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Enter the Dragon: China’s Media War in Africa

China, an emerging global power, and Britain, a retreating and politically troubled former colonial power, will channel their “media wars” from their bases in Nairobi. It will be a battle between a new Eastern power that hopes to gain a foothold in the continent’s unexplored extractive sector and a nostalgic Western power keen not to lose its control over African and Asian Commonwealth countries.

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Enter the Dragon: China’s Media War in Africa
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“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy so he can’t fathom the real intent.” – Sun Tzu (Chinese war leader, strategist and philosopher)

On New Year’s Eve 2016, President Xi Jinping of China sent a congratulatory message to the China Global Television Network (CGTN), which had rebranded and relaunched its former label, the China Central Television (CCTV).

“Tell China stories well, spread China stories as well, spread China’s voice well, let the world know a three-dimension colourful China and showcase China’s role as a builder of world peace,” extolled the president while inaugurating the channel’s newly enlarged and sophisticated production studios in Beijing.

CGTN, which is the biggest news network and production house in mainland China, sustained its operations by beaming and broadcasting news as CCTV, just like before, and therefore was not affected by the rebranding. It has continued to telecast news and make documentaries and news programmes tailored for local consumption that are sanctioned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. CGTN is the equivalent of the state-run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), but with the clout and financial muscle that makes KBC look like one of its many news production departments.

But it is the CGTN’s operations and manoeuvres geared to cast China as a global phenomenon in the 21st century and beyond that the Central Committee is really keen to see. It would like its wings to spread worldwide so as to, “showcase China’s role as a builder of world peace”, as President Jinping mildly put it more than two years ago. Delivered as a message to a world that is undergoing tumultuous political shocks, it was a statement that camouflaged China’s real and serious global expansionist intentions as we enter the third decade of the 21st millennium.

That statement, as innocuous as it sounded, is a characteristic of Chinese foreign policy lingo that deliberately seeks to not frighten or scare its neighbours, such as India, Japan and South Korea, into alertness (military or otherwise), or to not arouse suspicious feelings (which might lead to heightened escalation of global drums of war) among fellow world economic powers, such as Germany, Japan, the United States and the militaristic Russia. Such a statement also serves to calm and reassure countries in Africa and Asia that China hopes to extract raw materials from.

It is a philosophical underpinning that was underscored by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese post-modern reformist leader who ruled between 1978 and 1989, who famously stated in the early 1980s: “Observe development soberly, maintain your position, meet challenges calmly, hide your capacity and bide your time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership.”

Yet, beneath the carefully crafted and worded statements by the president and the senior Central Committee members that portray China as a humble and benevolent Big Brother – whose only agenda is world peace and harmonious co-existence – is a hidden, subtle, and ruthless ambition and pursuit of global power that China hopes to use to conquer the world and re-establish China as the dominant civilisation that it once was in the centuries gone by.

It is a philosophical underpinning that was underscored by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese post-modern reformist leader who ruled between 1978 and 1989, who famously stated in the early 1980s: “Observe development soberly, maintain your position, meet challenges calmly, hide your capacity and bide your time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership.”

CGTN is a consolidation of six carefully picked foreign-language operations. Apart from Chinese, the channel broadcasts in Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish. It is a convergence of print, radio, TV, and online (new media) publication. In 2009, the Chinese government had already set $6.5billion aside for CCTV’s rebranding and expansion into CGTN. In November 2018, CGTN opened a state-of-the-art bureau in Chiswick, a wealthy London suburb. That bureau is supposed to cover the length and breadth of continental Europe.

The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is the combination of railway lines (belts) and (silk) roads that are supposed to link mainland China with the rest of the world, collapsing distances for a hungry China in need of raw materials for its economic quantum leap and eventually its world political power. It is China’s latest massive agenda, which it hopes will catapult it to an economic power house that rivals every other world economic power within 25 years.

Italy, Portugal and Greece are among Europe’s rancorous democracies that have bought into the idea of OBOR. China will be building a road and railway line into Italy and with that link, create trade routes and have access to continental Europe’s goods as it taps into its engineering and technological advancement. The newly opened CGTN bureau in London, one of the biggest financial hubs in the world, will, among other things, capture and tell the story of the entry and success of OBOR in Europe.

Nairobi and news out of Africa

However, it is the CGTN’s Nairobi bureau that continues to elicit excitement and which is being closely watched (pun intended) by Western powers who once totally commanded and controlled the information flow entering and leaving the country and region. The bureau officially started broadcasting from Nairobi on January 11, 2012 as CCTV. On December 31, 2016, the bureau launched its CGTN operations and was made the biggest bureau in Africa, whose operations cover the entire continent, especially in regions that China has a keen interest in. Just around the same time, Xinhua, China’s largest news agency, signed a pact with Nation Media Group (NMG), ostensibly to trade news, but really for Xinhua, to have access to tell its stories in the largest newspaper in the region.

“Nairobi’s geopolitical strategic location – its nearness to the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, the Indian Ocean littoral and maritime connection, its physical infrastructure and communications advancement and the fact that it’s the diplomatic corps’ hub in the region, easily persuaded the Central Committee of the Communist Party to make Nairobi the centre of its media operations outside of Beijing.”

Other CGTN bureaus in Africa exist – in Johannesburg, Lagos, and Cairo. The other major bureau outside of Beijing and Nairobi is the Washington DC bureau. The Washington bureau gives the Chinese an opportunity to show the Americans that they can also operate on their soil. However, in terms of strategic significance, geopolitical importance and long-term plans, the Nairobi bureau far outflanks the Washington bureau.

“Nairobi’s geopolitical strategic location – its nearness to the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, the Indian Ocean littoral and maritime connection, its physical infrastructure and communications advancement and the fact that it’s the diplomatic corps’ hub in the region, easily persuaded the Central Committee of the Communist Party to make Nairobi the centre of its media operations outside of Beijing,” said a senior CGTN producer based in Nairobi. “It is also the best place to scoop the Western media’s presence in this region and indeed in the whole of Africa.”

The re-organisation of the state-controlled CGTN in Nairobi did not go unnoticed by the Western media based in the city. At just about the same time, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), another state-run media conglomerate, was also expanding and moving its Nairobi operations from the central business district offices at Norfolk Towers to the quiet suburb of Riverside Drive. Its first move was to raid CGTN’s experienced staff – editors, reporters and mainly producers – and to hike their salaries and remunerations as an incentive to luring them from the heavily-funded Chinese media house, where money was the least of its problems. In its expanded offices, the BBC Nairobi bureau, which has been reporting on Kenya and the East African region for the last five decades or so, employed 300 journalists (four-fifths of whom were locals) to boost its image and presence.

“Our most important investment,” opined the Director of BBC News, Francesca Unsworth, “will be training the next generation of African reporters and producers to world class standards.”

