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The Rwanda-Uganda Border Closure: When Love Turns to Hate…and Rebels Become Tyrants

18 min read.

The absence of steadying British and American hands right now, in this conflict, has exposed the lack of political and management skills in Kigali and in Kampala. It has exposed the fact that Uganda and Rwanda have for decades now been run as client states. In the absence of the Anglo-Saxon power-meisters, Museveni and Kagame are learning cruelly the difference between monkey and organ grinder.

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The Rwanda-Uganda Border Closure: When Love Turns to Hate…and Rebels Become Tyrants
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Well into its fourth week, the bewildering showdown between Rwanda President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, had predictably produced a heart-rending headline. The news reports said that a woman several months pregnant, an Elizabeth Mukarugwiza, had been chased across the border from Rwanda into Uganda by either the Rwandan army or police.

Eye-witness reports said that Ms. Mukarugwiza, 37, just about beat the Rwandan security to the border. Whatever it was had driven her, and we can only speculate (a prenatal visit to a clinic?), would have been that urgent. Had this episode occurred inside Rwanda itself, what happened next would not have been reported. Were we to hear of it, it would have come as rumor, a thing said of a closed country that without voices or images to back it up, quickly loses steam.

Take the story of three sisters:

As reported in The Observer newspaper, the sisters, daughters of a pastor Deo Nyirigira who lives in Mbarara in Western Uganda, had completed their studies at Ugandan universities and then returned to find work in Kigali. Their father, part of the group extruded from Rwanda in the 1959 upheaval that brought Paul Kagame himself to Uganda, had one time returned to the country after the genocide. After only a handful of years, Mr. Nyirigira realised that he could no longer live in his country. For a second time, he left Rwanda for Uganda. Given his influence as a pastor, the authorities in Kigali grew weary of him and wanted him back. Attempts at kidnapping him are said to have led to the shooting death of one of the suspected Rwandan kidnap squad.

Eyewitness reports said that Ms. Mukarugwiza, 37, just about beat the Rwandan security to the border. Whatever it was that had driven her, we can only speculate that it had been urgent (a prenatal visit to a clinic, perhaps?). Had this episode occurred inside Rwanda itself, what happened next would not have been reported. Were we to hear of it, it would have come as rumour – a thing that quickly loses steam without voices or images to back it up.

Back in Rwanda, and back in the present, with the rise in political tensions now, Mr. Nyirigira’s daughters, because the government could not touch their father, have reportedly been stripped of their jobs. In Rwanda, children may be punished for the infractions of parents; in the worst of times, the unborn were not spared either. One sister was already married with a child. The husband was ordered to divorce her. It was when their father sent them sustenance money that they were apparently taken into custody. But we hear of these events secondhand.

The fate of Ms. Mukarugwiza too would have been rumor were it not for the Ugandan media. But alas, escaping the Rwandan forces counted for naught. No sooner had Ms. Mukarugwiza made it across the border than she collapsed and died, she and her unborn baby.

A moment crackling with significance; there you had the picture, shared across social media, of what appear to be two Red Cross responders, white latex gloved hands, stooped forms, shocked, horrified faces wanting to have a look. The body covered in red, green, then blue and red Maasai blankets. The scene is slopping ground, a wooded glen, heavy jackets giving an idea of altitude and weather. Armed men hounded the expectant mother to death; just like in a gothic, B Movie, the fetus must not be born. It was as if 1994 were reclaiming the soul of Rwanda.

Trying to see it from the perspective of a Rwandan, to not miss-judge the act, however carking, was hard, the central question refusing to go away; in what way does the death of a pregnant woman contribute to the greater good of Rwanda? At 37, Ms. Mukarugwiza would have left behind other children. They will remember, so does that now make them targets to a regime that lives in fear of its victims? (“He who kills Brutus but does not kill the sons of Brutus,” a researcher once quoted the mantra to me). How many times in that country was it justified by saying that the child will be born an enemy? Too rebarbative to contain, and yet human sacrifice, after thousands of years, has still not lost its repugnance. Fascism, the conclusion went, had sunk deep roots into Rwanda, its president, irretrievably fallen to the dark side.

Ugly underbelly

The one link I could use to comprehend what happened to Ms. Mukarugwiza was two decades out of date. The first and last time I was in Rwanda, a few years after the genocide, was March 2003. The first thing I did in Kigali was look up my old classmates who had returned home post-1994. But the once humble, amiable schoolboys of the late 80s and early 90s, I failed to find in the men they had become. In turns brash, and rude, then commanding, suddenly distant, then calm, then uncommunicative, their mercurial, unstable character had caught me off guard in 2003. I took it with whatever fortitude I could muster at that age, rationalizing that few peoples had endured what the Rwandans had gone through.

But for a few years after that, and already disabused of my then, post-genocide, World Bank-sponsored naivety, garnished with western media manufactured facts about post-genocide Rwanda, I paid closer attention. I tried my best not to fall into the binary, this side good, that side bad routine. I read into each report, into each TV segment, the calamitous shift in the character of my old school friends. It was as if once you had seen into peoples’ souls, no mere shift in ideology nor mass media spin, can fool you.

We were not many in the newsroom, so on top of my other beats, I was dispatched to northern Uganda countless times where I spent time with refugees. Covering Rwanda and Congo was one of the most upsetting times of my career as a reporter. The end of the genocide had been heralded as a grand moment, yet in many respects, it signaled the beginning of other horrible events.

And then I paid too much attention. The years starting from 2003 would culminate with my departure from the media in 2006. They were the years of the unravelling of whatever post-Mobutu hiatus might have been in Congo. Congolese refugees were streaming out in all directions. And it seemed back then that the region was on fire. One of the worst massacres in the northern Uganda war came in that span of time. Sudan had just concluded its penultimate, bloody stage of civil war. Garang died in a plane crash. Back then, being a reporter meant that by default, you were a war reporter.

We were not many in the newsroom, so on top of my other beats, I was dispatched to northern Uganda countless times. I spent time with refugees. Of Rwanda and Congo, there began one of the most upsetting times of my career as a reporter. The ending of the genocide had been heralded as the grand moment. In many respects, it had been the beginning of the worst. In testimony after testimony, I heard something else besides what was said of the region. I was cruelly disillusioned about where this region would end up. I met the ugly underbelly of what was a disturbing, ethno-racial war. The silence of guns, if that ever came, would mean this zero-sum war being fought by other means.

We were all in it, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, so that events in any part of Congo would have meaning in all four countries. Those stocking the flames of the northern Uganda war saw it as a continuum for the outcomes in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, etc. How, as a reporter taught to not identify subjects by race or ethnicity do you approach that without also withholding the truth from the public? Calculating that if the combatants and their invidious backers in Kampala, Kigali and who knows which other cities quietly believed in their own ethnic superiority, why should the rest of us watching in confusion not know their full intentions?

Because Rwanda could rely on it, it took Uganda’s friendship for granted. However, by 2017 something had gone amiss. Kigali, it seemed, had overstepped its boundaries by interfering with the power dynamics of Uganda at a sensitive time when Museveni was struggling to assert his power.

It is one thing to fight a war of self-defense. It is another to wage a war of hegemonic ambition. The one is understandable; the other is a crime. I went for it. I reported what was a parallel, darker narrative to the sanitised news routine; the common approach was not courageous enough to tell the truth; rather than tell the world what accounted for the blinding human cruelty being meted out for what the perpetrators saw as payment for past ethnic traumas, it endlessly asked in faux naïveté, why people could be so inhuman.

