The Sudanese people have a cultural trait peculiar and typical of them – a cultural practice that downplays the negative in favour of the positive, that treats individualism and egoism as less important than the general welfare of society and that readily sacrifices for another or the country. Western individualism scarcely appeals to the Sudanese sentimentality and sensibilities, whether they are southerners (jinubieen), westerners (garaba), or northerners (shamalieen).
In the words of Prof. John Lonsdale, the Sudanese, in their different social formations, used to live as negotiating ethnicities until colonial rule turned them into competing tribes. More than two hundred years of common history – notwithstanding the bad memories – are difficult to erase or turn away from; socially, they will always run into each other. However, the long history of bitter and violent struggles against foreign occupation, injustice, political repression and totalitarian regimes, unfortunately, failed to sublimate the Sudan into a nation-state although the people yearned for territorial unity. It is not by chance that the protesters in Khartoum hold the secession and independence of South Sudan as one of the criminal charges against the deposed dictator, Omer Hassan Ahmed el Bashir.
The political protests in the Sudan, which began last December in the working class city of Atbara, and the perennial power struggle that triggered political instability in South Sudan, speak to the failure of the Sudanese political elite to manage the post-independence socio-economic and political engineering of the state. Myopia, religious-cultural narrow-mindedness and intolerance, which engendered political exclusion, social discrimination and economic marginalisation or neglect, culminated in the partition of the Sudan, the wars in Dar Fur, Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile and civil unrest in eastern Sudan. The crystallisation in the centre of a tiny minority at the helm of the country’s political and economic power at the expense of the vast majority of the Sudanese in rural areas is the source of Sudan’s predicament.
The mass action (processions, demonstrations and picketing) in Atbara, Khartoum and the major cities of the Sudan point to a salient political reality that characterised its regional distinct socio-economic and cultural development. The mass movements in the cities and towns in northern Sudan contrast exponentially with the military action undertaken in rural parts of the Sudan (southern Sudan, Dar Fur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and eastern Sudan), reflecting the differential socio-economic and political evolution of the Sudanese state since the Turco-Egyptian era [1824-1885].
This reality points to the fact that a degree of social and economic development results in transformation of means and relations of production, and engenders a heightened social awareness and political consciousness. In this respect, it makes it easy for the people to establish a tradition of political organisation combined with action in support of socio-economic and political rights. This process occurred in northern and central Sudan in the form of the construction of the railway line from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum (1898), the Gezira scheme (1925) and the evolution of manufacturing light industries in Khartoum North, leading to the emergence of a conscious and politically organised working class that employs processions, demonstrations, strikes, picketing and civil disobedience in support of their demands for social, economic and political rights.
This is the third time in the Sudan that mass action in the form of a popular uprising (intifadha) ousted a military-based totalitarian regime. The first popular uprising was in 1964 (Ibrahim Abboud) and the second was Gaafar Numeri (1985).
On the other hand, however, rural Sudan (southern Sudan, Dar Fur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Eastern Sudan) is characterised by poverty and ignorance due to dominant traditional modes and relations of production, natural forces and superstition. As a result, social awareness and political consciousness is inordinately low; there is an obvious lack of tradition and culture of organised political action. Thus, to support the demands for social, economic and political rights, the people in rural Sudan use violence as their chief means of mobilisation for changing the political system.
This is the third time in the Sudan that mass action in the form of a popular uprising (intifadha) ousted a military-based totalitarian regime. The first popular uprising was in 1964 (Ibrahim Abboud) and the second was Gaafar Numeri (1985). The common denominator is these popular uprisings was the dominance of workers and farmers’ trade unions, professional associations, the student’s movement led by the Khartoum University Students Union (KUSU) and the political parties playing in the background. Without the workers’ strikes, picketing and sit-ins, civil disobedience wouldn’t be effective. Another feature of the two uprisings of 1964 and 1985 in the cities was that there were parallel military actions by Anya-nya (1955-1972) and the SPLM/SPLA (1983-2005), which contributed to weakening the incumbent regime. The National Islamic Front (NIF) seized state power in a military coup on 30 June 1989 and installed the Ingaz (salvation) system. It exploited the apparent weak performance of the Sudan Armed Forces in the SPLM/A spearheaded war of national liberation in southern Sudan.
Consequences of the paradigm shifts by the SPLM leadership
In a previous essay, I argued that the colonial education system, which essentially was Christian, anti-Arab and anti-Islam, coupled with the policy of annexing the southern provinces to British East Africa, instilled into the southern Sudanese political elite fear and hatred of the northern Sudanese. Thus, at independence, in a country dominated by highly educated northern Sudanese, this fear and hatred turned into a deep-seated inferiority complex in the southern Sudanese political leaders’, notwithstanding the conspicuous power and wealth asymmetry between the two groups.