This dramatic shift in the BBC’s policy does not surprise Gray Phombeah, who was the BBC’s Nairobi bureau chief from 2006 till 2008. When he became bureau chief, the BBC’s Nairobi office was tiny, comprising only around ten people. By the time he left in October 2008, it had expanded to more than 30 staff members, the majority of whom were Kenyan journalists. “It was during this time that the BBC broadcast for the first time the Swahili programme, Amka na BBC, from outside its London headquarters,” he says.

However, Phombeah is aware that “Africanising” the BBC bureau in Nairobi does not necessarily mean that Kenyan or African stories will be told from an African perspective and without bias. “We have to remember that the BBC World Service is Britain’s soft power, and so who controls and manages its bureaus abroad is part and parcel of that. The fact that the BBC has recognised the importance of having African journalists telling the continent’s stories is a good thing, but we must also accept the fact that only those stories that are palatable or acceptable to the British ruling class and Foreign Office mandarins get told.”

Clearly CGTN’s serious rebranding and infusion of more money by the state for its expansion and penetration into the African continent merited the BBC’s re-evaluation of its operations in Africa – whether by default or design. The BBC also “relaunched” in November 2018 to position itself as the premier global broadcaster that takes the African continent seriously.

Two decades ago, in 1998, the BBC World Service had already opened its office in Nairobi. “The BBC began by moving its operations from Johannesburg to Nairobi,” said a senior BBC editor, who is not authorised to comment on the BBC’s Africa media plans. “Several things mitigated the shift: labour issues – the trade unions in South Africa are very powerful and strong – the worrying issue of escalating xenophobia and the fact that Johannesburg oftentimes is far removed (geographically and its heartbeat) from the continental issues that are central to the rest of the African countries.”

Africa is as important to the BBC as it is to CGTN. The BBC, in a project it is calling World 2020, in which its strategic expansion plans in Africa from its Nairobi headquarters are expected to have reached their zenith, is also expanding into Asia, building networks and partnering with local radio and TV stations to create as big a BBC audience as it possibly can.

“The Kenyan journalists working for CGTN have no say whatsoever on content development or editorial matters,” said an editor, who has since left the global television network. “That’s the prerogative of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party.”

“Today, the United Kingdom’s best known and strongest foreign policy brand is the BBC,’ said the BBC senior editor. “With the Brexit imbroglio, the UK must look outwards and reach out to countries that it has had past relations with.” (Many of these countries, it goes without saying, are former colonies.)

The Propaganda Department

CGTN currently employs 150 local journalists who work as camera personnel, studio technicians, editors and producers, but the managerial and editorial decisions remain solely in the hands of the expatriate Chinese staff.

“The Kenyan journalists working for CGTN have no say whatsoever on content development or editorial matters,” said an editor, who has since left the global television network. “That’s the prerogative of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party.”

CGTN is not in the business of making profits, but countering what it considers to be the Western media’s distortion of the Chinese presence on the continent, said the former CGTN editor. “The major agenda for CGTN in Africa is propaganda, that is propagating China’s interests in Africa, through its own voice and medium.” To this extent, said the editor, “the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department heavily channels inexhaustible funds to CGTN as part of it global information warfare.”

But a senior assistant director of news at CGTN, a Kenyan, refutes the assertion that CGTN is an out-and-out self-censorship propaganda channel. “True the Managing Editor is Chinese, but his substantive editors are international staff, and they are anybody else but Chinese. CGTN only controls news that touch on Chinese interests and its foreign policy, its Asian neighbourhood, and major state conferences, like the just concluded One Belt, One Road International Forum that took place in Beijing last month…every other news is fair game.”

The most boring time to work for CGTN, said the director of news, is the month of March. “It’s the political season in China. That’s when the executive committee of the Communist Party meets and deliberates on issues. It also the time Parliament does the same, as it passes legislative laws deemed appropriate for the country. On these matters, nobody is better placed to handle them than the Chinese staff themselves. You easily could lose your job for ‘misreporting’ these events.” Misreporting here meaning reporting impartially and being critical, if need be.

CGTN may not be as thorough as the BBC, but by and large it is building its content for its Africa coverage, said the director of news. “China has a 100-year-long term plan for Africa and a fully-fledged news coverage of Africa is part of the plan. When CCTV started in 2012, it used to have only 30 minutes of African news. Soon, it was broadcasting the one-hour lunchtime Africa Live. Africa Live soon had two editions – the lunchtime one between 1 pm and 2 pm and the 8pm one. Now, they even have Global Business Africa, a one-hour programme dedicated to African business news daily between 9pm and 10pm.”

Other programmes include the weekend shows, Face of Africa and Talk Africa. Face of Africa, a documentary, is shown on Sundays for 30 minutes, while Talk Africa is televised on Saturdays, between 8.30pm and 9pm. Talk Africa touched on various African issues, be they economic, political or social. There is also 30 minutes of African sports reporting on Saturdays. CGTN’s goal in Africa is to eventually sell China’s brand image to every corner of the continent, said the director of news.

In this current world of media explosion and Internet influence, if you can control the information warfare globally, you have half won the battle against your adversaries, said CGTN’s former editor, who added that China has taken this dictum extremely seriously. China believes that it is only by controlling and telling its narratives through its own kaleidoscopic lenses that it will achieve its own goal and pursuit of ultimate power and influence in the world.

But more than telling its own narratives and controlling what kind of news comes from its channels, the Chinese also realised that the Western media in Africa does not report positively about the continent. “They understood there is a gap they can plug in, even as they plot on how to maximize and rationalise their presence on the vast continent,” said the CGTN news director.

“In Africa, CGTN is competing with the Americans especially, whose media presence in the continent has been waning. The Cable News Network (CNN) and the Voice of America (VOA) are the only American news media outlets that report anything on Africa and when they do, it’s not all positive. Even then, CNN has one single correspondent dedicated to the whole of Africa.” The director of news said many American journalists consider being posted to Africa as a downgrade – in their minds Africa is still this backward, backwaters continent.

In the information warfare in Africa between America and China, “America has unfortunately been losing the (propaganda) war,” said the CGTN producer. “Today, when CNN wants to report on Africa, it relies on just one leanly-staffed bureau based in South Africa, and if it needs support, it flies in one of its various correspondents, who jet in in the morning and by evening have jetted out.”

For example, when David McKenzie, the CNN reporter stationed in Johannesburg, or Nina Elbagir, the Sudan-born CNN foreign correspondent, report on Africa, it is usually about a tragedy and generally bad news. “The only time CNN reports big time on Africa is when a calamity has taken place…CNN’s model on reporting Africa has remained the same since the days of Jeff Koinange – who was also the sole reporter from Cape to Cairo, Dar es Salaam to Dakar, Luanda to Lagos. Hence, with the exception of BBC, the Western media doesn’t have a major presence in Africa,” said the director of news.

Natural resources diplomacy

The decision by China to pick Nairobi as its continental operational base was a well- calibrated move and a “diplomatic coup” to bolster its grip on the country’s and the continent’s strategic extractive resource materials. China, through CGTN, views itself as a friend of Africa and enabler of its developmental progress and peacekeeping force, hence, its “favourable” reporting on its working relations with some of the countries it is directly dealing with.