The backlash

It was then the backlash started. The war may have been in Congo, but doors began to be shut in my face in government offices in Kampala. Shielding behind media ignorance and international lack of curiosity had enabled them wage wars in four countries with the comfort that the usual tropes of reporting Africa would shield them. The furiousness with which the reactions came left me stunned. I began to hear of the moves to get rid of me from the newspaper long before it happened.

Back in the day, the newspaper I worked for had yearly run country supplements of Rwanda. After a series of stories, on the troubles in Eastern Congo, the supplement hung in balance, the expected hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising threatened. As a reporter who may never earn that much money over a career, there is not much choice between your journalism and a paper merchant’s profits. I recollect the hostility at the paper itself, the kvetching from advertising salesmen who saw my reporting as financially ruinous. My notebooks disappeared. Journalist colleagues whose relationships to Kigali you had taken as a joke, took on a different character. Kagame’s reach, we understood, was everywhere, and newspaper offices are great places to plant eyes and ears. The failure of my paper to stand by me as a reporter, and the increasing telephone harassment, plus the decision I was reaching to become a fulltime writer, led me quit the media. If your editor and publisher cannot stand by you, there is little you can do about such matters.

I got busy finding ways of being a writer, including spending 3 years in Kenya. Rwanda receded from my mind. But I had gained a further insight. Legitimate, even useful scrutiny, let alone criticism, is not allowed in Rwanda, even if its well-meant. I immediately understood that Kigali’s temper tantrums would ensure that Kagame never ran out of enemies. Seeing enemies everywhere you look is not great leadership. There is a psychological term for it. I had not learnt anything new, really. I had merely joined the ranks of those familiar with the ugliness of our region’s politics, the people who expect any day to have to run into exile. I was not in bad company. I calmed down and moved on.

Till October 2017. That month, the big story (the month before Museveni had trashed the parliament) was that five Ugandan police officers had been arrested for the kidnap and extra-judicial deportation of Rwanda dissidents.

You had to have followed Rwanda closely enough, or been to school with some of the characters close to the show to have understood what that headline meant. There had always been much talk about the vaunted Rwandan security and intelligence, of their capacities and determination. I had always doubted that, particularly after enduring run-ins with a handful of them and taking note of how amateurish they were. I had also been in class with some, and they were not what you may describe as top of the class, as it were. They are good when you don’t fight back. When you do, they do precisely what Kagame has done; draw down the barricades and get nasty. Closer to the truth was that Rwanda is too small a country for others to spend energy worrying about. Some residual sympathy had perhaps led others to look the other way. It wasn’t that they were better; it was that others were benevolent towards them.

Toxic anger

I doubted that when it came to it, Rwanda could match the intelligence capabilities of say South Africa. Or Uganda, when it came to it. Slinking about dark corners and spiking people’s tea, sticking knives into “enemies” is one thing. The net effect is to get you marked out as evil and untrustworthy. It is another to have the economic and diplomatic clout of countries dramatically bigger like South Africa, or even small ones like Uganda whose economy you actually depend on. The problem of toxic anger the junta is afflicted with means they fail to tell friend from foe.

Because it could rely on it, Kigali took Uganda for granted. Either way, by 2017 something had gone wrong enough. Kigali, it seemed, had overstepped its bounds at last. You easily guessed that they had interfered with the power dynamics of Uganda. At such a sensitive time over his hold on to power, Mr. Museveni would have been unhappy.

This unease is to the extent that nearly everyone – not just politicians, lawyers and journalists, but even mobile money booth owners – is afraid to receive phone calls, especially from strangers, but also from anybody who is not an immediate family member. Friends are now suspecting friends. Like Rwanda, Uganda is an overripe boil.

We still do not know the full details of the matter. But former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, perhaps the most unqualified man to have ever held the post, was said to have inadvisedly played a role in the matter, as rumor had it, getting too close to the Rwandans. His erratic behaviour in 2017 may now be clearer in hindsight. In effect, the general had appointed himself the government of Uganda, making the kinds of commands way beyond his ken, as if he had become prime minister, speaker of parliament, chief justice and chief executioner. Not even president Museveni exercised that much authority. It remained for even his boss to join the dots, follow the lines linking him with Rwandan high command to smell something off. What did a police inspector need a political base for; why did he need a foreign policy? Was CID so inadequate that he had to have his own intelligence network? The drama of Kayihura’s downfall added to the political unease in Uganda.

We live in a state of fear. Phone calls bring unease; who might be listening, who is reading the emails? Friends suspect friends; colleagues in offices are unsure of each other. Like Rwanda, Uganda is an overripe boil. Rwanda appears to be falling over the cliff first. We are not far behind.

The central charge against the five officers, and which charge in reverse facsimile ricocheted from Kigali as “Uganda detaining Rwandan citizens without charge” – Kagame’s primary casus belli, was that they were arresting and extra judicially deporting Rwandan dissidents.

For over two decades, Mr. Kagame had won wars in which the other side was not really shooting back, and waging undeclared espionage wars others weren’t too interested in. The risk of going too far was always there, of waking up governments with vaster reach and resources.

And that is what has happened. The blowback started in South Africa. We do not as yet know the extent of this drama unfolding in Uganda, but the alacrity with which Kigali reacted (remember the adage – whatever you do, don’t make any sudden moves) would seem to indicate that the Ugandans knew exactly where to go and which tender spots to touch. By barricading himself and the people he leads in, a move with serious repercussions, no matter which way this story heads, Mr. Kagame has betrayed his state of mind. What he has done is beyond serious. He has drawn unkind attention from the world, who read in this move, not sophistication, leadership, cool-headedness, but cruelty. It behooves a leader not a drop of good to be seen as cruel. It’s not the time to build walls, or close borders with countries to north and south of your country. You remind the world of what and who it wants to forget.

That’s the wider world for starts. In East Africa, this has drawn the scrutiny of people in Kenya and Tanzania for whom Rwanda was far away, a country to be sympathized with. The interruption of regional trade is touching constituents that once could be counted upon to remain distant and unconcerned which way things happened over there. In Uganda itself, Kagame’s action is bringing up sentiments that had plateaued into disinterest. It has also curiously given Mr. Museveni some boost of badly needed sympathy in Uganda. It’s a strange thing, nationalism. Now some of Mr. Museveni’s opponents suddenly understand that it is okay for them to criticize him; they don’t like it that much when a foreign president does the same. Kagame is attacking, not just the Museveni government, but their Museveni.

We can’t tell how it’s going down inside Rwanda itself. But there, the issues are immediate. Rwanda needs Uganda for education, for health, for food more than Uganda needs Rwanda. The drama has been coloured by stories, such as that of the three sisters, whose lives have been imperiled by the closure of borders.

Then, in the middle of it, word came that Mr. Kagame had also closed the border with Burundi.

Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda is centuries old. As with the current character of Uganda, the bits of the ancient story we understand starts with the narrative of the ancient empire of Bunyoro-Kitara, when at the height of inter-Africa migrations, peoples ran into each other. Scars from the dim mists of time fester today, with broad implications for inter-ethnic divisions in Uganda and beyond.