As a result, the southern Sudanese pursued a policy line that separated them from the northern Sudanese in a common struggle. For instance, in the run-up to independence (1947), there was a strong voice among the southern Sudanese politicians that the southern provinces would remain under British rule while northern Sudan gained its independence. The nationalist trend triumphed in the end and Sudan became independent as one country. This attitude among the southern Sudanese elite – of shunning unified political action with northern Sudan in favour of a separate and parallel struggle against the same oppressive political dispensation – has been the Achilles’ heel in the Sudanese body politic. But even within southern Sudan, this attitude was echoed in the “kokora” (redivision), which culminated in Nimeri dismantling the southern region and the abolition of self-rule that the southern Sudanese had won in the Addis Ababa Agreement, rather than in unified political action together with northern Sudanese opposed to Numeri.
The ideological and political shifts…pushed the SPLM/A into negotiating liberal peace and a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA). It also rescued the Ingaz regime from collapse, extending its life and enabling it to wage war and commit war crimes in Dar Fur in 2003.
The paradigm shifts in the early 1990s, which the SPLM leadership struck following the collapse of the world socialist order, smacks of this attitude of separatism. The SPLM’s ideological shift from revolution to neoliberalism coincided with the political shift from “united secular New Sudan” involving all the oppressed, political excluded and marginalised Sudanese to the right of the people of southern Sudan to self-determination. Had the southern Sudanese- dominated SPLM/SPLA honestly pursued a revolutionary agenda for destroying and restructuring the Sudan in order to meet the aspirations of its people for freedom, justice, fraternity, Omer el Bashir would have fallen in 1997 when he suffered serious military setbacks at the hands of the SPLA in war theatres in southern Sudan, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, and at the hands of the New Sudan Brigade in eastern Sudan.
The ideological and political shifts (which made the war of national liberation a southern Sudanese movement, an obvious betrayal of the Nuba, Funj and Beja African groups in northern Sudan who joined the war on the basis of having been marginalised, oppressed and discriminated against), pushed the SPLM/A into negotiating liberal peace and a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA). It also rescued the Ingaz regime from collapse, extending its life and enabling it to wage war and commit war crimes in Dar Fur in 2003.
In fact, the secession of South Sudan left virtually intact the Ingaz system. It strengthened the Ingaz grip on power in the Sudan, enabling it to eschew the issue of democratic transformation on which the CPA was predicated. Once South Sudan was gone, the regime had no political military force to restrain its imposition of the strict Islamic code on the people of the Sudan. It immediately unleashed war on the SPLM/A-North in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. The regime exploited the South Sudan-Sudan border war (2012) in terms of resultant acute economic difficulties in the Sudan, and the eruption of the civil war in the Republic of South Sudan (2013) to strengthen itself vis á vis the armed and political opposition in the Sudan.
Genesis of Sudanese popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes
According to Dr. Hassan Abdalla el Turabi, the Islamic scholar and chief ideologue and architect of the Ingaz system, “the Sudanese masses struggle to bring down military dictatorships while the traditional political parties create conditions for military coups”. To a large extent, this statement carries the truth of the dynamics of the Sudanese body politic since 1958.
Prior to contact with European colonialism, the Sudanese people lived as negotiating peaceful ethnic chieftaincies and kingdoms. However. this situation changed when a repressive and corrupt Turco-Egyptian administration (Turkiya) imposed itself.
The popular uprisings are rooted in the nature of the Sudanese people’s sophist Islam, which is dominant in northern Sudan, with its proximity to Egypt and Europe. As a faith, culture and state in one, Islam, unlike Christianity, has the capacity to arouse in people passions against rulers who are corrupt and unjust. This explains how Mohammed Ahmed el Mahdi succeeded to lead a revolt against the Turkiya (1824-1885) to establish an authentic indigenous Sudanese state (1885-1898). It is this progressive dimension of the Islamic faith that provides energy to enable the Sudanese to quickly mobilise into revolutionary political actions, like the Mahdist’s revolution (1881) and the White Flag Revolution (1924) to mention a few.
The re-conquest of the Sudan and the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899) opened the Sudan, particularly northern Sudan, to modernity and to the emergence of a modern working class movement under the leadership of the Sudan Railways Workers Trade Union. This had enormous impact on the evolution of people’s social awareness and political consciousness; the already advanced nationalist movement in Egypt augmented and accelerated Sudanese nationalism, which began under the aegis of the “unity of the Nile basin”.
The Sudanese people, mainly the intelligentsia, benefited from the education opportunities in Egypt, and indeed, most nationalist leaders obtained knowledge and influence of modern ideas from contact with Egypt, which had invested interest in restoring the Sudan to the Egyptian crown. Thus, and because of the terms of the Condominium Treaty, the Sudanese Army evolved as part of the Egyptian Army in the Sudan commanded by British officers but with a tradition of fidelity to the homeland rather than the colonial authorities. This worked to the advantage of the Sudanese nationalist movement, leading eventually to the White Flag revolution (1924), which played out in critical political situations, when as a national institution it was forced to choose between the people and the repressive regime in power.
These and many other factors that cannot be enlisted here shed light on the genesis of Sudanese popular uprisings. It must be mentioned that the pattern of these uprisings was by no means uniform, although it could be said with confidence that the military coups have invariably followed a similar pattern, usually as a result of the failure of political parties to manage power and the democratic process. The northern Sudanese people are highly politicised and organised, which makes it easy for them to craft political action even at the residential neighbourhood level. This explains the ease with which they quickly establish networks of resistance or solidarity.