The producer observed that “CGTN will not do ‘human rights stories’…the kind of stories that Al Jazeera, BBC and other international media organisations are wont to doing in Africa because the Communist Party has a clearly spelt out non-interference [foreign] policy that states that China will not seek to influence any country’s domestic politics.”

“China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in July 2017 – People’s Liberation Army (and) Navy (PLAN) – from there it coordinates its peace keeping missions in Africa,” said the CGTN producer. “Nairobi is close enough to be reporting (positively) on the Chinese force working in trouble spots such as Mali and South Sudan, helping to stabilise those countries (peacefully) without China necessarily interfering with their domestic affairs.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, China in 2017 contributed about 2,500 troops and military experts to six United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa.

The producer observed that “CGTN will not do ‘human rights stories’…the kind of stories that Al Jazeera, BBC and other international media organisations are wont to doing in Africa because the Communist Party has a clearly spelt out non-interference [foreign] policy that states that China will not seek to influence any country’s domestic politics.”

Hence, “China’s entry into Africa – with its value-neutral ‘natural resources diplomacy’ – has outflanked the West and forced a donor retreat from democracy,” recently wrote Wachira Maina, a constitutional lawyer.

To shut its (Western media) critics, CGTN has ostensibly been reporting good news coming out of Africa, such as innovation and technological advancement in relation to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and business concerns all over Africa, said the CGTN producer. “CGTN content is heavily slanted towards their investments in Africa – mainly in infrastructure and telecommunications, light industries (solar panels and green energy), mobile telephony assembly, mobile gadgets customised for Africa, and heavy commercial vehicle assembly in South Africa.”

China’s First Auto Works (FAW), the long distance truck engines and body works, opened its first plant in Johannerberg and CGTN never ceases to report about how China is partnering with Africa to build and develop its future production plants. Until Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication company, entered the African market in 1998, Africa’s telecommunication industry was controlled and dominated by Western multinational corporations, such as Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia. A dozen years later, the stiff market competition triggered by Huawei and other Chinese private companies have altered the terrain completely. The cost of telecommunications equipment and rates have gone down drastically.

Five months after CGTN was inaugurated in Beijing, in May 2017, Kenya launched a $3.2 billion standard gauge railway line funded by China, linking the capital Nairobi to the port of Mombasa, arguably making it the biggest infrastructure project in Kenya since independence in 1963. Popularly known as the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the railway line is part of the OBOR project. That railway line is supposed to run all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), passing through Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. It is also supposed to divert to South Sudan and Ethiopia.

The East-West media war

“Under the One Belt, One Road initiative, China is investing nearly $900 billion in what it thinks of as a trunk silk-road. One trunk is an overland network of rail, road and power grids that link China’s industrial heartland to the vast oil, natural gas and mineral resources of Central Asia and on the market of Eastern and Western Europe,” observed Wachira. “The second trunk is a maritime silk road with two branches – an Indian Ocean link to sub-Saharan Africa and a Red Sea link to North Africa and Europe where ‘maritime road and overland belt’ converge.”

China, an emerging global power, and Britain, a retreating and politically troubled former colonial power, will channel their “media wars” from their bases in Nairobi. It will be a battle between a new Eastern power that hopes to gain a foothold in the continent’s unexplored extractive sector and a nostalgic Western power keen not to lose its control over African and Asian Commonwealth countries. Either way, both have decided to use the media as soft power to endear themselves to the continent.

In China in Africa: Power, Media Perceptions and a Pan-Developing Identity, Shubi Li and Helge Ronning argue that China’s media presence in Africa has increased in the last couple of years. “The country’s major media representative, Xinhua News Agency, added five more branches in 2011.”

The authors point out that 150 journalists and 400 local staff in Nairobi dispatch 1,800 pieces of news in English every month. “Radio has been an indispensable means of transmitting soft power, especially in a continent where half of the countries have a 30 percent illiteracy rate,” says the book’s authors. “In February 2006, China Radio International (CRI) launched is first overseas FM radio station in Nairobi with a schedule of daily programmes for 19 hours in English, Kiswahili and Chinese,covering China’s economic, social and cultural development.”

But China’s penetration of the Africa media scene has not been without criticism: “China has a record of jamming transmissions that it finds unpalatable,” said an editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent, which is quoted in the book. The editorial said that China also passes this technology to its (African) friends. Said the editorial: “China’s strict control of media and the Internet is not helping when it attempts to offer media aid in Africa.”

On the other hand, observe Li and Ronning in their book, “Chinese media following instructions from the Central Propaganda Department has been educating the public about the importance of building up soft power internationally and exporting the Chinese development model.”

China’s growing global dominance in the last quarter of a century has grown significantly. Indeed, the recently concluded One Belt, One Road International Cooperation Forum in Beijing further cemented Chinese dominance as a fast-rising global superpower. The country’s media presence in Africa is its latest strategy for global supremacy.

However, unlike that of other superpowers, the Chinese model of world domination is more subtle, as observed by the great Chinese war leader, strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, who said, The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy so he can’t fathom the real intent.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice

As Kenya’s forgotten mothers get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers.

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It was around 2 pm, 9th August, a day after the 2017 general election. Bernard, 25, and Victor, 22, alighted from different matatus in Nairobi’s Mathare neighbourhood. Bernard got off at stage number 10, while Victor, who was technically his younger brother, was dropped off hapo kwa vitanda (at the roadside kiosks)according to their mother’s account. Born to sisters, Bernard’s mother passed away when he was barely in his teens. He then moved in with his aunt, Mama Victor, who raised him alongside her three sons and daughter.

‘‘They grew up together,’’ Mama Victor told me when I met her in Mathare. ‘‘They were both my sons.’’

Bernard was back from Gikomba, where he worked as a tailor. Victor, a casual labourer, had come from his place of work in Westlands. They had voted in Mathare the previous morning, before reporting to work a little late than usual. On reporting to work on the 9th, they were both granted a day off, seeing that the country was on edge awaiting results of the hotly contested presidential election. Upon arriving in Mathare, the brothers found the roads blocked by protestors coming from as far as Dandora and Kayole, held back by a police cordon. That is why both Bernard and Victor disembarked from their matatus before arriving at their designated stage.

‘‘When they got off the matatus,’’ Mama Victor narrates, ‘‘they found huge crowds gathered in front of them.’’

After quickly reconnecting, Bernard and Victor looked around, recognizing familiar faces. Curious to know what the hullabaloo was all about, they walked over to their friends, asking what the matter was.

‘‘They liked asking each other Rada?Rada?’’ Mama Victor tells me, Sheng for, what’s the plan?

‘‘They didn’t even get too far into the crowd,’’ Mama Victor recollects being told by witnesses what happened.