Whichever way these reactions go, it is still early days, the opening pages of a book of raw emotions. The real story is still to hit its stride. Part of the reason we cannot tell where it will end is because we may be too horrified to begin thinking of it.

Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda

But do we not lose perspective by getting caught up in the moment of the drama? Do we care enough to know the story of Rwanda?

Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda is centuries old. As with the current character of Uganda, the bits of the ancient story we understand start with the narrative of the ancient empire of Bunyoro-Kitara, when at the height of inter-Africa migrations, peoples ran into each other. Scars from the dim mists of time fester today, with broad implications for inter-ethnic divisions in Uganda and beyond. The peoples of Rwanda-Burundi, including bits of Eastern Congo, played parts in the stories of the formation of Ugandan kingdoms, and they did not emerge winners. But that is ancient history. Of immediate relevance is how Rwandans ended up living in Uganda in such numbers.

The colonial wars that the British fought in Uganda were some of the most serious in the region, along with the wars the Germans brought to Central Tanzania. By the 1920s, it is reported, the population of Uganda had been growing negatively for three decades. The religion-inflected civil wars in Buganda (which were actually class wars), the Bunyoro genocide, the wars of conquest in the East and North, and the collapse of pre-colonial medicine, along with the interruption of agriculture, more Ugandans had died than were born for close to three decades. Nothing new; all of it very British. They simply did not care that black people were dying because of their imperial strategies. It is what they did in the Americas, in Australia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, etc. Hence, the introduction of the cash crop economy foundered under severe shortage of labour. The British actively encouraged immigration from Belgian holdings. There are dramatic pictures taken at the time of the way stations doling food, medicine and shelter along the migration route from the Rwandan border into central Uganda. Shirtless, barefoot Rwandans, their beddings rolled up on their heads, are captured in grainy images making the two week walk from the border to central Uganda.

Writing in his book, Kampala-Uganda in 1951, the late American anthropologist, Edwin S. Munger, who died in 2010, wrote that “For thirty years, the principle labor (sic) migration route has been that travelled by the Banyruanda and Barundi from the Belgian mandates into Buganda. Historically, Ruanda-Urundi’s high, steep-sided hills have produced more people than food to feed them. In many years the issue was blunt: go or starve…a carryover from the old days of hardship is the attitude in Ruanda-Urundi that one mark of manhood is a trip to Uganda. The traditions of battling with lions and elephants, of fighting bandits, living off the country, and surviving where many died still give the emigrant prestige on his return home.”

The image in Uganda from the 1920s onwards of Rwandans and Burundians (the difference was subsumed under the generic “Banyarwanda”) that emerged was unfortunate and unfair. Xenophobia in Uganda, particularly in Buganda, served to see these immigrants not as victims of cruel colonialism as the Ugandans themselves were, but as peripatetic, woebegone itinerants who worked for a meal. There were many eager to blend in, to become integrated, if only to avoid the unkind stereotype.

Life in Belgian territories was unpleasant, even by the unpleasant standards of colonialism. Arriving in late colonial Uganda, with somewhat better amenities, was for other reasons beside just food and work. “Perhaps here is partial confirmation of the physical hardships of the route from Ruanda-Urundi to Mengo (now greater Kampala) District,” Munger goes on. “Whole wards of Barundi and Banyaruanda are hospitalised with tuberculosis and general malnutrition.”

The image in Uganda, from the 1920s, of Rwandans (and Burundians, the difference was subsumed under the generic “Banyarwanda), that emerged was unfortunate and unfair. Xenophobia in Uganda, particularly in Buganda, served to see these immigrants, not as victims of cruel colonialism as themselves, but as peripatetic, woebegone itinerants who will work for a meal. And many were those eager to blend in, to become integrated, if only to avoid the unkind stereotype. They were escaping similar circumstances, but in one of the failures of African societies, those they ran to did not treat them well.

Particularly in the metropolitan Buganda, where a mix of aristocratic and racial hierarchy (not unknown in Rwanda) had created a caste system under the British, the immigrants, penniless and ill, were despised, and the timidity this produced is to be found today, three generations later. And as Munger notes, intermarriage tended to happen mostly at the social margins, because the Rwandans (and the women later followed the men), meant lower dowries demanded at nuptials.

The Buganda government, under the indirect colonial rule which left it in charge of broad swathes of its subjects, viewed the arrivals ambivalently. They were refugees; they were badly needed labour. After a few years, the Kabaka’s government began to tax them as its other subjects, a tacit act of admission. Those who could, integrated swiftly, taking on new identities and names.

The more urgent immigration into Uganda, of Rwandans and Burundians, was yet to come. But it resulted in a multi-layered extra-Rwandan diaspora. There are the integrated, who bare Ugandan names, have Ugandan parentage and are largely unhappy about the way the later immigrants served to tarnish their image, to say nothing of complicating hard-won relationships.

Amongst those that broke off from the Ugandan army and returned to Rwanda, the spearhead group were not from this earlier exodus. This group of latter immigrants came in 1959.

Throughout, the Ugandans had not behaved well towards their guests. The country had not come without its share of pain. The love was not bottomless. And today, the integration is so profound that any Ugandan saying anything anti-Rwanda, may well be insulting a grandmother. They had learnt that not being accepted was not the worst that can happen. Keep your head down and blend in. Loss of identity was not the worst. And the worst did come. The 1959 migrants did not keep their heads down. The entire region paid a steep price for their indiscretion.

The second wave of migration and its consequences

With agricultural reform, by chiefly terracing the hills to stem soil erosion, the Belgians had managed to rein in famine in Rwanda. But the Belgians had ruled by divide et impera, elevating to the dangerous levels of ethnicity, what some have described as a class system, “Hutu” and “Tutsi”. They had favoured the “Tutsi”, for much of their colonial rule, with the “Hutu” treated as underdogs, who for instance were not allowed to acquire higher learning. By the racist means of the time, anthropologists and sociologists had said were non-African, non-negroid. But it was a difficult question. Nazi conquest and racial theory was so repugnant that the Belgians themselves abandoned the racialist bifurcation of their Rwanda-Burundi colony. Unfortunately, rather than create a level, unifying policy, they started to favour the Hutu instead. So that when it came, they handed over independence to the majority Hutu.

Almost immediately, the Hutu began to persecute the Tutsi. And it this crisis that led to the second wave of migration, in 1959. They were a different group now, not really peasant, but with a grudge in their hearts. In Uganda, Mr. Museveni recruited many from this group into his rebel army that fought against the Obote II government in the early 1980s. When Museveni overthrow the sclerotic Tito Okello junta that had itself overthrown the Obote government just six months early in 1985, he appointed many Rwandan refugees into government and the army. There was uproar in Uganda over the inclusion of foreigners in sensitive positions. Kagame himself had been head of a spy agency in Uganda.

Under pressure from Ugandans, Mr. Museveni understood he had to let them go. Hence, when they broke away in 1990, after helping set fire to Uganda, there was something of doom about it. They clearly weren’t coming back. But the worst was at the other end. Much as it has always been said that Mr. Paul Kagame, who inherited leadership of the Rwanda Patriotic Army rebel group after the death of its leader, Fred Rwigyema. After four years of fighting, which started in 1990, hardliner Hutu leadership unleashed the 1994 genocide. The militarization of politics in Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Congo, has meant that the four countries have been in one form of warfare or the other for nearly 60 years.

