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

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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

Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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The Irrelevance of NGOs

NGOs have been notably absent in the fight against COVID-19, despite claims they exist solely to ensure accountability and transparency by government.

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Nothing has exposed neoliberalism as a hoax as intelligently and most strikingly as COVID-19 has done. (Though at the expense of millions infected and hundreds of thousands dead.) All over the world, people have come to depend almost exclusively on their national governments not only to stay safe against the deadly pandemic but also for economic survival. Against a painful history of relentless assaults on so-called “big government,” COVID-19 has grown the size of government bureaucracies and budgets in size to what was hardly imaginable only a few months ago.

This change has brought about another debate about the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Nowhere is this debate about NGOs more palpable than in my home country of Tanzania, where at the time of writing the East African nation had recorded a total of 480 confirmed coronavirus cases, 18 deaths and 167 recoveries. The situation here seems to be getting out of control as more fatalities continue to be reported, exacerbated by the increasing tendency of hospitals, especially in the country’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam, to reject patients suspected of having the coronavirus disease. Several people (see here and here) have reported having their relatives turned away by hospitals, after which some died. The government has been trying hard to underestimate the magnitude of the pandemic, including by underreporting the number of fatalities and doing night burials.

Nearly every action taken by national governments throughout the world in their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, and thus to save lives and communities, goes directly against the dictates of neoliberal fundamentalism. For a number of decades, advocates of this ideology would propose murderous cuts in public spending on critical sectors like health and education. In addition to the breakneck privatization of public services was the massive growth of NGOs whose missions varied widely; from those advocating for government accountability and democratic institutions to those championing girls’ rights, citizens’ agency, and countless others providing services.

This is no coincidence. The missionaries of neoliberal evangelism have been pushing for the social services provision role of governments to be replaced by NGOs and private individuals, arguing that this will ultimately improve service efficiency for governments. Perhaps there’s no stauncher proponent of that argument in Tanzania than former President Benjamin Mkapa—or at least until recently. It was under Mkapa’s administration that both privatization and NGO growth in the country took root. “Soon after assuming office, in November 1995,” said Mr Mkapa in his speech at the official launch of Tanzania National Business Council (TNBC) on April 9, 2001, quoted in “A Capitalizing City” by Dr. Chambi Chachage, “I realised the need to change the way the national economy is managed. This need was made more acute by the fact that our country was moving from a public sector led economy to a private sector driven market economy.” (Later, Mr. Mkapa would describe the privatization drive unleashed by his administration as the “worst mistake” of his presidency in his memoirs My Life, My Purpose.) In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, however, both NGOs and the private sector have been conspicuously absent on the frontlines where the war against the virus is being waged.

The role of NGOs in Tanzania has been made more interesting both by the Tanzanian government’s handling of the pandemic (which I discuss here), and NGOs’ responses (or lack thereof). So far, the responses of NGOs to the pandemic have been simply bewildering, opaque, and ambiguous. Part of this ambiguity, I think, is due to both the history of NGOs in Tanzania and the issues that they continue to remain deadly silent about. In this latter category is what seems to be an almost unanimous agreement among the NGOs, with very few exceptions, of forgoing what they claim to be their main mission, that is: to cultivate a culture of accountable governance as well as the building of strong democratic institutions in the country. This abandonment is disappointing and surprising at the same time, because during a crisis like the one we are in now, one would have expected that the NGOs, far from pretending as if they no longer exist, would double, or even triple, their efforts to force those in power to act more responsibly and deliver to their constituents.

But from the way things appear on the ground, it is as if the coronavirus disease has forced the NGOs to take some time off their work and give the government, whose handling of the pandemic has made Tanzania the laughing stock of the world, a free reign to act as it wishes. One area of concern is the way the government has entirely left people to fend for themselves amidst the crisis. In fact, instead of helping its people, the government’s asking the people to donate to it! The fact that no NGOs have so far called the government out means that the people have not just been abandoned by their government, but also by the organizations that claim to work on their behalf.