‘‘Bernard was suddenly shot in the head, his brains blown out. Victor was shot in the stomach. I believe Victor was shot twice, though the medical report says he was shot once. His intestines spilled out. He had to hold them back using both his hands.’’

‘‘When Victor’s intestines fell out,’’ Mama Victor says and pauses, drifting away in thought…‘‘You know there are those things which if they happen to you, your body suffers a huge shock. I think when both Victor and the policemen saw his intestines hanging, they were all terrified. So Victor tried holding his intestines back, as the policemen rushed to where he was, as if they had just realized whatever damage they had done.’’

‘‘He succumbed before getting to the local hospital,’’ she says, ‘‘where the police were rushing him to.’’

Bernard, who Mama Victor says died instantly from the shot in the head, was left lying at the scene. There was nothing to salvage, with his skull shattered. A third young man, who Mama Victor says was called Paul Omena from Huruma area, and whose parents she hasn’t been able to locate to date, was also shot dead. A fourth, the luckier one of the lot, survived with a bullet wound.

Mathare had swallowed her sons alive

News reached Mama Victor at her Mathare Area 4A home that kuna vijana wameangushwa ( Some young men have been shot dead). What no one told her was that two of those vijanas were her sons. At about 3 pm, a sympathetic eyewitness knocked on her door and broke the news. Her two sons were dead.

‘‘I didn’t understand what they meant when they said my sons had been killed by the police,’’ Mama Victor remembers, ‘‘They had never had any run-ins with law enforcement. I even wondered why they had to kill them both. It didn’t make sense. Families in Mathare lost sons, but losing two sons at one go was strange.’’

By the time she got to the scene, Bernard’s body had been taken away. There was heavy police presence at the scene, Mama Victor recollects. Mathare was uninhabitable and inconsolable.

Permission to Mourn

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘I was lucky because at least the police allowed us to mourn my sons,’’ she says. ‘‘Others are not so lucky.’’

One may wonder why anyone would need permission from the police to mourn their loved ones, usually shot dead by the police. But in Mathare’s stark reality, when young men are shot dead by the police, families have to negotiate with law enforcement for them to be allowed to either hold vigils, publicly fundraise or even erect a tent where mourners gather to condole with the family.

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘Here in Mathare,’’ Mama Victor explains, ‘‘if your son is killed and the police label him a criminal, they won’t allow you to mourn him. You can’t have any gatherings. They won’t allow it to happen and if you insist on going ahead with one anyway, they will walk in and arrest you. Everyone here knows that much”.

Besides the ‘privilege’ of mourning Victor and Bernard, neighbours warned Mama Victor that she had to transport the bodies of her sons out of Nairobi before the Supreme Court ruled on the validity of the August 8 presidential election. By this time, the opposition coalition was in the final stages of arguing its petition against what it considered an irregular presidential vote. Kenya continued to be on tenterhooks.

‘‘There were fears in Mathare that whichever way the Supreme Court ruled,’’ Mama Victor remembers,‘‘a fresh wave of protests and police killings would break out, meaning no one would risk coming out to help me with either fundraising or funeral arrangements. I had to move fast. I was mourning and simultaneously thinking on my feet. You carry the pain of unfair deaths in your heart, but still keep your head functioning.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

‘‘It was a quick burial,’’ Mama Victor narrates. ‘‘By the time we got to Western Kenya, we found the graves had already been dug and went right ahead with the internment. My sons had overstayed at the morgue.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

The Pursuit of Justice

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind in Mathare that Victor and Bernard were killed by the police. Hundreds of protestors witnessed their shooting.The police themselves went as far as attempting to save Victor’s life, seeing that he hadn’t died instantly. In an ideal scenario, the case should have been an open and shut matter, with the National Police Service owning up to its officer’s excesses. Even more encouraging was the fact that there now existed the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian agency created by an Act of Parliament (2011), which is mandated with ensuring civilian oversight on police action.

However, to the surprise of Mathare residents who have been following the case, justice remains elusive.

‘‘There are people here in Mathare who have video recordings of the police either summarily executing or beating someone to death,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘If you asked people to bring those video clips today,they’ll come forward. But what we have learnt is that no matter what amount of evidence you have, there are no guarantees that justice will be done. I have waited since 2017 for something to be done to get justice for my sons. To date, nothing has been done by either IPOA or the numerous human rights organizations.’’

After the shooting of her sons, the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC), one of the pioneer grassroots documenters of extrajudicial killings, reached out to Mama Victor. In a sense, MSJC has become the last line of defense for Mathare residents, where beyond just securing and preserving evidence in the form of detailed statements, young men have literally sought refuge at the center while being pursued by killer cops. However, for a community-based organization, MSJC, like other social justice centers across Nairobi’s informal settlements, has huge limitations, starting with budgetary and capacity constraints. MSJC therefore acts as a conveyor belt for IPOA and more established human rights organizations, to whom they hand over statements and evidence, with the expectation of an escalation of matters; prosecution and compensation.

MSJC was therefore Mama Victor’s first port of call, from where she was assisted to lodge her case with IPOA and a number of human rights organizations, whose mandate includes seeking legal redress in cases such as hers. Mama Victor must have been mistaken to imagine that her case would be given first priority, because of the available evidence and the enormity of her loss. The death of her two sons. To date, IPOA is yet to present her case to court over a year and a half later.

‘‘A lot of times these women don’t even have bus fare,’’ Wangui Kimari of MSJC, tells me. ‘‘Yet we try to convince them to miss a day’s work for them to record statements with IPOA or attend follow up meetings. Sometimes we take their cases to human rights organizations with capacity to prosecute, but after going through the motions, they send us back to IPOA, citing one technicality or another. It gets extremely tiring and frustrating for these women. It starts to feel like justice is a mirage.’’

‘‘Being a witness in a case against the police can be difficult,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘You can be killed either before or after you testify. Yet if you go to IPOA, it doesn’t matter if you have video clips. They want witnesses, yet everyone is afraid. Why don’t they use other methods like examining bullets found in the bodies of victims and determining whose gun they originated from? People are totally afraid of testifying.’’

If you asked anyone in Mathare to testify in a courtroom against a policeman, they will most likely remind you of the case of Christopher Maina, where the lead witness was assassinated. Maina, a twenty-something year old who was picked up from Pirates base in Mathare just before the 2017 general election and shot dead by a plain clothes policeman. The summarily execution was witnessed by one of Maina’s friends. In the course of justice for Maina, the friend became a voluntary witness, going as far as recording a statement with IPOA. It was not long before Maina’s friend was murdered, a murder that Mathare residents attribute to a notorious killer cop.

‘‘If they can kill an IPOA witness,’’ a Mathare resident posed, ‘‘then who is safe to ever testify?’’

Organizations such as the International Justice Mission (IJM) have taken up some cases involving police shootings, which complaints were originally with IPOA. However, there is discontentment in the manner the cases are selected. Mathare residents wonder, why some cases are seemingly more equal than others.