The matrix of governing a country with sharp divides, and doing it by force, is not one that Mr. Kagame’s temperament seems suited for. It may be gratifying to defeat your enemies. But you have to be a Nelson Mandela to win them over. You must win them over, for these conflicts are circuitous. Soon the other side can, and will, rise to power. It’s a question of time.

Increasingly intolerant governments have characterised Uganda and Rwanda, at a time when all over the continent, countries are settling down to stable governance. What is the point? What plans do Messrs. Museveni and Kagame have this region? Much as it is clear to all who pay attention that the unfortunate weaponising of ethnicity has perhaps trapped both men in power, it is still puzzling because there seems to be no end game in sight, except endless corruption and more militarization, which will require even more corruption to maintain the patronage system, and more militarization to fend off the disaffected. We have become trapped in a loop without exits. Decades ago, the citizens waited patiently because it seemed that real change could come. But if after these many years a pregnant woman has to sneak across a border, that begs the question, as Oliver Cromwell once asked of the British Parliament; have you not sat here too long for any good you can have done?

Shutting down the border is symbolic of the increasing pointlessness of the two regimes.

They came into power at the time that the cold war was ending. The period of rapid coups and countercoups in Africa, funded by the rival capitalist and communist power blocs ended then, with the result that whoever had been in power at that time, tended to remain so for a bit longer. Put simply, the power balance that might have kept the two men honest was not there. Crucially then, these quakes we now feel in Uganda and Rwanda, are not casual. They are the deep rumblings from shifting global tectonic power plates. In the past, when they were at loggerheads, the British Foreign Secretaries jetted in to knock their heads together. Agony “Aunts” Lynda Chalker and Claire Short, British ministers of the 1990s and 00s, would have been here already. But the British now have their hands full back home, and need benevolent foreign secretaries to go knock their heads together, enduring the cruel reversal of the foreign policy technique they so perfected, of keeping countries they wished to rule at each other’s throats.

The absence of steadying British and American hands right now, in this conflict, has exposed the lack of political and management skills in Kigali and in Kampala. It has exposed the fact that Uganda and Rwanda have for decades now been run as client states. In the absence of the Anglo-Saxon power-meisters, Museveni and Kagame are learning cruelly the difference between monkey and organ grinder. It is left to the East African Community states, Tanzania and Kenya, to try and sort the situation out. But it takes a fool to bet on that strategy working. Twice, first in 1985, then in 1994, both Kenya and Tanzania attempted to sort political problems in Uganda and Rwanda out. But the rebel leaders then merely inked their names to agreements reached in Nairobi and Arusha, whilst using the interim to move their forces closer to the capitals. With spectacular disasters. Those rebels? They are now called President Museveni and President Kagame.

How does that now happen? Did Nairobi and Dar es Salaam ever forgive the slight? Do they trust the two men? But, that is the wrong question. The question is, what power backdrop are the two men now banking on? If we can answer that question, maybe we can predict how they plan to plunge us into new rounds of war. Global power dynamics have eroded the neoliberal economic system they had learnt to game. What is emerging now requires skills beyond wearing military fatigues and firing AK 47s at target boards.

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

Politics

Who Are Kenya’s 42+ ‘Tribes’? and Should We Be Asking?

Asking whether or not the census should continue to count ethnic groups is one way into the difficult conversation about how to reckon with the legacies of colonial weaponisation of ethnicity.

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Who Are Kenya’s 42+ ‘Tribes’? and Should We Be Asking?
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It was a hot and dusty day in January 2019. Sam had been driving me around Nairobi since my first visit, ten years earlier. I often float ideas past him as we endure interminable traffic. “Sam, how many tribes are there in Kenya?” I knew there was no definitive answer but I wanted to know his thoughts. “Well, now we are . . .  is it . . . 46? Or 47? We used to be 42 but some new ones were recently added. Makondes. Asians. Who else was it? Nubians . . .” “And where is the list?” I probed. “Oh that one . . . is it gazetted somewhere? I don’t know.” Later that day, while he refined my left hook, I asked my boxing trainer. Embarrassed, he laughed and said “You know . . . I’ve not brushed up on my tribes lately . . .” “Just roughly . . .  how many?” He replied after some thought, “I think . . . well . . . I know that we used to be . . .  is it 41? Or 42? 42. We used to be 42. But now, I don’t know.”

In multiple interviews with various government officials I was repeatedly told there were 42+ tribes, but nobody could tell me the nature or location of the list. “Do you know?” one official asked me. Ten years earlier, I had asked members of the minority Nubian community too: “Forty-two tribes. And we will be the 43rd.” They even had a letter from a Minister declaring they would, indeed, be counted as such in the 2009 census. But I struggled to find the list. Who is on it? Does it even exist? And if so, who controls it, and how? Why does nobody know? And does it matter?

In my research, this idea of “the 42” kept coming up over and over again. I have been conducting academic research in Kenya since 2009, mostly with the minority Nubian community which has long sought recognition as Kenyan, and has had considerable success in recent years in getting it. It was my first interviews with Nubian elders in 2009 that made me start wondering about this idea of “the 42”, where it comes from, why it matters.

So why does it matter?

Being recognised as a “tribe of Kenya” is important to people. It’s important symbolically as it makes people feel like legitimate citizens. And it is important materially, or at least there is an anticipation that it is. There is a belief that if you are one of the tribes of Kenya, then you can access the state’s resources. The exact mechanisms through which this is expected to happen include, for example, revenue sharing to the counties, drawing of administrative and electoral boundaries, and accessing special provisions like the Equalisation Fund. There is a popular belief that these are somehow connected to ethnicity, even though many Kenyans will point out they mostly shouldn’t be.

Counties, wards and so on are often treated as if they “belong” to a particular group. So, the idea is you have to be a recognised group to get your hands on government resources. Whether this is true or not, the perception that it is matters a lot for how people feel they belong, and how they might feel they are in competition with each other for resources. Plenty has been written on inter-ethnic competition and tribalism in Kenya. That’s not my focus here.

There is a belief that if you are one of the tribes of Kenya, then you can access the state’s resources.

At another level, the idea of “the 42(+)”, or the idea that there is or could be a list somewhere, matters for debates – prominent here in The Elephant among other places – about what it might mean to decolonise identity. On one hand, I’ve heard some Kenyans suggest that Africans should abandon ethnicity altogether, as it is a colonial construct used by the British and other imperial powers to conquer; to divide and rule. On the other hand, there is an argument that ethnicity is an important facet of African identities, and that these days “the West” has turned around and wants to eradicate it, especially around elections; therefore, the anti-imperial thing to do would be to affirm ethnicity. Both arguments have merit. My proposition here is not to take a strong position on either side, but to look at this idea of “the 42(+)” and its bureaucratic origins as a way of thinking through this debate. Decolonising identity is not only a personal thing – it is also a bureaucratic thing.

The title of this essay, and the academic research article on which it is based, is, then, deliberately provocative. I never thought –  and my research confirmed this – that there would be a clear answer to these questions. I have never even been sure that “who are the tribes of Kenya?” is quite the right question to be asking. It carries some very politically loaded assumptions: that “tribe” is an appropriate term (more on this below); that there is a clear-cut way to determine who is and isn’t Kenyan based on their ethnic identity; that there are only 42 (or 43, 44 or 45) ethnic groups which can call Kenya home. My suggestion here is that asking why we ask this question is more important than the question itself.