The second democratic and multiparty political dispensation (1964-1969) was not really democratic. Like the first, it suffered serious political hiccups as the traditional-theocratic political parties (Umma and DUP) and Islamic Charter Front (ICF) jostled for the promulgation of an Islamic Constitution to replace the Transition Constitution (1956) amended in 1964.
The dynamics and intricacy of Sudanese party politics pushed the then Prime Minister Ibrahim Khalil (Umma Party) to hand over power to Gen. Ibrahim Abboud on 17 November 1958 (ostensibly to take it back after six months after the political temperature had cooled down). The masses had to oust Abboud in October 1964, six years later. The October revolution, which the Sudanese people all over the world revere as a paradigm of its own, precipitated civil disobedience throughout the Sudan that paralysed the military government, forcing it to hand over power to a civilian government in eight days (October 21-28).
The second democratic and multiparty political dispensation (1964-1969) was not really democratic. Like the first, it suffered serious political hiccups as the traditional-theocratic political parties (Umma and DUP) and Islamic Charter Front (ICF) jostled for the promulgation of an Islamic Constitution to replace the Transition Constitution (1956) amended in 1964. The political right outlawed the Communist Party of the Sudan (CPS) and unseated its members in the Constituent Assembly to the chagrin and disappointment of the political left, which in reality led the October revolution now stolen by the right-wing politicians. This development paved the way for the military coup, which the leftist Free Officers Movement in the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Gaafar Mohammed Numeri, pulled on 25 May 1969.
The leftist stint at state power was short-lived, primarily because of the ideological split within the CPS eventually working to the advantage of the ICF, which exploited the ideological void in the May regime left by the communist and revolutionary democrats. Following the Port Sudan agreement (1977) between Numeri and the National Front (right-wing political parties of Umma, DUP and ICF), Dr. Hassan el Turabi decided to join in order to eventually take over the May regime under the guise of political Islam.
Numeri’s abrogation of the Addis Ababa Agreement (1 June 1983), which established the Southern Region, and his imposition of Islamic Sharia laws (September 1983) created the conditions for his overthrow in a popular uprising on 6 April 1985. The dismantling of the Southern Region triggered war in Southern Sudan under the SPLM/A. At that time, the Sudan had gone into deep social and economic crises due to the structural adjustment programme (SAP) imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Sudanese pound plummeted from 0.35 to 1 against the US dollar and further down until the dollar exchanged for three Sudanese pounds. The government could not provide social services. Drought and famine had struck in Dar Fur and Kordofan, causing massive population migration to Khartoum. All these factors and war in southern Sudan culminated in the March-April 1985 popular uprising and the fall of the May regime.
The popular uprising did not uproot the regime as was anticipated. The regime’s prominent ideologues and influential elements remained at large. The ICF leadership, now rebranded National Islamic Front (NIF), remained influential in the army and in the bureaucracy. The forces of the intifadha, ensnared by the army’s top brass decision to side with the demonstrators after weeks of bloodshed, gave in too quickly and left the May regime intact even though it had been removed from power. No wonder that NIF ranked the third largest political force in the Constituent Assembly elected in 1986, although its leader Dr. Hassan Abdalla el Turabi, was trounced in a Khartoum constituency.
The third democratic and multiparty-political dispensation departed from the trajectory after October 1964, but again the Umma Party, now led by Sadiq el Shadegg Abdurrahman Mohammed Ahmed el Mahdi, never internalised the lessons learnt after the October 1964 uprising. His prevarications and hesitation to implement the SPLM/A-DUP agreement of December 1988, notwithstanding the defeats his army suffered in war theatres, paved the ground for the NIF to usurp power in a military coup on 30 June 1989.
No human situation lasts indefinitely; political repression and all kinds of injustices end at some critical intersections and crossroads. The Ingaz lasted thirty years because of divided opposition to it; the southern Sudanese, who have been instrumental in the survival or demise of regimes and governments in the Sudan, unfortunately diverted from the Sudanese nationalist movement into secessionism…
The NIF, now rebranded Ingaz, is a modern political force in terms of its ideology and sophisticated political, security and intelligence organisation. It set to transform the Sudan in accordance with the Sharia and the Suna. It constructed a system of political repression, corruption, economic self-aggrandisement and set out to destroy or take over the tools of political resistance: workers’ and farmers’ trade unions, professional associations, and women’s, youth’s and students’ movements. It carried out Jihad in southern Sudan, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. During its tenure, tens of thousands of young men and women perished. Through political repression, a network of political patronage and ruthless security/intelligence service,s the NIF managed to establish an Islamic totalitarian regime in the Sudan for thirty years despite the split within its ranks (1999) that witnessed Dr. Turabi’s incarceration and the eventual formation of his Popular Congress Party (PCP) parallel to and competing with the National Congress Party (NCP).
The April 2019 uprising: Will it spell Ingaz’s total demise?