‘‘We want the police prosecuted and our families compensated,’’ Mama Victor offers. ‘‘That’s all we want.’’

In the process of speaking to residents of Mathare, I learn that there are more families whose loved ones were shot during the 2017 general election. However, due to the amount of fear the police have instilled in Mathare, these aggrieved families have opted to suffer in silence than dare step up and speak up against police brutality. They won’t even record statements, suffering from a mind numbing mix of fear and trauma.

‘‘The other reason why some mothers and wives choose to live quietly with the pain is because they feel that even if they speak up, justice can never be done,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘They can see the trouble some of us have gone through, yet to date, nothing has happened. Not even a mere court case has been opened.’’

‘‘Some of those who are suffering the most are survivors of police shootings during the elections, from the campaign period,’’ a resident who sought anonymity tells me. ‘‘We have some who can’t even afford healthcare. They are rotting in their houses, straining their financially incapacitated families as they await death. Majority have become disabled. In fact there’s one who is still living with a bullet. Doctors said if they remove it, he would die. He is traumatized because he knows death is only a matter of time. Another one was shot on the shoulder. He was released from a moving police vehicle, and as he was running into his home when he got shot. We have all these cases in Mathare. But IPOA doesn’t want to come and setbase here.’’

Mothers and Widows

United in grief, Mama Victor joined a number of women and widows whose sons and husbands were either killed or injured by police bullets during the 2017 general election. They formed an association, the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors, borrowing a leaf from the hundreds of mothers and widows across Nairobi’s informal settlements, who have lost loved ones to extrajudicial killings over time.

‘‘Currently, my network has mothers and widows of 35 survivors, 12 victims and 12 orphans,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘The victims are the dead, survivors are those who were shot but didn’t die. Some are disabled.’’

Mama Victor, who is the group’s coordinator, tells me that after she met the mothers and widows inside the network she realized how dire things were for these women, not only for her who had lost two sons.

‘‘The youngest widow in my group is an 18 year old,’’ she says, ‘‘who lost her first husband to police bullets before she was 16. On turning 16, her second husband was shot during the 2017 general election. She’s now raising a three year old without a job or anyone to fend for her. Her own mother is bed ridden. Imagine that.’’

Aside from Mama Victor, the group, which has representation from various informal settlements in Nairobi including Dandora, Kayole, Mukuru, Kiambio, Kibera, among others, has a 27 year old who is raising two sons, a 12 and 7 year old, as the oldest member. The median age of group members is below 25, with majority of their children aged under 5. This terrifying reality is a function of a poverty stricken environment, where early marriage becomes a way out of destitution for most young girls.

On the passing of Victor and Bernard, Mama Victor was left with two young widows to cater for.

‘‘Both Bernard and Victor left a wife and a child’’ she says, ‘‘and so for the months following their killing, I had to support the young wives as much as I could. But in the end, I couldn’t manage to keep them afloat. Bernard’s wife, who was an orphan, remarried. She now has a two month old baby from her new marriage. Victor’s wife, who lost her mother, retreated to her village. They’re both just trying to move on with life.’’

From time to time, women in Mama Victor’s network have to make tough choices. One of the more common ones is the decision whether to work or pursue justice for their husbands and sons. But seeing that most women from Mathare work as domestic workers, it becomes difficult for their employers to allow them consecutive off days, especially when they need to interact with either human rights organizations or IPOA, in pursuit of their cases. Therefore a good number of the women end up either losing their jobs, or not earning enough to support their young families.

‘‘I had to quit my job because I had to seek justice for my sons,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘My employer couldn’t allow me to keep missing work. It became difficult chasing two birds at one go. I had to let go of one.’’

Even for those willing to work, Mama Victor tells me of kukaa kwa mawe (Sitting on stone blocks), where women go looking for work, but because the economy is doing badly, they end up sitting on the roadside the whole day, waiting for families to call them in for menial work. When the jobs aren’t forthcoming, it means families sleep hungry.

‘‘I visit them and feel their pain,’’ she says, ‘‘just to make them know we’re in this together. Someone should come to the rescue of these women, even if they’ll just take care of the kids. We’re already well organized.’’

‘‘I am sorry to say this,’’ Mama Victor opens up, ‘‘but the most heartbreaking thing I have had to live with has been knowing that some young widows have had to turn to prostitution. As a mother, nothing hurts me more than seeing young women resort to selling their bodies for survival. It tells you they have reached the end of the road and given up. They come to me hoping I can offer them something, anything. But when they get to my house, they realize that I am also literally living hand to mouth. We are really suffering.’’

‘‘My heart hurts deeply,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘It’s just that I can’t always display my heartbreak.’’

Being Mama Victor

After telling and retelling her story, either to human rights organizations documenting extrajudicial killings or to investigators at IPOA, Mama Victor has gotten to a point where all she can afford in terms of emotional giveaways is to strike a forlorn look. She tells me she has run out of tears, to a point where she now speaks about her sons’ deaths as if it were a distant occurrence from a faraway dream. She is a lonely spectator, burdened with nightmarish enduring memories.

Three weeks after burying her sons, Mama Victor was back in Mathare. She would have wanted to stay in the village longer, but things were a little complicated. Following Baba Victor’s death in 2010, she had run into problems with her husband’s family over her children’s inheritance, land. A helpless widow, she lacked financial or other muscle to push back against errant family members. She surrendered to her fate.

‘‘The entire village was on my side,’’ Mama Victor tells me, ‘‘but at the end of the day, there’s nothing they could do. The immediate family had the final say on the matter, and no one could overrule them. I lost out.’’

Mama Victor first came to Nairobi with the sole intention of pursuing her husband’s pension. He worked as a civil servant, but on investigating what had happened to Baba Victor’s retirement benefits, she was informed that the money had been disbursed to his bank account by the government, but that someone had mysteriously withdrawn the entire amount. There was no way she could be assisted, unless she pursued the matter with the police. Broke and dejected, Mama Victor retreated to a church in Eastleigh, where she was urged by a group of women congregants to start afresh, lest the weight of her tribulations overwhelmed and killed her.

‘‘I started doing domestic work for families in Eastleigh,’’ Mama Victor recalls, ‘‘earning 2,300 shillings per month. At the time, my children had moved in with my parents at their rural home in Busia.The money was so little. I felt stuck, unable to provide for my children in any meaningful way.’’

With the help of women from the church, who donated household items; a blanket here, a mattress there and a few sufurias, Mama Victor managed to start all over again. Her plan was to stabilize before bringing the children over, to join her in Nairobi. With a meagre salary and chattel from the women, she rented a place.

‘‘Rent was 1,300,’’ she says. ‘‘The deposit for the house was another 1,300. That means on the first month when I rented the place, I was left without a coin. In fact, I had to look for an extra 300 to clear the payment.’’