The ‘facts’

The census is the only official list of “all” ethnic groups, and the only official tool to count the population by ethnicity. And 1969 is the only year that 42 ethnic groups were counted. Voter rolls prepared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission do not record ethnic identity.

Electoral boundaries do not involve listing ethnic groups. Boundaries are connected to the census – insofar as they draw on population data – but before the 2010 constitution they bore no official relation to ethnic data. The 2010 constitution allows for a possible use of ethnic data. Under chapter 7, one explicit consideration for boundary redrawing is “community of interest, historical, economic and cultural ties”, which could potentially be interpreted to mean ethnic communities. However, the exact role this clause – or ethnicity more generally –  now plays in boundary drawing is not clear.

The civil service doesn’t list ethnic groups. Civil service employment records routinely record and make public how many people are employed in the civil service from each ethnic group, but that only captures, of course, civil servants. To establish the “fairness” of each ethnic group’s share of civil service jobs, that data is compared to census data, but only at the national level or by problematically inferring ethnicity by location – for example, by assuming that if you live in Ukambani you must be Kamba.

Identification cards do not record ethnicity.

Nor, contrary to popular understanding, does the Kenya Gazette (the government’s official announcement record) list ethnic groups, although it was used as if it does when Asians were gazetted as the 44th Tribe of Kenya in 2017, despite no identification of the preceding 43.

So that leaves us with only the census.

In my research, I compared all ethnic classifications in all Kenyan censuses from 1948 to 2019. I looked at every census report, but also, where available, all the questionnaires used by enumerators when visiting households, instructions to enumerators about how to record “tribe”, explanations made by the Bureau of Statistics and its predecessors for what “tribe” means and why they chose the lists they did, and archival material (for 1948 and 1962) where colonial administrators debated in letters and meetings how they would conduct the census.

The list of “tribes” has changed in every single census, and since the first census in 1948, 150 different groups have been named. Of those, there are only 14 ethnic groups which have been named and counted exactly the same way in every census. The others have all changed, sometimes multiple times, for example by adding or deleting “sub-tribes”, by moving from a “sub-tribe” to a “main tribe” or vice versa, or by appearing or disappearing altogether. There are also some instances where a “tribe” was listed on the questionnaire but didn’t make it to the final census report, or where – curiously – they were not listed on the questionnaire but did make it to the final report.

You might recognise your ethnic group(s) in this list,  possibly in multiple forms as some groups have changed names over time (e.g. Sudanese to Nubi), or even – unfortunately – in a derogatory form (such as Dorobo, which was only removed in 2019 because it refers to having no cattle, suggesting some form of inferiority). Some groups included on the list for “the tribe question” aren’t even really tribes: for example “Stateless” in 2019, or “Kenyan” in 2009.

So, how are these lists determined? There is no transparency on how these lists are decided, or what it means to be “coded”.

The first census in Kenya was carried out in 1948 and was part of an East African census that included other British territories in the region. More interested in the European population than the Indigenous one, the “non-native” census was extremely thorough, and the “native” one much more basic. Whereas all kinds of details that are useful for development purposes were gathered for the white population, the only three statistics gathered for the African population in every household were age, sex and – you guessed it – “tribe”. For Census Superintendent C. J. Martin, it was so obvious that you would count “tribe” that, in his extremely detailed report on the census, he didn’t even bother to explain why. Other factors that are much more useful in making sense of a population’s development needs, like fertility, education and occupation, were only counted for 10% of the African population in a sample census, and then generalised.

The list of “tribes” has changed in every single census, and since the first census in 1948, 150 different groups have been named.

The actual list of “tribes” that enumerators were given in 1948 was also, for Martin and the other census organisers, self-evident. The British authorities acted as if it was obvious which ethnic groups should be counted, but it clearly wasn’t, because there were differences between the list provided on the questionnaire, and that which appeared in the final report. We can only assume that any range of factors may have shaped the final 1948 list, including self-identification by householders, initiatives on the part of the enumerators or District Commissioners who compiled the returns, or maybe even political lobbying. In other words, determining the tribes of Kenya was not as self-evident as Martin imagined. Decisions about which ethnic groups, what names they use, how they are spelled, what and whether “sub-tribes” are counted and so on, always have to be made by someone.

But the thing about a census, as with so many official tools, is that it gives off an air of authority. When a list like that of “Kenya’s tribes” is made in this way, it comes to feel as if it is definitive, even when it never can be. Even though every census after 1948 has changed the list, it always builds on that first list made by British administrators, some of whom had very little understanding of the communities they were counting and classifying.

In 1962, the list was very similar to the one of 1948, but it dropped most of the ethnic groups which mostly live in other parts of East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda) and added some from the North and East of Kenya. By this time, the British authorities had established much more administrative control in those regions and had learnt of new groups not included in that earlier census, showing again major gaps in their knowledge of the people they had colonised. Morgan, another colonial administrator, this time involved in the 1962 census, later admitted that the concept of “tribe” was a bit arbitrary, but stuck to it anyway, stating:

[Tribe is] a unit which evades satisfactory definition but which was widely recognised. It may be said to be a group to which the individual feels a strong sense of belonging and which is usually distinguished by a common language and culture and, since marriages are mostly within it, may have inherited traits. […] For this study we have to accept the classification used in the census, for which no justification was published. The ascriptions were those routinely used by the administration and which appear to have presented few problems to those recording or those being recorded. They were the socio-political groups encountered by the colonial power upon its entry and with which it had to deal. Administrative boundaries were normally constructed to contain them and this probably increased the sense of tribal identity at that level.

Though he admits some arbitrariness, Morgan goes on, in this passage, to suggest again that it was obvious, uncontroversial and accepted by everyone – African and colonial administrator alike – who the “tribes” of Kenya were. If this was really the case, why then would it have changed?

The 1969 census, the first one conducted by the first post-colonial government, used the same list as was used 1962, but added two more Somali groups, without really explaining why. The 1979 census used the same list again, but collapsed a number of groups into “Kalenjin”. It is likely no coincidence that this happened the year after Moi became President, and Gabrielle Lynch has done some great research about the creation of the Kalenjin identity around this time. In 1989 there were only a few small changes. In short, with the exception of the introduction of Kalenjin as an ethnic group rather than just a linguistic group, the list remained pretty similar to the colonial-created one for the first three decades of Kenya’s independence, but not similar enough to agree with colonial officials Martin and Morgan that it was ever truly “obvious” which ethnic groups should be counted.

By 1999, with the politics of democratic reform in full swing, and the effects of Moi’s majimboist politics being felt across the country, no results were published on ethnicity from that year’s census. It was too sensitive.

Then, come 2009, only eighteen months after the post-election violence of 2007-08, the list of ethnic groups in the census underwent its first radical change since independence, with the number of groups skyrocketing to well over a hundred. This included long lists of “sub-tribes” for groups such as Swahili, Kalenjin, Mijikenda and Luhya, as well a considerable number of newly recognised ethnic groups, including Nubians (last counted in 1948 as “Sudanese”). The political mood was an inclusive one, seeking peace and inter-ethnic harmony. It felt right at the time to generously offer recognition. And it didn’t hurt that chopping up the population into lots of small groups might help cool the temperature on inter-ethnic competition between the larger groups. The 2019 census added yet more sub-tribes and new tribes, moved some around from one category to another, and renamed a few.