The NGOs have failed to condemn President John Magufuli’s statements and actions that threaten to put the lives of thousands at risk. These statements include the recent one he made during a televised address from his hometown of Chato, in the Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where the president has been “self-isolating” since the pandemic started. There he urged Tanzanians to consider inhaling steam from a boiling pot of water as a means to cure coronavirus, a suggestion medical doctors have nevertheless advised against. During the rare address, President Magufuli also dismissed the exercise to disinfect public spaces as “nonsense.” Earlier, President Magufuli took to Twitter to declare three days of national prayers “to help defeat coronavirus,” and his government even organized a national prayer to save Tanzania from the pandemic. All this had Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, concerned, according to journalist Geoffrey York who reported via Twitter. In another address, where Mr. Magufuli accused Tanzania’s lab technicians of conspiring with “imperialists” to sabotage the country by increasing the number of positive cases, something which led to the sacking of the national community health laboratory director Dr. Nyambura Moremi, the President said that his government would dispatch a plane to fetch the herbal treatment for the coronavirus touted by the president of Madagascar despite a warning from the WHO that a herbal tonic cannot cure the disease. (One observer of Tanzanian politics described the address as “totally reckless” and even called on people to boycott Magufuli’s subsequent addresses on the coronavirus pandemic lest they go bonkers.) Dangerous and irresponsible as these statements and measures seem, not a single NGO that works in the area of public health—and there is no shortage of them—uttered any public criticism of Magufuli.

Nor are the democratic-championing NGOs concerned by the government’s resolve to centralize the flow of information on coronavirus. No NGO, for example, has come out against the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority’s (TCRA) directive to members of WhatsApp groups to screenshot “fake information” posted in these groups and report it to authorities. No NGO seems bothered by the Tanzania Police Force’s irresponsible act to storm and interrupt a press conference by the main opposition party CHADEMA intended to give Tanzanians an alternative appraisal of the coronavirus situation from that given by the government. (The party was subsequently able to organize a press conference where its national chairperson Freeman Mbowe outlined twelve issues that he thought were fundamental in the fight against the pandemic.) The same silence on the part of the NGOs was noticeable after a cabinet minister suggested that people should consider using honey when responding to a spike in the price of sugar. (Following a backlash, however, the government later announced a cap on sugar prices.)

While everybody was busy examining their role in combating the coronavirus in the country, some of Tanzania’s “top-notch” NGOs were spotted presenting the government with a 79 million Tanzanian shillings check (about US$34,000) to help fight the virus. The NGOs did that while little or nothing at all was known in the general public of the government’s strategy or even how the money will be used.

I find the move disturbingly ironic, however, given the fact that this money was originally supposed to come directly from the donors to the government coffers but the “development partners” gave them to the NGOs because, as shown above, they are thought to be best placed to deal with social problems. It is also mind-boggling to find the NGOs donating to the government amidst a funding crisis that has hit NGOs across the continent. If the NGOs themselves are convinced that the Tanzanian government can deal with the COVID-19 crisis far better than they can to the extent of giving it money, what does it say of their ideological justification to exist? To their credit, since then a coalition of Tanzania’s NGOs released a position paper and “strategic areas” on COVID-19. In the paper, the NGOs confess to have been caught “unprepared” by the pandemic, something that hampered their ability to respond “promptly.”

A close friend of mine, who works in Tanzania’s NGO sector, thought it was a bad idea for me to go ahead with this piece, saying it was unfair to criticize the NGOs given the fact that I understand the political environment within which the organizations operate and the repression unleashed on them by the state. For a moment I thought this friend of mine was right because it’s true that they work in a tough environment. But then I thought: wasn’t this very attitude on the part of the NGOs to allow themselves to be pushed around by the government responsible for their own miseries, and ultimately, their failure to do what they were founded on?

This led me to revisit 2007, when acclaimed legal and development scholar Professor Issa Shivji published a book, Silences in the NGO Discourse, which served as advice on how Tanzania’s NGOs can remain accountable. He wrote then that if the NGOs are to live up to their missions, which include ensuring democratic reforms in the country, then their entire strategy of engagement with the state would have to change radically. For example, in place of stakeholder conferences, there should be protracted public debates, wrote Shivji. Where previously the NGOs used to dialogue with the state “in five-star hotels,” now there should be demonstrations, protest marches and teach-ins in streets and community centers to expose serious abuses of power and bad policies. “Democratic governance would be an arena where power is contested, not some moral dialogue or crusade for good against evil, as the meaningless term ‘good governance’ implies … You cannot dialogue with power,” the renowned author writes poignantly.

In the wake of the ongoing debate on the role and relevance of NGOs amidst a global pandemic, and the government’s ambiguous response, it appears that more than ten years since Shivji’s book, the country’s NGOs have not been able—or willing—to learn a lesson. Nor, telling from the way they behave amidst the current crisis, is there any indication that they will do so in the near future.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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