In her little house in Mathare, Mama Victor lived with her daughter and four sons, among them Victor and Bernard. They were joined by two sons born to Mama Victor’s brother in-law. It was a full house in the literal sense, but Mama Victor had no complaints. They were all happy together. With time, the boys started getting work, marrying and moving out. Other than her youngest son, who is now 12, Victor was the youngest of the lot, much as he seemed older than everyone else due to his impressive height.

‘‘He was handsome and tidy,’’ she says of Victor. ‘‘Everyone wanted to be like him, to imitate him. He loved cleanliness from the time he was a little boy. He always stood out. He was such a lovely boy.’’

Mama Victor runs out of adjectives describing her son. There is no doubt that Victor was his mother’s pride.

‘‘Bernard and Victor loved to fool around,’’ she says, ‘‘you can’t say they were violent. Bernard was talkative whenever he was with Victor, but wouldn’t talk much ordinarily. He used to stutter. They loved each other, but beyond that, they had so much love and respect for me. I wish you saw how they behaved around me. If they had passed here and seen me, they’d have come running, saying mathe, mathe, we hadn’t seen you. ’’

Listening to Mama Victor talk, there is no doubt that something truly precious was brutally taken away from her. She speaks fondly, especially of Victor, as if he left with some unfulfilled promises, possibly to work hard and lift his mother out of the precarious existence of his birth. Despite her stoicism, one cannot miss the moments of frailty in Mama Victor’s voice. No one can bring Victor and Bernard back to life but they should at least be consensus that their deaths were unfair and unjustified.

‘‘Vitu zilienda mrama,’’ she says, things went south.

‘‘Sijui nitafanyaaje.’’ I don’t know what to do now.

Tell Uhuru and Raila

On the day I am meeting Mama Victor, she has just come back from her last born son’s school, where the 12 year old is facing a disciplinary case. The teachers have refused to allow him back in class, demanding a considerable sum of money as compensation for whatever damage the boy caused at school. Mama Victor doesn’t have that kind of money, and therefore the headteacher turned her away, refusing to give her back her son’s school bag or allow him anywhere near the school.

With her is Terry, Victor’s three year old daughter, who keeps pulling at her dress, calling her shosho. After Victor’s wife retreated to live with her father in the village, Mama Victor was left with the responsibility of raising her grandchild, who was pretty unwell at the time of our meeting. Looking at Mama Victor nursing Terry – holding her in her lap, giving her water as if breastfeeding and offering her a sole ten shillings coin to buy candy at a nearby kiosk when the little one got restless, one is extremely moved by the plight of a woman, who has had to bury her sons and now single handedly raise their little children.

‘‘Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent.’’

After our long chat, Mama Victor tells me she has a message for two individuals; former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta. According to her, Victor and Bernard, among tens of others – over 100 individuals according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), including a six-month infant and a 9 year old – all died because the two men were fighting for Kenya’s presidency. But after the dust settled, Uhuru and Raila made peace, and are now bosom buddies. Mama Victor’s question is, were Victor and Bernard, and the many others, mere collateral damage in a game of political chess? She wonders how the country can ever heal yet the bearers of the nation’s collective terminal pain and wounds have never spoken to it. Are they a sore reminder, to be erased and forgotten?

Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent

‘‘I want them to come here,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘We want nothing from them. We want to see them with our eyes, for them to see us and know that we exist. They need to know curses come in different forms. Our pain alone is a curse to them. We want absolutely nothing from them. But they must come here and see us.’’

Are Mama Victor’s words a warning shot, a threat, a plea, or all of them rolled into one? Will the big men and their peace-architects listen, or will Mama Victor’s cries and those of others go unheeded? As Kenya’s Mama Victors get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers. That day, the chain holding Kenya together shall surely break.

 

Postscript: The network of mothers and widows of victims and survivors invited the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) to the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC) on 04 July, to ‘‘reflect on case management, witness protection, advocacy and psychosocial support.’’ IPOA didn’t show up. 

A criminal human rights reporting project by Africa Uncensored (AU) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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Borders versus People – Part II: Congo – A Classic African Tragedy

The spat between the Rwandan and Ugandan leaders may have more to do with their interests in their neighbour Congo than with any ideological or political split, argues KALUNDI SERUMAGA in this second of a three-part series. How long will the DRC remain the hunting ground for foreign predatory forces? And what does this spat say about the future of Pan-Africanism and regional integration?

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The borders between Uganda, Congo and Rwanda were drawn in the early 1900s. This was not an African decision. A joint team made up of officials representing the German, Belgium and British empires surveyed the hills of the region and made a decision. It was not a simple matter. At one point, they were attacked by a party of rebels led in 1911 by the anti-colonial Nyabinghi warrior Muhumuza, who ambushed a joint Anglo-Belgian-Germany Boundary Commission. It was to be her last operation. She was injured, captured and imprisoned by the British in Buganda for the rest of her life. Forty of her fighters were killed.

But that is the story for Part III of this series.

For now, the story is this: Those white man’s borders still eat African lives. On 27th March this year, a Rwandan national named Elizabeth Mukagarukwiza collapsed and died on the Ugandan side of the closed border while running from Rwanda security officials trying to take her back to Rwanda. She was reportedly in search of medication related to her pregnancy.

On May 24th, two men, one Ugandan, one Rwandan, were shot dead after being intercepted on a goods run into Rwanda. Like many others, they were not carrying anything ordinarily illegal.

First, as usual, it will be the peasants. The rest of us, all things remaining constant, will be caught up with later.

Borders versus People - Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Read Also: Borders versus People – Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Both incidents were immediate victims of the increasingly absurd bouts of megaphone diplomacy between the two countries. At one point, in a bid to deny their border incursion, some Rwandan officials even found themselves claiming that the smugglers – one Ugandan and one Rwandan – had been shot dead inside Rwanda, despite their bodies being found on the Ugandan side.

Overall, the crisis has enabled us to more clearly discern two things previously held tight by the now unsettled inner circles.

First, the people of Rwanda, for all their country’s reported developmental progress, remain seriously poor. Many will continue living outside their country, or seek to do so, for economic reasons, rather than political ones.

Second, President Yoweri Museveni’s support to the 1993 Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel invasion of Rwanda, and the eventual overthrow of the regime in Rwanda was much more extensive and explicit than many thought at the time.

Third, that the enmity between these two hitherto sister regimes is rooted in their joint sojourn in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Having been repeatedly assured that Eastern Africa’s future lies only in ever-greater regional integration, the sight of the principal proponent of this view, and the principal product of its attempted implementation standing now at loggerheads, will be most confounding to those genuine Pan-Africanists in support of that great expression of their ideals – the East African Federation.

Let me put it this way: Who holds the legitimate voice of the various peoples of East Africa? That question is critical to the future of the idea of a regional integration.

Having been repeatedly assured that Eastern Africa’s future lies only in ever-greater regional integration, the sight of the principal proponent of this view, and the principal product of its attempted implementation standing now at loggerheads, will be most confounding to those genuine Pan-Africanists in support of that great expression of their ideals – the East African Federation.