The only thing the history of the census classifications shows conclusively, then, is that there cannot be any conclusions. The census, though it has an air of officialdom, is really just a result of layer upon layer of bureaucracy, politics and coloniality. Politicians and civil servants might want to bed this down and make it feel certain, but they can’t. It changes every decade. They also can’t, practically, start from scratch either. The lists they have built are based on everything that came before – both colonial and postcolonial. They bear the markings of all the political moments in which censuses were conducted, and the particular concerns of politicians and statisticians at those times. And this is true of every census, everywhere in the world. They are not foolproof. They are not certain. They are not conclusive or definitive. The idea of the 42(+) is just that – an idea – however widespread and deeply believed.

The only thing the history of the census classifications shows conclusively is that there cannot be any conclusions.

The reality is that there is no definitive list of Kenya’s ethnic groups. That is, there is no list that does (or could) state with certainty and finality who the ethnic groups of the nation are. But there are official lists – those in the census – that are often perceived as certain, and those have to be reckoned with.

How colonial is ethnicity?

From one perspective, the story of ethnic classifications in the census is interesting as a puzzle. Working out who got added, who got removed, when, how and why is fascinating. There is a lot to be learnt about Kenyan history and ethnicity by looking at the details.

But from another perspective there is a bigger question to be considered here, and that is about whether, how, to what extent or in what ways ethnicity is colonial. The Elephant and other discussions in various forums are increasingly – and rightly – working through what it might mean to decolonise African identities. From renaming streets to pulling down monuments to pushing back against arbitrary determination of one’s identity by another, Kenyans and other Africans are questioning why ethnicity is such a strong form of identity; in what ways it was imposed by the colonial experience; and in what ways it has changed or should change form, or maybe even be abandoned.

Terence Ranger, a keen scholar of Kenya but also a former colonial official, coined the term “invention of tradition” to explain how the British came, saw, and invented ethnicity or – more specifically – “tribe”. Seeing Africans as being defined first and foremost by tribe allowed the British to divide and rule, and to imagine they were not just extracting and exploiting, but also civilising. The roots of ethnicity, in this sense, are problematic. The concept itself as well as the specific ethnic groups the British identified and made names and Native Reserves for, were fundamental tools of colonial control. Ethnicity kept Africans divided from each other and in a supposedly inferior place on the hierarchy of civilisation that justified British colonial authority. To the British, at least.

It is this history that makes the word “tribe” a problematic one for many people. Ngugi has written compellingly about how the word – the whole concept – should be abandoned because of its role in colonisation. Nonetheless, it remains the word used by KNBS to ask the ethnicity question in the census, which is why I have used it in this piece. It is something to think about.

Ethnicity kept Africans divided from each other and in a supposedly inferior place on the hierarchy of civilisation that justified British colonial authority.

This history of ethnicity gives cause to ask some critical questions about what to do with ethnicity in any project aimed at decolonising identity. It is indisputable that ethnicity has been – at least partly – invented by colonialism. We must, therefore, be attentive to ways in which some of the projects of colonialism – divide and rule, hierarchies of civilisation, extraction – are perpetuated by ethnic identification today. But I think it would be a mistake to reduce ethnicity to this.

How postcolonial is ethnicity?

Ranger, and others after him, including myself, have also shown that Africans also participated – and continue to participate – in the construction of ethnic identities. And this is not necessarily a terrible thing.

During the colonial period, some ethnic groups had special favour with the British and so it suited them to identify ethnically. Intermediaries like African teachers, missionaries, soldiers and so on, benefitted from colonial patronage. If a man (never a woman, of course) could position himself as a leader of his tribe, he could gain from that. So, he needed the tribe to exist. On the concerning side of the ledger, this kind of patronage politics and the inter-ethnic competition it led to are not such great outcomes.

On the more positive side of the ledger, though, many Kenyans have also come to identify with their ethnic group in more positive ways, as many did before the arrival of the British as well. Most obviously, the cultural practices and community connections that make people feel safe, secure, valued and which give many people’s lives meaning and structure, are not bad.

Then there are dimensions of ethnic identity that are more ambiguous. Many, including Rasna Warah, believe – for better or worse – that to belong to Kenya, you have to belong to a Kenyan ethnic group. This is why the announcement that Asians are the 44th tribe was so significant, even though most people wouldn’t have used the word “tribe” to describe this community in the past. Warah laments, “What makes me uneasy about the designation of Kenyan Asians as one of Kenya’s 44 tribes is that it reinforces the idea that one must belong to a tribe to be recognised as a bona fide Kenyan citizen.”

Seeing Africans as being defined first and foremost by tribe allowed the British to divide and rule, and to imagine they were not just extracting and exploiting, but also civilising.

In my book on the marginalisation of Kenya’s Nubians, I made a similar argument – that ethnic identity, and specifically recognition as being an ethnic group of Kenya, was necessary to feel one belonged to the nation. I showed how it was a source of pride and security for Nubians to identify ethnically. It has been the only way they can imagine securing a place for themselves in Kenya. When the Nubians were recognised in the 2009 census, it felt really very good for them. It has for many different groups. That can’t be disregarded, even though it might be questioned.

The postcolonial history of ethnicity, therefore, raises some additional questions for those interested in decolonising identity, questions about whether or not there might be “good” aspects of ethnic identity that are worth retaining, even if they contain shadows of the colonial past. Perhaps it is transformation, rather than abandonment, that is needed in a decolonial project?

Decolonising identity in the census?

The census is a key tool in the maintenance of ethnic identities. Any discussion about what it might mean to decolonise identity really must think through the role of the census in sustaining ethnic codes first invented by the British, but also actively continued and transformed by the postcolonial government and its citizens. Indeed, bringing the abstract conversation about decolonising identity down to the level of this very concrete list is both a challenge and an opportunity to explore and test ideas and emotions related to ethnicity.

Asking whether or not the census should continue to count ethnic groups is one way into the difficult conversation about how to reckon with the legacies of colonial weaponisation of ethnicity, as well as what it means to people today. Such a conversation needs to consider the varied effects of counting, both good (recognition for minority groups) and bad (competition and posturing based on group size). I wonder if there is a way that ethnicity can be recognised without reproducing the negative effects that first arose under colonial authorities. It is a genuine question – I don’t know the answer. Any such system of recognition, though, would have to be carefully thought through with respect to who gets to determine which groups are recognised, through what processes, with what official outcomes, and with attention to how the inevitable changes in how people identify ethnically will be accommodated. Reflecting on how you, as the reader, feel about how your ethnic group has been counted, or not, in the census, can be a useful entry point to clarifying where you sit on this question of what it might mean to decolonise identity.

Editors note: This essay is based on the author’s article ‘Who are Kenya’s 42(+) tribes? The census and the political utility of magical uncertainty’ published in The Journal of Eastern African Studies. To see the full table of all codes, click on the link, then on ‘Supplemental’. The first 50 readers can access the full article for free here. If these are all used up, Africa-based readers can access the full article for free by signing up to the STAR program. 

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan

Congo-Brazzaville’s repressive government has quietly bought an arsenal from Azerbaijan. Opponents of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso say one recent cache is designed to tighten his grip on the nation.

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan
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First published by our partner OCCRP and Mail & Guardian (South Africa, in English).