No human situation lasts indefinitely; political repression and all kinds of injustices end at some critical intersections and crossroads. The Ingaz lasted thirty years because of divided opposition to it; the southern Sudanese, who have been instrumental in the survival or demise of regimes and governments in the Sudan, unfortunately diverted from the Sudanese nationalist movement into secessionism, thus forfeiting their pivotal point of being the non-Arab and non-Muslim members of the Sudanese nationalist movement, which could have easily led to the construction of a Sudanese state based on the principle of “unity in diversity” – hallmarks of any democratic dispensation.
There have been attempted uprisings but to no avail since the Arab spring of 2011 that swept the regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. This time, the architects and leaders of “change and peace”, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), acted prudently so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past that permitted the “stealing” of the revolution. On 25 December 2018, which is not a public holiday in the Sudan after the secession of South Sudan, a group of twenty-one professionals (university professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers vets and others) released a public statement titled, “Such that the people’s revolution is not stolen: people’s revolutionary consciousness is the only guarantee for our people”, in which they outlined five important points they categorised as the five principles of the fourth people’s revolution.
These principles inter alia are: to overthrow the regime to stop the deteriorating socioeconomic and political situation in the country; never to allow change of the system from within, otherwise it is going to be Ingaz 2; although the pivotal role of the organised forces is welcomed in the overthrow and dismantling of the Ingaz system, changing the regime through a military coup should never the allowed; never to accept a Military Council on the basis of what transpired following the March-April uprising (1985), which eventually became May regime 2; the demand should be“a revolutionary council comprising the forces of change and whose mandate shall be national sovereignty.
The SPA and the Sudanese masses believe, and are convinced, that the revolution was not just to remove Omer el Bashir or the Ingaz regime for that matter, but to transform the Sudan’s falsified reality and restore its national dignity. There are even calls for the Sudan to quit the Arab League and return to its African roots, which has received support from the masses.
The SPA is following the principles to the letter, as reflected in the decision to camp the protestors into the precincts of the Armed Forces headquarters in Khartoum since 6 April, which marked the thirty-fourth anniversary of Numeri’s overthrow. This is a complete departure from the pattern of previous uprisings, which handed over power to the traditional political parties through fake or bogus elections. The traditional and theocratic political parties and the Islamic Charter Front had been using Islam, a faith to which the majority of Sudanese subscribe, as a political tool to dampen people’s consciousness, making it easy to ensnare them into voting them to power. If the demand now by the members of the SPA to liberate Sudanese politics from religion is met in the new dispensation, it will go a long way in transforming Sudanese reality. (Religion is a double-edged sword.)
The SPA and the Sudanese masses believe, and are convinced, that the revolution was not just to remove Omer el Bashir or the Ingaz regime for that matter, but to transform the Sudan’s falsified reality and restore its national dignity. There are even calls for the Sudan to quit the Arab League and return to its African roots, which has received support from the masses. The reaction to the events in the Sudan have been varied, from support for the military Junta coming from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt to outright rejection of the Junta by the African Union (AU). The AU, in its resolution 5 (c) to “freeze Sudan’s participation in its functions if the Military Council does not surrender power to a civilian authority in two weeks from the date of the resolution”, inadvertently supports the SPA.
My reading of the situation is that although the Junta continues to implement the demands of the protesters camped in its headquarters to arrest, incarcerate and confiscate the looted property of the Ingaz figures, nevertheless, they will procrastinate in handing power to the civilian Supreme Council of the State and a civilian cabinet until they are assured of their immunity from prosecution. . It must be viewed that their intervention was to prevent a sharp split in the army and to keep the Ingaz intact. Most of the members of the Military Council were senior officers in the army and security forces whom Bashir appointed recently, ostensibly to protect his back. The Chair of the Military Council, Gen. Burhan, hails from Bashir’s ethnicity, and may be counting on a possible split along ethnic and regional contours to occur within the ranks of the SPA and the protesters to drive a wedge and weaken the protest.
So far, the SPA and the Sudanese people are united in their demand that an Ingaz 2 shall never be allowed, which explains their demand to dismiss from the information and communication industry all those bureaucrats, journalists and news anchors linked to Ingaz 1. The deposed President Omer el Bashir and his two brothers, Ali Osman Mohammed Tah and Dr. Awad el Jaz, and many other Ingaz figures have been incarcerated in Kober Maximum Prison – a positive development and indication that SPA means business.
While time may be running out for the Junta on account of non-recognition and other diplomatic etiquettes, the SPA and the protesters camped in the army headquarters may continue to bask in the support of the Sudanese masses until they succeed to form the Supreme Council of the State – with or without a representative of the Junta – and a Constitutional and Legislative Assembly representing the forces of change, which in turn will elect a Prime Minister, a Deputy Prime Minister and seventeen civilian ministers of impeccable character. It remains a tall order to transform Sudan’s reality after thirty years of Ingaz
The impact of Sudan’s uprisings on South Sudan and the region
Although until recently (2011), South Sudan was an integral part of the Sudan, nevertheless, as I have mentioned above, its people had not completely integrated into the social and political fabric of northern Sudan. The Southern Sudanese invariably (except for small groups of leftist activists) pursued a separatist agenda, and therefore, don’t count themselves part and parcel of the Sudanese nationalist struggle even though they may have participated in the struggle as individuals or as groups. They have, therefore, forfeited their share of the victory. Not only that but they also don’t benefit in terms of acquiring political skills, such as tactics and strategies, in their struggles. This explains why political struggles in southern Sudan then, and now South Sudan, have invariably been violent ethnic conflicts and wars.