First, who exactly is in conflict with whom, in this instance? Clearly, it would not be correct to call this a conflict between Uganda and Rwanda for the simple reason that despite grand claims to the contrary, neither government can prove they actually represent the will and aspirations of their citizens. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda came to power through armed might, relying on narrow ethnic-favouring armies, and have been energetically stage-managing presidential elections – not to mention constitutional controls on their tenures – ever since.

On the other hand, neither can we call this a conflict between two men. Clearly there are interests broader than the personal views of the two principals involved, not to mention the hundreds of minions that have been scurrying about in their name, arresting, deporting, vilifying, abducting, counter-deporting and spaying on each other.

This is a clash of regimes, and the corpus of the respective crony interests that have built up around them over the decades.

Ironically, it is also unavoidable, given that both leaders chaperone exactly the same competing global ambitions and interests in the Great Lakes region, which is exactly what led to the great falling out between their respective armies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until then, it did not seem possible to imagine any kind of disagreement ever-emerging between them or their leaders, certainly not in the Pan-African mind.

Congo: Heart of dark foreign forces

But Congo is not the “heart of darkness” of Kurtz’s rendering. Congo is the beating heart of Africa, long excised from her body by a series of venal occupiers: first King Leopold of Belgium, then his state, then Marshal Mobutu as the nyapara for Western corporations there. Finally, our liberators moved in, and the real story of the Uganda-Rwanda border is actually the story of whether they ever actually left.

In that sense, Congo is the heart of light, in that it illuminates all the dark places of a person’s soul, and lays bare their true character, as Joseph Conrad’s Congo did with Kurtz. Ugandan and Rwandan armies entered the DRC as liberating heroes. Today, they are rightly seen as the villains who brought the place to final ruin.

But Congo is not the “heart of darkness” of Kurtz’s rendering. Congo is the beating heart of Africa, long excised from her body by a series of venal occupiers: first King Leopold of Belgium, then his state, then Marshal Mobutu as the nyapara for Western corporations there. Finally, our liberators moved in, and the real story of the Uganda-Rwanda border is actually the story of whether they ever actually left.

It is this centrality to the continent, bordering nine other countries that led Frantz Fanon to call Congo the “trigger” for the coming African revolution. The whole bounty of Africa’s riches seems to lie within her reach.

Along with its current membership of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Congo, if it so wished, could be a member state of the East African Community (EAC) and technically even of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Its size seems to match only its sheer known mineral wealth, upon which this historical procession of predators feast.

If there is one population on the entire continent least deserving of further depredations, robberies and violence, it is the people of the DRC.

Before even Leopold, so much of its population was fed into the ships of the transatlantic slave trade for centuries that there is even a location called “Congo Square” in what is now the American city of New Orleans, in which the building blocks of American jazz were shaped by enslaved Africans on their occasional days off.

There followed a slavery-in-place, as Belgium’s Leopold organised the extraction of rubber and cocoa through forced labour camps.

William Lever, the British industrialist, was so impressed by the economic efficiencies of the slave labour system that he went into partnership with Leopold for the steady supply of the palm oil he needed to massively expand his soap manufacturing business.

This classic African tragedy, however, did not stop the two great Pan-African armies from clashing there three times, and in the process, basically laying waste the eastern city of Kisangani. Some truly epic levels of energy were expended in the stealing of minerals, lumber and other valuables from the DRC. This progressed from the mere looting of mining company stores to the taking over or establishment of artisanal mines, and even the importation of slave labour made up of “idle” ghetto youth swept off the ghetto streets from as far away as Kampala.

The International Court of Justice’s 2005 ruling against Uganda, as well as a United Nations report on Rwanda, carries the outlines of the criminality, despite furious denials from the culprits. The 10-billion-dollar penalty against Uganda remains unpaid, but the wider crime is to have created the conditions that have led to the deaths of an estimated six million Congolese people.

It would be a mistake to see any of these crimes as events that happened a long time ago, and far away. Lever’s company lives on today as Unilever. Find a moment to go and check how many of the manufactured items on your kitchen and bathroom shelves are made by this company. Congo’s long misery put Unilever in a position to be able to put them there.

The International Court of Justice’s 2005 ruling against Uganda, as well as a United Nations report on Rwanda, carries the outlines of the criminality, despite furious denials from the culprits. The 10-billion-dollar penalty against Uganda remains unpaid, but the wider crime is to have created the conditions that have led to the deaths of an estimated six million Congolese people.

And by taking the role of Mobutu, these two friends’ occupying armies and proxy militias have enabled other Western corporations to hold Congo in that position ever since. The quarrel is about which of these twins will be the principal instrument in the facilitation of this plunder, with more than a little benefit to itself.

Either this Pan-African idea does not really exist, or these leaders have never believed in it.

This is simply the story. Now we need the story behind the story, which I will explore in Part III of this series.

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Borders versus People – Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Post-colonial Africa’s historical ideological trajectory has been to insist that all the peoples found within any given set of colonial borders at independence could only be considered as “tribes”. In this first of a three-part series, KALUNDI SERUMAGA examines tribal or ethnic identity in the context of shifting political alliances and loyalties.

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Africa’s borders are one of Pan-Africanism’s foundational obsessions. Are they ours, or Europe’s? Do we keep them, or erase them? Did we ever have our own?

Since just before the February decision by the Rwandan government to prevent access to its side of the border with Uganda, we have witnessed a shadowy quarrel between the presidencies of the two countries conducted in shorthand. The border closure was the first openly physical expression of this private argument. Since then, the language has become more robust, and the actions more direct, and even deadly.

With that act, Pan-Africanism came up against the realities of the European-designed political power upon which its member states rest. Perhaps, it will finally now look for an answer to its foundational riddle.

Some background may help here.

Yoweri Museveni, first as anti-Amin rebel activist, and later President of Uganda due to the bush exertions of his National Resistance Army (NRA), was seen –and saw himself – as the embodiment of the Pan-African ideal. Among his victorious soldiers were not insignificant numbers of refugees from Rwanda, some of whom had joined his crusade as far back as the days of General Idi Amin (1971-1979).

Museveni’s embrace, and even promotion to high office, of these excluded Africans was seen as real pan-Africanism in action. Paul Kagame was Uganda’s Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, and Major Fred Rwigyema (who died and was replaced by Kagame as the head of the Rwanda Patriotic Front [RPF]) was the Deputy Minister for Defence.

All this was celebrated, not least by the then luminaires of the attempted revival of the global Pan-Africanist movement led by the magnificently deluded Nigerian activist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who went on to hold what was to be a major re-organisational 1994 conference in Kampala, which was gifted with a permanent secretariat afterwards.

Finally, the notion was cemented by the generous assistance Museveni’s NRA lent to the RPF invasion of Rwanda. In fact, the array of names of the Rwandan personalities (some now deceased) now quarreling among themselves contained a few alumni of Uganda’s Makerere University, as well as former employees of the Ugandan government. During broadcasts, if it were not for the bloodletting, it would be almost amusing watching them dispute in their Ugandan-accented English.