In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.

In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.

Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan.

Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan. Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.

His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.

OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)

Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.

Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.

Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.

OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.

Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.

Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.

“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”

A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.

Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso

The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.

The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.

In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.

“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.

The Pool Offensive

The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.

In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.

One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.

After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

 

The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.

“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”

The Baku-Brazzaville Connection

Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.

Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.

Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.

But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.

Braced for a Crackdown

As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.

Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.

In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.

Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.

And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.

“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.

“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”

Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class

Even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised as a class with its own economic interests and one that holds contemptuous and racist views of Africans despite being made up of Africans.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class
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Despite many Kenyans’ opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative there is a sense that politicians are moving with the project full steam ahead and there is nothing the people can do about it. More perplexing is the fact that with elections just over a year away, the fear of what supporting BBI could do to their political careers does not seem to faze the politicians. What explains this powerful force against democracy?

I argue here that the aspect of the BBI — and its charade of public participation — that most passes under silence is the role of the civil service and the intelligentsia. Behind the spectacle of car grants to members of the County Assemblies is an elite that is growing in influence and power, and is pulling the puppet strings of the political class. The bribery of MCAs would have been impossible without the civil service remitting public funds into their accounts. The president would not succeed in intimidating politicians if there were no civil servants — in the form of the police and prosecutors — to arrest politicians and charge them with corruption.

The academy’s contribution to the BBI has been in controlling the social discourse. The mere fact that it was written by PhD holders brought to the BBI an aura of technical expertise with its implied neutrality. Using this aspect of BBI, the media and academics tried to tone down the political agenda of the document. They demanded that discussion of the BBI remain within the parameters of academic discourse, bombarding opponents with demands of proof that they had read the document and exact quotations, refusing to accept arguments that went beyond the text to the politics and actors surrounding the initiative. Discussing the politics of BBI was dismissed as “irrelevant”.

Two cases, both pitting male academics against women citizens, illustrate this tyranny of technocracy and academics. In both cases, the professors implicitly appealed to sexist stereotypes by suggesting that the women were irrational or uninformed. In one debate in February last year, political science professor and vice-chair of the BBI task force, Adams Oloo, singled out Jerotich Seii as one of the many Kenyans who had “fallen into a trap” of restricting her reading of the document to only the two pages discussing the proposed prime minister’s post, while leaving out all the goodies promised in the rest of the document. Jerotich was compelled to reply, “I have actually read the entire document, 156 pages.”

Likewise, earlier this month, Ben Sihanya sat at a desk strewn with paper (to suggest an erudite demeanour) and spoke in condescending tones about Linda Katiba, which was being represented by Daisy Amdany. He harangued Linda Katiba as “cry babies”, demanded discussions based on constitutional sociology and political economy, and declared that no research and no citation of authorities meant “no right to speak”. He flaunted his credentials as a constitutional lawyer with twenty years’ teaching experience and often made gestures like turning pages, writing or flipping through papers as Amdany spoke.

The conversation deteriorated at different moments when the professor accused Linda Katiba of presenting “rumors, rhetoric and propaganda”. When Amdany protested, Sihanya called for the submission of citations rather than “marketplace altercations”. The professor referred to the marketplace more than once, which was quite insensitive, given that the market is the quintessential African democratic space. That’s where ordinary Africans meet, trade and discuss. And women are often active citizens and traders at the market.

Meanwhile, anchor Waihiga Mwaura did too little too late to reign in the professor’s tantrums, having already taken the position that the media is promoting, which is that every opposition to BBI is a “No” campaign, essentially removing the opposition from the picture on the principle of a referendum taking precedence.

Both cases reveal a condescending and elitist attitude towards ordinary Kenyans expressing opinions that run counter to the status quo. The media and academy have joined forces in squeezing out ordinary voices from the public sphere through demands for academic-style discussions of BBI. When discussions of BBI first began in 2020, these two institutions bullied opponents of the process by imposing conditions for speaking. For instance, in the days before the document was released, opponents were told that it was premature to speak without the document in hand. In the days following the release of the document, demands were made of Kenyans to read the document, followed by comments that Kenyans generally do not read. The contradiction literally sounded like the media did not want Kenyans to read the BBI proposals. Now it has become typical practice for anchors and the supporters of BBI to challenge BBI opponents with obnoxious questions such as “You have talked of the problems with BBI, but what are its positive aspects?” essentially denying the political nature of BBI, and reducing the process to the cliché classroom discussion along the lines of “advantages and disadvantages of …”

Basically, what we are witnessing is autocracy by the media, the academy and the bureaucracy, where media and the academy exert symbolic power by denying alternative voices access to public speech, while the civil service intervenes in the material lives of politicians and ordinary people to coerce or bribe them into supporting BBI. Other forms of material coercion that have been reported include chiefs forcing people to give their signatures in support of the BBI.

In both these domains of speech and interactions in daily life, it is those with institutional power who are employing micro-aggression to coerce Kenyans to support BBI. This “low quality oppression”, which contrasts with the use of overt force, leaves Kenyans feeling helpless because, as Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda observe, low-quality oppression “clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.” In the end, despite the fact that there is no gun held to their heads, Kenyans face BBI with literally no voice.

But beyond the silencing of Kenyans, this convergence of the media, the academy and the civil service suggests that there is a class of Kenyans who are not only interested in BBI, but are also driven by a belief in white supremacy and an anti-democratic spirit against the people. I want to suggest that this group is symptomatic of “a new middle class”, or what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have referred to as the “professional managerial class”, which is emerging in Kenya.

For the purposes of this article, I would define this class as one composed of people whose managerial positions within institutions give them low-grade coercive power to impose the will of the hegemony on citizens. The ideology of this class sees its members as having risen to their positions through merit (even when they are appointed through familial connections), and holds that the best way to address problems is through efficient adherence to law and technology, which are necessarily neutral and apolitical. This class also believes that its actions are necessary because citizens do not know better, and that by virtue of their appointment or their training, the members of this class have the right to direct the behaviour of ordinary citizens. Basically, this class is anti-political.

The worst part about this class is that it is a group of people who cannot recognise themselves as such. As Amber A’Lee Frost puts it, it is “a class that dare not speak its name.” This means that even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised or discussed as a class with its own economic interests.

Even worse, this is a class that holds contemptuous – and ultimately racist – views of Africans despite being made up of Africans. For example, Mohammed Hersi, chair of the Kenya Tourism Federation, has been at the forefront of proposing the obnoxious idea that Kenya should export her labour abroad, the history of the Middle Passage notwithstanding. Despite a history of resistance to the idea that Africans should not receive any education beyond technical training, from the days of WEB Dubois to those of Harry Thuku, the Ministry of Education has introduced the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), a new education system affirming that ideology. A few months ago, Fred Matiang’i waxed lyrical about the importance of prisons with these words which I must repeat here:

“To Mandela, prison was a school; to Malcolm X, a place of meditation; and to Kenya’s founding fathers, a place where visions of this country were crystallised. We’re reforming our prisons to be places people re-engineer their future regardless of the circumstances they come in.”

How is it possible for educated Africans to talk in public like this?

One factor is historical legacy. The civil service and institutions such as the mainstream media houses were established during colonial rule and were later Africanised with no change in institutional logic. This factor is very disturbing given that the media and the civil service in Kenya opposed nationalist struggles. During colonialism, it was the civil service, its African employees in the tribal police and the local administrations (such as chiefs and home guards), who crushed African revolt against oppression. This means that the Africans who were in the civil service were necessarily pro-colonial reactionaries with no interest in the people’s freedom.

