, it is possible that a nascent women’s movement will emerge in Somalia in the near future. Many Somali women have privately expressed to me their frustration with dealing with male-dominated politics in Somalia that is focused on political power rather than on addressing the many challenges the country faces, including high levels of illiteracy and alarming rates of maternal mortality. One woman told me, “Since our men have made such a mess of our country, maybe it’s time for women to take over.”

Somali women may finally get their #MeToo moment, which may encourage more women to demand the rights that they have been denied for so long, and to forcefully reject the notion that gender-based violence is “normal”. Aisha Ilyas Adan’s brutal rape and murder might just be the trigger that ignites this revolution.

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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).

Politics

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.

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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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Politics

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.

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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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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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