The genesis of the current stand-off

After the RPF victory in Kigali, one would have thought that the Pan-African flower had now bloomed. The RPF was viewed as part of the NRA but under a more focused leadership of the austere-looking disciplinarian Paul Kagame, with none of the shortcomings NRA have so venally displayed once in power.

The current stand-off is, therefore, a culminated development in a political history reaching back over four decades, which has come to define how a generation or two understand politics, war and regional diplomacy. The details of all the attendant schemes, betrayals and illegitimate victories, are theirs. The implications, however, belong to all of us. If these two peas-in-a-pod cannot get on, then who in the region will?

After the RPF victory in Kigali, one would have thought that the Pan-African flower had now bloomed. The RPF was viewed as part of the NRA but under a more focused leadership of the austere-looking disciplinarian Paul Kagame, with none of the shortcomings NRA have so venally displayed once in power.

But perhaps the problem is precisely that many were seeing something that was not really there?

For its part, Kigali eventually made it known that it believes Kampala had already been offering support to a nascent armed rebellion being assembled, it claims, in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and led by Kayumba Nyamaswa, a former RPF general. This was flatly denied by Uganda’s long-standing Minister of Foreign Affairs (and even longer-standing in-law to the president), Hon. Sam Kuteesa, who said: “Uganda cannot allow its territory to be used to threaten the security of a neighbouring country.”

Given the military role of the government in which Kuteesa serves in changing the governments of the DRC twice, South Sudan (through helping the secession), and of course Rwanda (by which means Paul Kagame became president in the first place), this must be the ultimate demonstration of diplomat-speak.

And given the fact the President Paul Kagame willingly accepted assistance offered by the Ugandan government (in which he was serving at the time) in that interference that led to the collapse of the regime of then Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, perhaps this alleged assistance to his erstwhile General Nyamwasa should not be a cause for surprise, let alone outrage. He will certainly know what may follow.

The rebellion against the regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote basically involved arming refugees and exiles, among others, to help wage a war of the government of the country that was hosting them. This was followed by the arming of refugees to invade a neighbouring country, and then arming refugees and ethnic minorities to march against two DRC governments in Kinshasa, where the armies of Uganda, and Kagame’s Rwanda were to work together in driving the armed movement that removed the regime of Marshal Mobutu from the DRC, and backstopped events around the death of Mobutu’s first replacement.

After a lifetime of breaking rules and flouting the procedures and principles of International relations, President Kagame can hardly suddenly expect them to be upheld in respect to his own regime. And especially not by his former accomplice in such conduct.

President Kagame has a long and complex relationship with the Uganda-Rwanda border. At a personal level, he has been responsible for its security and integrity not from one, but both sides, first, as a very senior Ugandan military intelligence officer, and now as President of Rwanda. He has also crossed it in illegal fashion, first as a child in a family seeking refuge, and lastly as a Ugandan-based armed rebel. And now he has shut it down.

Between the countries, the story becomes even more complex. In the last major constitutional revamp, Uganda included a group defined as “Banyarwanda” in the schedule of “tribes” or ethnic groups of the country. This came about for two main reasons: first, there are significant communities of Ugandan citizens in the far southwest of the country that are of the same ethnicities as those found throughout neighbouring Rwanda. This is a common African situation.

President Kagame has a long and complex relationship with the Uganda-Rwanda border. At a personal level, he has been responsible for its security and integrity not from one, but both sides, first, as a very senior Ugandan military intelligence officer, and now as President of Rwanda.

The other reason is that the NRA’s struggle for power did – as the case of President Paul Kagame shows – take on board very many Rwandan refugees (largely of Tutsi origin). These refugees’ initial attempts to obtain Ugandan citizenship after the 1979 fall of General Amin’s government were opposed by many indigenous Ugandan politicians. Despite that (or perhaps as a result of it), they had gone on to swell the ranks of the NRA as it battled the regime of the then President Milton Obote following the stolen 1980 elections. The NRA’s control of full state power on its own standing ushered in the change in their status.

Much as it has enabled Ugandans of Rwandan ethnicity from the Uganda side of the border to stop having to be named after the nearby mountains or to have other labels (sometimes epithets) foisted upon them by their neighbours, this situation only creates further complications for Pan-Africanism, which as yet remain unacknowledged conundrums, but that will be significant in the future.

To complicate matters further, Uganda also has many people of Burundian origin who migrated to the country in the decades following the establishment of the colonial state. How come they have not been recognised as a separate “ethnicity”? More closely, there has been the argument, in the case of the Rwandan “ethnicity”, that perhaps Uganda should have recognised Rwandan Hutus and Rwandan Tutsi as separate groups, as had historically been the case back in Rwanda.

A similar question has been raised about the Asians settled in the country for nearly a century who have made sporadic requests for “tribal” recognition. In their case, will it go back to the Hutu and Tutsi question: will they be labelled the “Asian tribe”, or will they get registered as the various ethnic or caste groups that they identify with in India or Pakistan?

Tribe or nation?

Post-colonial Africa’s historical ideological trajectory has been to insist that all the peoples found within any given set of colonial borders at independence could only be considered as “tribes”, the raw material out of which the new nation would be built. This an extremely deeply entrenched mindset among almost the entire African political class, irrespective of country, and whether in government or in the opposition.

But here’s the thing: In the case of the members of the relatively newly-established Rwandan tribe of Uganda, one only has to cross the border (once re-opened) to morph into a member of a nationality, without a change in ethnicity.

Between the countries, the story becomes even more complex. In the last major constitutional revamp, Uganda included a group defined as “Banyarwanda” in the schedule of “tribes” or ethnic groups of the country.

The question arises as to how a European-drawn border developed the magical power to transform the same African ethnicity into either a “tribe” or a “nation”, depending on which side of that border it stood.

Other “tribes” in Uganda, such as (famously, or perhaps infamously) the Baganda, remain trapped. Their pre-colonial status as a nation cannot be as easily re-actualised, as they have no such border they can cross. These designated “tribes” have a dubious status within the given polity. Their rights are ephemeral at best. Their continued existence is viewed with official suspicion, a sort of pre-colonial hangover that must be progressively extinguished, through political means if possible, but by naked force, if necessary. They present in public life often as an abused bargaining tool by members of the petit bourgeois class found among them, as they blackmail those holding state power. “Tribalism” is the destructive political habit that results, and is then used to further stigmatise native identity.

Perhaps Kampala’s problem – evidenced historically by the belittling and patronising attitude towards Kigali since the RPF took power there – is that it cannot shake the thinking that the Kigali regime is little more than a Ugandan “tribe” that happens to control another country. In short, an extension of the attitude it holds towards all the ethnicities within the ambit of its own borders.

All these realities and events strongly suggest that the border is the least of our worries; it is what lies beneath, and before. This is what we shall examine in Parts II and III of this series.

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