Before speaking about the impact of the Sudanese uprisings, it is important to analyse the context of the Horn and the Great Lakes Region in terms of political contacts and flow of ideas, without which it will be practically impossible to gauge the impact of social and political developments in any of the countries on the others in the region.
It is a fact that nationalist movements in the region were fragmented and isolated from each other although there was the overarching Pan-African movement whose objectives were continental liberation. It is obvious the national movements were stronger than the Pan-African movement, whose ideological messages did not permeate traditional, conservative and liberal African political thought. The relations in the region were and remain competitive and conflictual, revolving around inviolability of arbitrary colonial borders. Thus political formations in the region had much on their plates other than solidarity across common borders.
This may explain why important socio-political developments occur without concern, solidarity, or drawing important lessons to be employed locally. Sudanese uprisings did not have much impact on the political party organisation and action in East Africa nor did developments in Aast African countries impact political struggles in the Sudan. For example, the union of Tanzania and Zanzibar did not impact or influence the southern Sudanese desire to pursue secession. The second liberation struggles in Kenya in the 1990s never borrowed a leaf from the Sudanese struggle against Numeri’s totalitarian regime. For instance, it was not enough to remove section 2A from the constitution to relax the struggle against Moi’s totalitarianism
Now times have changed and it is becoming clear that peoples’ struggles and mass movements against dictatorship, personalised rule, and acute economic pauperisation of the masses emanating from the crisis of capitalism in the region at least share some characteristics and must therefore learn from each other in terms of setting strategies and tactics and solidarity with each other. The mass movements in Kenya and Uganda must learn to organise and build solidarity networks and shield them from the repressive security organs of the state, It is important to view a crisis in one sector as part of a crisis in the whole system. The political tool (civil disobedience) in the hands of Sudanese protesters was effective only because all subscribed to the principle of solidarity and all sections of society participated in it at the same time. Mass action in a sector must involve the professionals, the technicians, the workers – otherwise it will not succeed.
Organize Don’t Agonise!!
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.
The information disorder (i.e., mis- and disinformation) pervasive on social media has arguably interfered with democratic processes across the world. As public authorities and political actors continue to embrace social media as a broadcast and civic engagement tool, the potency of manipulated narratives online is further entrenched. This is debatably truer in electoral contexts where issues are perhaps more emotive and divisive. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s general elections, a notable amount of mis- and disinformation on social media was observable. As Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal noted, doctored images of crowds during political rallies, mild deepfake videos, doctored photos, and fake accounts passing off as political actors or mainstream media were just some of the categories of mis- and disinformation observable on social media. These observations tie in with earlier research by Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, highlighting the practice of using bloggers for disinformation campaigns. During the actual elections, the EU Election Observer Mission also observed “manufactured amplification and coordination of messages online by fake accounts and malicious, bot-driven activity in support of the presidential candidates”.
The impact of the information disorder on democracies has been extensively discussed and will not be the subject of this article. Instead, this article focuses on the diverse responses which have been mooted and implemented in Kenya by policy makers, media, civil society, and social media platforms in response to the information disorder. In particular, this article argues that these responses are largely ineffective when used in isolation and suggests that collectives comprised of a broad range of multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively are likely to have a higher chance at success. One such collective, Fumbua, was established in the run-up to the 2022 general elections in Kenya, and this article argues that the frameworks for collaboration it established can be repurposed to address the information disorder in numerous contexts.
Contextualizing the information disorder on social media
The proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media is made easier by the fact that such platforms, by nature, enable peer-to-peer engagement with little to no gatekeeping. While this characteristic has also meant that these platforms have served to create room for civic engagement and act as an equalizer, such civic engagement is often undermined by the harmful content that is prevalent. In recognition of the potential for harm their platforms pose to democratic processes, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies and tools specifically designed to address election-related mis-and disinformation. Comparatively, the content moderation tools applied in the Global South have arguably been scant. For example, in Brazil, the individuals tasked with enforcing Twitter’s policies during the presidential election only got access to the necessary internal tools a day prior to the election, and only in a limited capacity. Twitter allegedly utilized automatic enforcement technology and third-party service providers. According to numerous commentators, it is not uncommon for content moderation efforts in the Global South to be below par. From automatic enforcement tools trained on datasets lacking in local context, to human content moderators facing the same challenge, these platforms’ efforts to curb the information disorder are handicapped from the outset. These challenges are exacerbated in electoral contexts. Recent developments have shown that it sometimes takes third parties such as researchers or civil society pointing out harmful content for platforms to act.