Essentially, Kenyan independence started with a state staffed with people with no economic or political allegiance to the freedom and autonomy of Africans in Kenya. The better-known evidence of this dynamic is the independence government’s suppression of nationalist memories through, for instance, the assassination of General Baimungi Marete in 1965. What remains unspoken is the fact that the colonial institutions and ideologies remained intact after independence. Indeed, certain laws still refer to Kenya as a colony to this day.

It is also important to note that colonial era civil servants were not even European settlers, but British nationals sent in from London. This meant that the primary goal of the civil service was to protect not the settlers’ interests both those of London. Upon the handover of the state to Africans, therefore, this focus on London’s interests remained paramount, and remains so to this day,  as we can see from the involvement of the British government in education reforms, from TPAD (Teacher Performance Appraisal and Development) to the curriculum itself. This dynamic is most overt in the tourism and conservation sector, where tourism is marketed by the government using openly racist and colonial tropes, including promises to tourists that in Kenya, “the colonial legacy lives on”.

There was also a practical aspect to the dominance of these kinds of Africans in the civil service. As Gideon Mutiso tells us in his book Kenya: Politics, Policy and Society, the Africans who were appointed to the civil service had more education than the politicians, because as other Africans were engaged in the nationalist struggles, these people advanced in their studies. Upon independence, Mutiso says, the educated Kenyans began to lord it over politicians as being less educated than they were.

Mutiso’s analysis also points us to the fact that colonial control remained in Kenya through the management of the state by people whose credentials and appointments were based on western education. The insidious role of western education became that of hiding the ideology of white supremacy behind the mask of “qualifications”. As such, Africans who had a western education considered themselves superior to fellow Africans, and worse, British nationals remained civil servants in major positions even a decade into independence, under the pretext that they were technically more qualified.

Less known, and even less talked about, is the virulent anti-African dispensation in the post-independence government. The new government not only had within its ranks Africans who had fought against African self-determination during colonial rule, but also British nationals who remained in charge of key sectors after independence, among them the first minister of Agriculture Bruce McKenzie. Similarly, the only university in Kenya was staffed mainly by foreigners, a situation which students complained about during a protest in 1972.

The continuity of colonial control meant that civil servants were committed to limiting the space for democratic participation. Veteran politicians like Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney complained that the civil service was muzzling the voice of the people which was, ideally, supposed to have an impact through their elected representatives. In 1971, for instance, Shikuku complained that the government was no longer a political organ, because “Administrative officers from PCs have assumed the role of party officials [and] civil servants have interfered so much with the party work.” Shikuku Inevitably arrived at the conclusion that “the foremost enemies of the wananchi are the country’s senior civil servants.” For his part, Seroney lamented that parliament had become toothless, because “the government has silently taken the powers of the National Assembly and given them to the civil service,” reducing parliament to “a mere rubber stamp of some unseen authority.” Both men where eventually detained without trial by Jomo Kenyatta.

However, the scenario was no different in the education sector. As Mwenda Kithinji notes, major decisions in education were made by bureaucrats rather than by academics. It was for this reason, for example, that Dr Josephat Karanja was recalled from his post as the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom to succeed Prof.  Arthur Porter as the first principal of the University of Nairobi, going over the head of Prof. Porter’s deputy, Prof. Bethwell Ogot, who was the most seasoned academic in Kenya with a more visionary idea of education.

Unfortunately, because the appointment went to a fellow Kikuyu, reactions were directed at Dr Karanja’s ethnicity, rather than his social status as a bureaucrat. Ethnicity was a convenient card with which to downplay the reality that decisions about education were being removed from the hands of academics and experts and placed in the hands of bureaucrats.

And so began the long road towards an increasingly stifling, extremely controlled administrative education system whose struggles we witness today in the CBC. As Kithinji observes, government bureaucrats regularly interfered in the academic and management affairs of the university, to the point of demanding that the introduction of new programmes receive approval from the Ministry of Education. Other measures for coercing academics to do the bidding of civil servants included imposing bonding policies and reducing budgetary allocations.

In the neoliberal era, however, this ideology of bureaucracy expanded and coopted professionals through managerial and administrative appointments. For instance, the practice of controlling academic life was now extended to academics themselves. Academics appointed as university managers began to behave like CEOs, complete with public relations officers, personal assistants and bodyguards. The role of regulating academic life in Kenya has now been turned over to the Commission for University Education whose headquarters are in the plush residential suburb of Gigiri. CUE regularly contracts its inspection work to academics who then exercise power over curriculum and accreditation under the banner of the commission.

With neoliberalism, therefore, bureaucrats and technocrats enjoy an increase in coercive power, hiding behind the anonymity provided by technology, the audit culture and its reliance on numbers, and concepts such as “quality” to justify their power as neutral, necessary and legitimate. However, the one space they now need to crack is the political space, and by coincidence, Kenya is cursed with an incompetent and incoherent political class. Life could not get better for this class than with the BBI handshake.

BBI therefore provided an ideal opportunity for an onslaught of the managerial class against the Kenyan people. The document under debate was written by PhD-holders, and initial attempts by professors and bureaucrats to defend the document in townhall debates hosted by the mainstream media backfired spectacularly. These technocrats were not convincing because they adamantly refused to answer the political questions raised around BBI, so they have taken a back seat and sent politicians off to the public to give BBI an air of legitimacy. Behind the scenes, however, support for BBI brings together the bureaucrats and the foot soldiers who are behind Uhuru, and the educated intelligentsia that is behind Raila.

And as if things could not get more stifling, Kenyans are looking favourably at the declared candidacies of Kivutha Kibwana, a former law academic, and Mukhisa Kituyi, a former United Nations bureaucrat, in the next presidential election. The point here is not their winning prospects, but the belief that maybe people with better paper credentials and institutional careers might do better than the rambling politicians. However, this idea is dangerous, because it places inordinate faith in western-educated Africans who have not articulated their political positions about African self-determination in an age when black people worldwide are engaged in decolonisation and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Basically, BBI is camouflaging the attack on politics and democracy in Kenya by a new managerial class. We are paying a heavy price for not decolonising our institutions at independence. Since independence, bureaucrats have whittled away at our cultural and institutional independence through police harassment, underfunding, the tyranny of inspections and regulatory control, and through constriction of the Kenyan public and cultural space. Even the arts and culture are tightly regulated these days, with the Ministry of Education providing themes for schools’ drama festivals and the government censoring artists in the name of morality. Worse, this new managerial class collaborates with foreign interests in a shared contempt for African self-determination.

Kenyans must be wary of academics and bureaucrats who use their credentials, acquired in colonial institutions, to bully Kenyans into silence. We must not allow bureaucrats and technocrats to make decisions that affect our lives without subjecting those decisions to public debate. We must recognise and reproach the media for legitimising the bullying from this new managerial class. And we must continue to recognise the Kenyan government as fundamentally colonial in its logic and practice and pick up the failed promise of the NASA manifesto to replace the master-slave logic of the Kenyan civil service. Most of all, we must learn to demystify education, credentials and institutional positions. Kenya is for everybody, and we all have a right to discuss and participate in what happens in our country.

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