It is generally agreed that mis-and disinformation was prevalent on social media during Kenya’s August 2022 general election. For example, the EU Election Observer Mission indicated in its report that it had identified hundreds of misleading Facebook and Twitter profiles. Platforms triggered their civic integrity policies a few weeks prior to the election and set up information centres and moderately labelled misleading content. However, these labels were not consistently applied and were in fact only deployed during the election tallying process. Stakeholders seemingly lacked a clear solution to address the information disorder on social media. The lack of sustainable and scalable solutions is not unique to Kenya and the region. It is certainly a global problem and a key step in the right direction is securing more transparency from platforms in relation to their enforcement processes as this will enable stakeholders to co-create solutions. However, in the interim, the information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed. One way to accomplish this is through multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua.
Addressing the information disorder
Fumbua is a collective of media and media-related organisations which came together in the run-up of the 2022 general election with a view to addressing the information disorder as it relates to political campaigning. The efforts to address the information disorder in Kenya’s 2022 general election can largely be categorized into actions taken in anticipation of the mis- and disinformation (pre-emptive measures) and actions taken in response to the information disorder (reactive measures). Fumbua brought together organisations involved in both areas, such as fact checkers, “pre-bunkers” and traditional media. Both these reactive and pre-emptive measures are discussed below.
The information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed.
Mis- and disinformation has reportedly featured in Kenyan elections since 2013. Consequently, with each passing cycle, stakeholders have been able to understand its nature and develop solutions which are alive to Kenya’s specific context. Unfortunately, due to the rapidly evolving nature of mis- and disinformation practices, the solutions developed have often been reactive in that they seek to get rid of such harmful content or undo its effects after the fact. For example, by criminalizing false content through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, by fact checking such content, by using labels to warn audiences of the nature of the content, and by obtaining the takedown of such content from social media sites.
Fact checking has perhaps been the most prevalent or visible response to the information disorder. It essentially entails systematically breaking down the validity of claims made by public officials, institutions, and political actors with a view to identifying whether the claim is factual or not. In Kenya’s elections, various fact-checkers were active. These included independent media, the fact-checking desks of mainstream media, and collectives or associations. To name a few, Africa Check, Africa Uncensored, Pesa Check, Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Editors Guild and The Star were involved in fact-checking claims made during the Kenyan elections. While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder, especially when empirical evidence on the subject is divided. In highly politicized environments, it is unlikely that being exposed to verification of claims will affect an audience’s world view. This is more so the case where the objectivity and impartiality of the fact-checkers are in question. Fact-checkers often must compete with an audience’s confirmation bias and their credibility is often questioned due to the conflict their narrative poses to the world view of some audiences. This is not made easier by the fact that fact-checking is a difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive process which cannot compete with the speed at which false information is spread through social media. Add in the fact that false information more easily captures attention due to its ability to trigger negative emotions and one can understand why the utility and efficacy of fact-checking is limited. Fact-checking claims made through social media have also been especially difficult in Kenya due to the minimal and often performative support given to fact-checkers by social media platforms.
For fact-checking to be effective, it must offer an alternative narrative to that which it is disputing. The challenge is that such a narrative must exist in the first place and must be capable of being accepted by an audience. Where such a narrative exists, there is a risk that it may come with “political baggage” and as such be difficult to accept. In such cases, the efficacy of fact-checking is limited, and this is essentially the challenge faced by fact-checkers – purveyors of false information are not bound by the same rules. Despite all this, fact-checking has been found to positively affect audience beliefs notwithstanding pre-existing beliefs and whether an alternative narrative was presented. However, these credentials are limited as the effects on belief are weak and gradually becoming negligible. Additionally, they do not always translate to downstream effects (i.e., changing of votes).
For a long time, stakeholders seeking to curb the information disorder have found themselves on the back-foot, always responding after the fact. By the time interventions such as fact-checks, social media takedowns, and flags are deployed, harmful content has likely taken root. With this in mind, some pre-emptive solutions have been contemplated and used by stakeholders. These are discussed below.
While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder.
As discussed earlier in this article, fact-checkers often face the challenge of having to overcome an audience’s inherent biases and the political baggage accompanying the alternative narratives they seek to put forth. In seeking to overcome this reactionary approach, Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden argue that it may be more effective to inoculate audiences against harmful content by priming their minds to anticipate it. This has come to be referred to as prebunking, and it essentially entails exposing audiences to watered down versions of false or misleading content with a view to highlighting the tactics used by purveyors of such content. Prebunking efforts recognize that the information disorder may not necessarily be solved by disseminating more accurate information given that harmful content is often consumed in highly politicized contexts. Instead, these efforts seek to redesign information architecture through behavioural interventions (i.e., changing how audiences consume information). In Kenya, Stop Reflect Verify was the first publicly documented election-related prebunking program. It offered a misinformation quiz focused on the Kenyan elections.
While prebunking seemingly promises to reduce the reactionary nature of stakeholder efforts, there is insufficient proof that skills learned in prebunking programmes are applied in practical situations. Counterfactual thinking may be a useful strategy to incorporate into prebunking efforts. Counterfactual thinking involves stimulating an audience’s mind to consider alternative facts and hypotheses when presented with information in a bid to logically deduce the likely truth. The lack of consensus on the utility and efficacy of prebunking as an alternative to fact-checking points to the need for the deployment of multiple interventions in a coordinated fashion, and this is where multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua come in.
Building in sustainability
Periodically, civil society, media practitioners, and the donor community focus their efforts on election-related programmes in a collaborative manner (for example the media’s collaboration during presidential debates). In most cases, the collaboration does not survive the post-election period. As a result, these election stakeholders have to start anew during each election. A considerable amount of time and resources are dedicated to establishing the frameworks for collaboration, taking away from the potential impact these programmes may have. With collectives such as Fumbua, stakeholders are able to repurpose the goodwill that fostered collaboration during elections to continue to address the information disorder in other contexts. By sustaining the collaboration, stakeholders would be able to leverage on incremental gains and make a more impactful change. In relation to the information disorder, they would be better able to move towards how media is generated and consumed. The effect of this would be a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.
The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
Crisis is the new constant and advocacy efforts should seek ways of growing public awareness through civic education.
Are East African countries ready to face the next crisis or are they simply keen to go back to how things were? What does a new normal mean when speaking about public finance management (PFM)?
In continuing the struggle for structural transformation, economic justice efforts must work towards developing a new citizen and preparing for unpredictable or unforeseen events, more so those with extreme socio-economic and political consequences.
This is because, besides known challenges posed by existing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out how “unusual circumstances such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks and warfare … depress the ability of citizens to engage in economic activity and pay taxes as well as that of governments [capacity] to collect revenue [or] provide services”.
Such circumstances therefore demand more inclusion of human rights-based approaches in economic justice efforts to champion greater fairness within existing financial architecture.
Disasters should, therefore, not obliterate human rights but should heighten the need to respect, protection, and fulfilment of obligations through prioritizing expenditure on service delivery, as well as all elements of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) to “boost the capacity of residents to withstand shocks” by improving coping mechanisms.
Promotion of fair taxes among other broader economic justice initiatives within PFM should consequently adapt towards championing ESCRS within the context of more disruptive and unexpected incidents. Crisis is constant in the new normal.
Fiscal democracy and civil protection: Recovery, resilience, and transformation
Currently, conversations on recovery are focused on tackling reduced tax collection; slowed growth; depressed formal or informal productivity; exploding unemployment; diminished remittances; persistent poverty; decline in energy access; and escalating food insecurity.
This emphasis seeks to reverse the effects of various lockdown policies that placed restrictions on businesses, mobility, movement within and across international borders, [plus] public gatherings. However, it speaks mostly of a desire to return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity while vital systems in tackling the next crisis such as water, education, or health remain unaddressed.
Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda. This will then speak to the resilience, and transformation needed to ensure PFM works for Africans in good times or bad.
Understanding fiscal democracy takes the form of better prioritization, response to problems, and improved sanctions for mistakes in the revenue cycle.
Advocacy for increased domestic opportunities, promotion of childhood development, enhanced socio-economic mobility, support for workers, motivation of local entrepreneurship, diversification of public infrastructure from mega projects, as well as increased innovation through subsidized research and development should be at the heart of economic justice efforts.
Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda.
Civil protection gives a new framework of planning by envisioning contexts or processes in which a series of unfortunate events can emerge, thus providing adequate responses without breaking the social contract.
Transformation therefore occurs when both go hand in hand so that public facilities are not overstretched in the event of crisis. Hence, in looking at the impact of Covid-19, across the East Africa region, we must ask ourselves: How transformative are the current recovery efforts underway? Will they offer a new resilience?
The salvage job: Economic sustainability through reliefs, guarantees, subsidies, and funds
Responses have clearly been driven by the urgency to overcome the pandemic and the need to forestall outright disaster or collapse. The “short-term rescue mode” has seen efforts to ensure vaccine access and bolstering of public health systems.
On the economic front governments “Have sought debt relief, implemented corporate tax deferrals plus exemptions, made direct citizen transfers and interest rate adjustments. [They have also] implemented guarantees and subsidies, liquidity support and food relief … [with] examples of support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Cash transfers and other safety nets for poor and vulnerable populations are critical for an integrated … response. While not transformational, they are building blocks for a basic level of resilience to external shocks.”
The fact that these efforts are not transformational must motivate the infusion of a justice quotient in recovery efforts. This will enable a movement beyond an emergency-oriented recovery that recognizes existing modern challenges such as climate change, population growth, scarce resources, man-made or natural calamities.
In the case of tax justice, to make the linkages that will establish economic sustainability in East Africa, it is important to understand the effect of recovery efforts in relation to public debt; the tax burden on individuals or households; illicit financial flows; harmful tax practices; economic growth; and resource distribution.
Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities. Concerns were looming over the fact that 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries were in or at high risk of debt distress. Between 2010 and 2018, public debt in East Africa grew rapidly as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio
In this time, East African Community (EAC) governments failed to mobilize sufficient revenue despite an overall increase in taxes. The situation was therefore exacerbated by COVID-19, the consequence being that these countries are now stuck in a situation where they must tax more to bridge revenue gaps.
Basically this, first and foremost, creates a context of unfair tax policies in the region that burden their respective citizens, does not enhance service delivery, and is exclusionary in how debt repayment strategies are developed.
Lack of open debate about a country’s fiscal priorities within the existing PFM system neglects the needs of youth who constitute the majority of the population among other segments of society, curtails ideas on how to increase resources needed to provide for new economic opportunity(ies) and respond to the next emergency.
Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities.
Secondly, an environment or ecosystem of illicit financial flows (IFFs) that constitutes the formation of International Financial Centres (IFCs) in Kigali and Nairobi plus the signing of numerous Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) continues to perpetuate itself thereby providing loopholes within the tax architecture that undermine efforts at domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) because the monies going out of countries are so massive, outweighing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).
This is thanks to “Constitutionalism [among other legal questions] plus demands to implement new public finance management principles, growth in trade and services across countries in the region or with other countries across the globe, and discovery of natural resources requiring more inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI).”
On average IFFs accounts form 6.1 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thereby impeding economic development and sustainability. For instance, since 2011, Kenya is estimated to lose KSh40 billion annually “as government, local firms and multinationals engage in fraudulent schemes to avoid tax payments”. As of 2021, The State of Tax Justice Report indicates this has grown to an estimated KSh69 billion annually at current exchange rates.
Third, growing account deficits and rising external debt are heavily limiting to economic growth. Increased spending on debt repayment is restricting prioritization on essential public goods and services while borrowing remains one of the key sources of budget financing.
In as much as Kenya cancelled its recent pursuit of another Eurobond, the about-turn towards borrowing domestically following a surge in yields within international markets because of the Russia-Ukraine war is still going to punish the country’s citizens by squeezing them out of access to credit.
Lastly, the debt burden is disempowering the citizen. Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable. This is further worsened by limited access to information on debt or public spending. Moreover, there is weak oversight by parliaments as executives take full control of processes.
Policy-making processes during cascading crises: Fiscal Consolidation, Special Drawing Rights, and Open Government
By understanding that crisis is constant, and that it is likely to manifest as confluence events — merging risks of mitigatable disaster(s) — or major confluence events, that is, the combination of potentially unmitigated risk(s) at any one point in time, how does policy making at such a time help to prepare for the emergency next time?
For example, what does Kenya’s fiscal consolidation programme — which comprises of reforms to improve oversight, monitoring, and governance of state-owned enterprises; improved transparency of fiscal reporting; and comprehensive information of public tenders awarded including beneficial ownership information of awarded entities — have to do with preparing for the next series of cascading crises?
Several emergency relief funds have been established to address the impact of COVID-19, such as the Rapid Credit Facility, the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).
However, these efforts are not likely to unlock the existing “trilemma” of solving the health plus economic crisis and meeting development targets while dealing with a tightening fiscal space. This is because they are stuck in the present circumstances with no consciousness of how much the challenge is likely to prevail into the future.
East African Community governments, in this time, failed to mobilize sufficient revenue, despite an overall increase in taxes.
Adopting fiscal democracy not only provides a new agenda determining organizing principles, but it has the potential for establishing a new citizenship through further entrenchment of human rights-based approaches in economic justice, and commitment to open government principles.
It will also anticipate and prevent the disaster capitalism witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries seem to be in a constant state of crisis, thus allowing for IFFs through PFM malfeasance that locks corruption and fraud into procurement through bid rigging or collusion.
Principals of public participation, demands for accountability, championing non-discrimination, advocacy for empowering programing, and legitimacy through the rule of law should set standards on beneficial ownership while open contracting, open data for development, legislative openness, improving service delivery, access to information, and access to justice will help build resilience in government.
A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations
Somewhere along the way, capacity building and training programming took prominence over civic education. Advocacy efforts should look for ways to bring back more popular public awareness. Denial of resources for these kinds of activities has been a major blow for PFM advocacy among other activist efforts.
Civic education will re-establish links between individual claims to service delivery and assigned duties in the fulfilment of public demands. Citizens will be able to identify how the problem manifests and engage on the immediate, underlying or root causes of an issue.
Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable.
It will also allow them to establish the patterns of relationships which may result in the non-fulfilment of rights or absconding of obligations. This will enable them to assign appropriate responsibility by identifying the relevant authorities. It will keep an eye on resources through participating in decision making.
Governments and political leadership should therefore work to improve their communication capabilities in engaging the public so that once this new citizenry is involved, they can work together to achieve representative priorities for action.
This article is based on a presentation and comments made at the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Debt Conference, Towards strengthening accountability and transparency around public debt management and the use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in Eastern and Southern Africa, 20–21 June 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.
‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.
Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.
Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.
The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.
Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.
On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.
Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.
Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.
This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.
Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.
It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.
At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.
A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.
More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.
Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.
Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.
Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?
The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.
Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.
“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.
A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.
At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.
None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.
The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.
My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.
Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.
In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.
Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.
A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.
As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?
None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.
To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?
Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.
For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.
Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).
What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.
Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.
Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Confidence in Public Institutions Is at an All-time Low
Op-Eds1 week ago
Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy
Politics1 week ago
Southern Cameroon: War and No Peace
Op-Eds1 week ago
We Must Democratize the Economy
Politics5 days ago
‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
Op-Eds1 week ago
No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
Politics2 days ago
The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
Politics2 days ago
The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy