In the sprawling congested tenements of Kiamaiko, just behind Jonsaga area in Huruma, Nyawira (not her real name) used to be the gossip of her flatmates for the longest time. She was married to a Chinese man who had come to the country as a road construction worker in the mid-2000.
“I used to sell edibles to the Chinese workers, who had begun constructing Thika Road and that’s how we met,” said Nyawira somewhat nostalgically, remembering those days that she daily interacted with the Chinese. “It was my first time to meet with the Chinese people – they spoke neither English nor Kiswahili and I didn’t speak their language Mandarin. But they needed to eat and I needed to sell food. It is the story of how human beings can overcome imagined obstacles in order to relate.”
By the time the Thika superhighway was nearing completion, Nyawira and her Chinese friend were an item. They had even moved together in Kiamaiko and today their 12-year-old son is a testament to that liaison.
But the romance did not last long. “A couple of years back, he told me he had to head back home for some urgent matter I have not seen him since,” explained Nyawira.
In Nyawira’s neighbourhood, there are two Chinese men who share a one-bedroomed house. “The two men are my water clients,” said Zangi, one of the water vendors that supply water in 20-litre jerricans to Kiamaiko’s residents. “These Chinese have adapted to the local situation, they are just like our people.”
At Eastlands Hotel on Ring Road Kilimani, a wholly Chinese-owned deluxe hotel for Chinese tourists who cannot afford to stay at the city’s high-end hotels, I met Wamaitha (not her real name), an ordinarily very talkative and outgoing person, but only when her Chinese husband is not around. A consummate businesswoman, she met her Chinese mate at a business convention. She is in her early 30s, and her tummy is already showing a noticeable bump – a telltale sign that soon she will be expecting a baby. “My husband is also a businessman, dealing in precious stones,” said Wamaitha, who is from Kerugoya in Kirinyaga County.
To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video (the couple says they don’t know who did it) that went viral. Ngunjiri said her wedding to a Chinese man really excited Kenyans for reasons she cannot quite fathom.
Nyawira’s and Wamaitha’s inter-racial relationship stories with the Chinese is the story of diversity of the Chinese people who come to Kenya: from the construction worker to the polished entrepreneur, the Chinese migrants in the country have been causing socio-cultural ripples with their unparalleled quick adaptability to the local environment. “In the next 50 years in Kenya, the Chinese people are going to integrate into the Kenyan society in ways that can only be unimaginable today,” said Christom Karimi, a Kenya-Chinese cultural expert, who speaks perfect Mandarin.
To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video that went viral.
Inter-racial families in Kenya have never been a big deal; they are prevalent, especially among white men and indigenous Kenyan women. The white folk in Kenya has been around for long, and their liberal Western culture, English language, Christian religion and general demeanour have made it easier for Kenyan girls to easily gel with them. Not so with the Chinese, whose Oriental culture, language and even religion and their “peculiar” culinary habits have been alien to Kenyans. Chinese people eat dogs, cats and even frogs. These cuisine recipes would test the taste buds of even the strongest Kenyans, who are otherwise known to enjoy international menus.
Early this year, at Diamond estate in South B, Nairobi, a German shepherd went missing. A notice was plastered on the main gate to the estate. After a couple of days, when the garbage collectors came to pick the trash, they found the dog’s head in one of the dustbins. A security meeting was called and the people confronted one of the Chinese estate residents. He owned up to rounding up the canine and agreed to pay a fine of Sh35,000.
Usually, when a local girl gets married to a white man in Kenya, she is whisked off to a posh suburban area: these girls believe they have crossed the Rubicon; it is a mark of upward mobility and privileged social status. Not so with the inter-racial Chinese marriages between Chinese men and Kenyan women; like Nyawira, many end up living in shanty towns.
Where it all began
In 2009, three Chinese companies were contracted by the Kenyan government to build the Nairobi-Thika superhighway. These companies imported Chinese migrant labour who did the actual road construction. The Chinese workers lived in makeshift tin shacks with makeshift mobile toilets in a compound that was sealed from the rest of the Kenyans. The biggest construction site was at the huge Globe Cinema roundabout, where the construction of the 50 km superhighway began. The roundabout is just 500 metres from Nairobi’s central business district (CBD).
The Chinese workers were under strict instructions from the companies’ general managers not to meander into the CBD. So the only meaningful interactions the Chinese workers had with Kenyans was during tea and lunch breaks. At tea break, they would be served African tea and mandazi (a doughnut-like delicacy). For lunch, they were served local cuisine. The food usually included, ugali, githeri, chapati and broth made of turtle beans and green grams. Many of the girls and women who sold food at the site were from Mathare Valley, a large informal settlement that borders the Thika superhighway – the language barrier notwithstanding.
Five years later, in 2012, when the $360-million road was opened by President Mwai Kibaki, the Chinese migrant labour had not only completed the road and overpass bridges, they had also invested in creating inroads and building bridges among the local female populace. Referred to as chinku – the ghetto slang name for the Chinese, the Chinese quickly learned the local lingua franca Sheng, the colloquial language spoken in shanty towns across Nairobi.
Today, the Chinese have not only married local girls and become assimilated into Kenyan life, they have also ventured into informal businesses, a preserve of Nairobi’s rank and file that lives in Eastlands, the poorer part of the city. The resilience of the Chinese came to light when they started trading at Gikomba Market, the largest second-hand clothes market in East and Central Africa. Gikomba Market, a stone’s throw away from Mathare Valley, is a bedlam of activities: you would have to be made of tough metal to conduct business there.
Not all the local women were as lucky as Nyawira and Wamaitha to be in steady relationships, Nyawira’s hubby later disappearance notwithstanding. There are many the tale of Chinese men who have sowed seeds wherever they worked and moved on, either back to China, or relocated to other working sites.
In Mathare 4B, Njeri was not as lucky: she was abandoned by her Chinese mate even after having two children with him. She was also serving food to the Chinese on Thika superhighway. Her two boys are now big – one is about 8 years old, while the other is 10.
Mathare Valley is a hellish place. Reminiscent of the favelas of Port Alegre and Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, life in the slum is short, nasty and brutish. Among the children hopping over the open flowing sewers and mounds of garbage strewn all over are Njeri’s children, who have continually drawn attention from fellow children, not so much because of their fairer skin complexion, but more fundamentally, because of the shape of their eyes.
Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese. When she was asked to explain the anomaly, she owned up to having an affair with a Chinese construction worker. The Gitaru–Wangige Road is currently under construction by the Chinese. Local folklore has it that when she was asked to identify the man, even after they were paraded for identification, she could not pick him. The joke going around is that all Chinese men look alike.
Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese.
This is the same joke-story that Purity told me in Mwihoko, Githurai. Purity was a food seller at the Githurai roundabout during the road construction. Over time she befriended a Chinese man. When he impregnated her, he disappeared. “Ï went looking for him, among his colleagues, I couldn’t find him. That was 10 years ago, because that is how old her daughter is,” she said.
The Chinese invasion
The Chinese have not only been marrying local girls, impregnating the ones they could, and engaging in retail business, they have also, surprisingly, been attending church – mostly evangelical churches – and have even started local branches of international churches. To most Kenyans, the Chinese people are not known to worship the Christian God, much less worship God at all. This view traces its origin to the Chinese history as a majority of Kenyans understand it: that China has always been a communist country that has no place for God or religious activities.
Emboldened by the warm reception of a Christianised population, where 80 per cent of the country, nominally or otherwise, belongs to the various Christian denominations, the Chinese migrants are starting evangelical type churches even in rural Kenya. At Gambogi, a trading centre on the Kakamega-Kisumu Road, the Chinese construction workers who are building the 60km road between the two towns have colonised the Gambogi PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) Church, situated just beside the road. Gambogi PAG Church, which has meetings in rented premises, has now added the name China to its church label to read China Gambogi PAG Church.
Today, there are three main Chinese churches in Nairobi, all run by pastors from abroad. The pastors, mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, are plying their trade in posh suburban areas in Nairobi. The Bread of Life Church, which is the better known of the Chinese churches, meets in a tall office block and caters mostly to employees of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), CGTN, the Chinese government broadcasting media house, and the business community.
Even though many of the migrant Chinese in Kenya are of evangelical persuasion, not all of them attend such churches. It is 4.00 pm at the Jehova Witness Kingdom Hall on Elgeyo Marakwet Road where the faithful meet every Sunday. A special service is going in Mandarin. Here, a group of Chinese Jehova Witness followers meet to fulfil their religious obligations. The meeting, incidentally, is not exclusively for the Chinese; there are Kenyans there, who by the virtue of attending these meetings, have learnt Mandarin.
The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani. Many of their social-economic activities are centred around this area. At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs. At Park 53 building on Ring Road, 90 per cent of the businesses, mostly restaurants, are owned by the Chinese. Because many of them do not speak the local lingua franca, English and Kiswahili, they tend to huddle together, hence live communally in the same area.
Amid all these Chinese activities in the country, their seemingly unchecked influx has apparently been causing disquiet among Kenyans, especially among small traders and the business community, who engage in the importation of merchandise. Kenyans tend not to be xenophobic, but the Chinese community is quietly and slowly eliciting xenophobic rhetoric among Kenyans.
The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani…At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs.
Several weeks ago, the MP for Starehe constituency, Charles Njagua, stoked xenophobic fears when he accused foreigners, who obviously included the Chinese, of monopolising all the businesses that “belong” to Kenyans. In his inciteful remarks, the MP said if the government did not take any “stern measures” against the foreigners, he would lead the people in ferreting out the foreigners out of the country. The MP has since recanted his statement, arguing that he was quoted out of context. But the point had already been made.
Traders on Gaberone Lane, the 100m backstreet alleyway behind Gaberone Road in downtown Nairobi supported and loudly voiced the xenophobic rhetoric against the Chinese. It is not difficult to see why. They all deal mainly in fabric and textiles materials, all imported from China. “Since the Chinese entered into this business, our businesses have gone down, they have been doing everything to undercut us by their price differentiation” said Ken Mutahi, who has been importing fabrics from China for the last 15 years.
“The Chinese have the unparalleled advantage of buying the materials directly from the factories, in their own country, while we buy from retailers. It has become increasingly impossible to compete with them, because all they need to do is lower their prices a little bit and they will still be within their profit margin,” complained Mutahi. He said that the traders were furious with the government for allowing the Chinese to “invade” their businesses. “Which government allows foreigners to overrun businesses meant for the locals?”
At Gikomba Market, anger has been building up against the Chinese traders, who have taken the second-hand clothes business by storm. “Chinese are now some of the biggest middle men, involved in selling thousands of bales of clothes,” said Elvis Kariuki, himself a trader at the market since the early 1990s. “We have been asking ourselves what kind of work permit these Chinese are on that allows them to engage in such businesses,” said Kariuki. Seemingly better organised and with a lot more capital than the local traders, the Chinese have been buying huge stocks of second-hand clothes mainly imported from the United Kingdom and filling all the warehouses in Gikomba.
“Expatriates who come to the country should be bringing in [new] knowledge and skills that maybe scarce or non-existent – why does the government allow the Chinese to come and take our jobs?” posed Kariuki. The trader said many of the Gikomba Market traders who have never known or done any other work, other than selling second-hand clothes, are very bitter with both the government and the Chinese traders.
The Chinese have not only infiltrated the second-hand clothes market, they are also involved in importing – from their own country – merchandise that was the sole preserve of the small traders. In downtown Nairobi, Chinese traders are running shops and renting stores which they stock with stuff imported from China. These items include cheap feature mobile phone handsets, their spare parts and hi-fi equipment such as hoofers.
“Some of the Chinese traders doing business in Kenya have been contracted by local companies back at home,” said a Kenyan trader who has been in the business of importing the same stuff. “The Chinese traders then become the conduits for creating new markets for the products manufactured back in China.”
The Chinese traders, on the other hand, have a different view of themselves. Some of the Chinese traders I spoke to said that they were not taking away anybody’s job or business – all they were doing was engaging in market competition. “We just happen to be aggressive and versatile,” some of one Chinese trader.
Forty-year-old Alex Cao (pronounced Chao), originally from Tianjin, came to Kenya seven years ago. He said he found his niche in real estate development. “It is never a smooth sail,” said Cao. “Dexterity is the name of the game if you have to survive the market onslaught.”
Richard Ling, 30, hails from Guangzhou and has been in Kenya for only three years. A trader, he hawks merchandise, including mobile phone gadgets, chargers, power banks, and torches, from his small rented stall at Kamukunji market building in downtown Nairobi.
Sixty-year-old Ling Fang came to Kenya 20 years ago. His wife joined him 10 year later. They found success in selling and stocking drapery and other upholstery materials, which they import in bulk from their country. From their shop on Biashara Street, they have engaged in both retail and wholesale business.
The dexterity of the Chinese in Kenya has seen them diversify in all manner of businesses. At the Eastmart supermarket on Tom Mboya Street, one of the upcoming suppliers of confectioneries is a Chinese man who makes doughnuts, shortcakes and cupcakes. “Every morning by 8.00 am, the Chinese man will deliver his goods without fail,” said the supermarket attendant who is in charge of the bread and cakes section. “His prices are between Sh10 and Sh20 cheaper and his cakes are slightly bigger, so they move faster.”
At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.
“The Chinese who are always looking for favourable places to do business have recently been migrating to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian economy is growing at a steady pace, the government has reduced much of the red tape associated with starting businesses for foreigners and their tax regime is not as punishing,” Karimi said.
At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.
By 2017, China had become Kenya largest trading partner. In 2017, it built a new railway line, at the cost of $3.18 billion, the most expensive infrastructure expenditure in Kenya since independence.
Two years ago, perhaps in an effort to endear themselves to Kenyans, a Chinese philanthropic group started a feeding programme in eight informal primary schools in Mathare 4A. The biggest of these schools, Chang Rong – which translates as Mathare Light Centre – is the biggest, with 400 pupils. Collins Abongo, a teacher at the school, told me the Chinese also sponsor a football tournament among the eight schools.
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Dadaab: Playing Politics With the Lives of Somali Refugees in Kenya
Somali refugees in Kenya should not be held hostage by political disagreements between Mogadishu and Nairobi but must continue to enjoy Kenya’s protection as provided for under international law.
For several years now, Kenya has been demanding that the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, close the expansive Dadaab refugee complex in north-eastern Kenya, citing “national security threats”. Kenya has argued, without providing sufficient proof, that Dadaab, currently home to a population of 218,000 registered refugees who are mostly from Somalia, provides a “safe haven” and a recruitment ground for al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia that constantly carries out attacks inside Kenya. Threats to shut down have escalated each time the group has carried out attacks inside Kenya, such as following the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 and the Garissa University attack in 2015.
However, unlike previous calls, the latest call to close Dadaab that came in March 2021, was not triggered by any major security lapse but, rather, was politically motivated. It came at a time of strained relations between Kenya and Somalia. Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County in north-western Kenya, is mostly home to South Sudanese refugees but also hosts a significant number of Somali refugees. Kakuma has not been included in previous calls for closure but now finds itself targeted for political expediency—to show that the process of closing the camps is above board and targets all refugees in Kenya and not only those from Somalia.
That the call is politically motivated can be deduced from the agreement reached between the UNHCR and the Kenyan government last April where alternative arrangements are foreseen that will enable refugees from the East African Community (EAC) to stay. This means that the South Sudanese will be able to remain while the Somali must leave.
Accusing refugees of being a security threat and Dadaab the operational base from which the al-Shabaab launches its attacks inside Kenya is not based on any evidence. Or if there is any concrete evidence, the Kenyan government has not provided it.
Some observers accuse Kenyan leaders of scapegoating refugees even though it is the Kenyan government that has failed to come up with an effective and workable national security system. The government has also over the years failed to win over and build trust with its Muslim communities. Its counterterrorism campaign has been abusive, indiscriminately targeting and persecuting the Muslim population. Al-Shabab has used the anti-Muslim sentiment to whip up support inside Kenya.
Moreover, if indeed Dadaab is the problem, it is Kenya as the host nation, and not the UNHCR, that oversees security in the three camps that make up the Dadaab complex. The camps fall fully under the jurisdiction and laws of Kenya and, therefore, if the camps are insecure, it is because the Kenyan security apparatus has failed in its mission to securitise them.
The terrorist threat that Kenya faces is not a refugee problem — it is homegrown. Attacks inside Kenya have been carried out by Kenyan nationals, who make up the largest foreign group among al-Shabaab fighters. The Mpeketoni attacks of 2014 in Lamu County and the Dusit D2 attack of 2019 are a testament to the involvement of Kenyan nationals. In the Mpeketoni massacre, al-Shabaab exploited local politics and grievances to deploy both Somali and Kenyan fighters, the latter being recruited primarily from coastal communities. The terrorist cell that conducted the assault on Dusit D2 comprised Kenyan nationals recruited from across Kenya.
Jubaland and the maritime border dispute
This latest demand by the Kenyan government to close Dadaab by June 2022 is politically motivated. Strained relations between Kenya and Somalia over the years have significantly deteriorated in the past year.
Mogadishu cut diplomatic ties with Nairobi in December 2020, accusing Kenya of interfering in Somalia’s internal affairs. The contention is over Kenya’s unwavering support for the Federal Member State of Jubaland — one of Somalia’s five semi-autonomous states — and its leader Ahmed “Madobe” Mohamed Islam. The Jubaland leadership is at loggerheads with the centre in Mogadishu, in particular over the control of the Gedo region of Somalia.
Kenya has supported Jubaland in this dispute, allegedly hosting Jubaland militias inside its territory in Mandera County that which have been carrying out attacks on federal government of Somalia troop positions in the Gedo town of Beled Hawa on the Kenya-Somalia border. Dozens of people including many civilians have been killed in clashes between Jubaland-backed forces and the federal government troops.
Relations between the two countries have been worsened by the bitter maritime boundary dispute that has played out at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The latest call to close Dadaab is believed to have been largely triggered by the case at the Hague-based court, whose judgement was delivered on 12 October. The court ruled largely in favour of Somalia, awarding it most of the disputed territory. In a statement, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said, “At the outset, Kenya wishes to indicate that it rejects in totality and does not recognize the findings in the decision.” The dispute stems from a disagreement over the trajectory to be taken in the delimitation of the two countries’ maritime border in the Indian Ocean. Somalia filed the case at the Hague in 2014. However, Kenya has from the beginning preferred and actively pushed for the matter to be settled out of court, either through bilateral negotiations with Somalia or through third-party mediation such as the African Union.
Kenya views Somalia as an ungrateful neighbour given all the support it has received in the many years the country has been in turmoil. Kenya has hosted hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees for three decades, played a leading role in numerous efforts to bring peace in Somalia by hosting peace talks to reconcile Somalis, and the Kenyan military, as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM, has sacrificed a lot and helped liberate towns and cities. Kenya feels all these efforts have not been appreciated by Somalia, which in the spirit of good neighbourliness should have given negotiation more time instead of going to court. In March, on the day of the hearing, when both sides were due to present their arguments, Kenya boycotted the court proceedings at the 11th hour. The court ruled that in determining the case, it would use prior submissions and written evidence provided by Kenya. Thus, the Kenyan government’s latest demand to close Dadaab is seen as retaliation against Somalia for insisting on pursuing the case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Nowhere safe to return to
Closing Dadaab by June 2022 as Kenya has insisted to the UNHCR, is not practical and will not allow the dignified return of refugees. Three decades after the total collapse of the state in Somalia, conditions have not changed much, war is still raging, the country is still in turmoil and many parts of Somalia are still unsafe. Much of the south of the country, where most of the refugees in Dadaab come from, remains chronically insecure and is largely under the control of al-Shabaab. Furthermore, the risk of some of the returning youth being recruited into al-Shabaab is real.
A programme of assisted voluntary repatriation has been underway in Dadaab since 2014, after the governments of Kenya and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement together with the UNHCR in 2013. By June 2021, around 85,000 refugees had returned to Somalia under the programme, mainly to major cities in southern Somalia such as Kismayo, Mogadishu and Baidoa. However, the programme has turned out to be complicated; human rights groups have termed it as far from voluntary, saying that return is fuelled by fear and misinformation.
Many refugees living in Dadaab who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they had agreed to return because they feared Kenya would force them out if they stayed. Most of those who were repatriated returned in 2016 at a time when pressure from the Kenyan government was at its highest, with uncertainty surrounding the future of Dadaab after Kenya disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) and halted the registration of new refugees.
Many of the repatriated ended up in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Somalia, with access to fewer resources and a more dangerous security situation. Somalia has a large population of 2.9 million IDPs scattered across hundreds of camps in major towns and cities who have been displaced by conflict, violence and natural disasters. The IDPs are not well catered for. They live in precarious conditions, crowded in slums in temporary or sub-standard housing with very limited or no access to basic services such as education, basic healthcare, clean water and sanitation. Thousands of those who were assisted to return through the voluntary repatriation programme have since returned to Dadaab after they found conditions in Somalia unbearable. They have ended up undocumented in Dadaab after losing their refugee status in Kenya.
Many refugees living in Dadaab who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they had agreed to return because they feared Kenya would force them out if they stayed.
Camps cannot be a permanent settlement for refugees. Dadaab was opened 30 years ago as a temporary solution for those fleeing the war in Somalia. Unfortunately, the situation in Somalia is not changing. It is time the Kenyan government, in partnership with members of the international community, finds a sustainable, long-term solution for Somali refugees in Kenya, including considering pathways towards integrating the refugees into Kenyan society. Dadaab could then be shut down and the refugees would be able to lead dignified lives, to work and to enjoy freedom of movement unlike today where their lives are in limbo, living in prison-like conditions inside the camps.
The proposal to allow refugees from the East African Community to remain after the closure of the camps — which will mainly affect the 130,000 South Sudanese refugees in Kakuma — is a good gesture and a major opportunity for refugees to become self-reliant and contribute to the local economy.
Announcing the scheme, Kenya said that refugees from the EAC who are willing to stay on would be issued with work permits for free. Unfortunately, this option was not made available to refugees from Somalia even though close to 60 per cent of the residents of Dadaab are under the age of 18, have lived in Kenya their entire lives and have little connection with a country their parents escaped from three decades ago.
Many in Dadaab are also third generation refugees, the grandchildren of the first wave of refugees. Many have also integrated fully into Kenyan society, intermarried, learnt to speak fluent Swahili and identify more with Kenya than with their country of origin.
The numbers that need to be integrated are not huge. There are around 269,000 Somali refugees in Dadaab and Kakuma. When you subtract the estimated 40,000 Kenyan nationals included in refugee data, the figure comes down to around 230,000 people. This is not a large population that would alter Kenya’s demography in any signific ant way, if indeed this isis the fear in some quarters. If politics were to be left out of the question, integration would be a viable option.
Many in Dadaab are also third generation refugees, the grandchildren of the first wave of refugees.
For decades, Kenya has shown immense generosity by hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, and it is important that the country continues to show this solidarity. Whatever the circumstances and the diplomatic difficulties with its neighbour Somalia, Kenya should respect its legal obligations under international law to provide protection to those seeking sanctuary inside its borders. Refugees should only return to their country when the conditions are conducive, and Somalia is ready to receive them. To forcibly truck people to the border, as Kenya has threatened in the past, is not a solution. If the process of returning refugees to Somalia is not well thought out, a hasty decision will have devastating consequences for their security and well-being.
The Assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the Haitian Imbroglio
As CARICOM countries call for more profound changes that would empower the Haitian population, Western powers offer plans for “consensual and inclusive” government that will continue to exclude the majority of the citizens of Haiti from participating in the running of their country.
On Wednesday 7 July 2021, the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home. His wife was injured in the attack. That the president’s assassins were able to access his home posing as agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States (DEA) brought to the fore the intricate relationship between drugs, money laundering and mercenary activities in Haiti. Two days later, the government of Haiti reported that the attack had been carried out by a team of assailants, 26 of whom were Colombian. This information that ex-soldiers from Colombia were involved brought to the spotlight the ways in which Haiti society has been enmeshed in the world of the international mercenary market and instability since the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Lavalas movement in 2004.
When the French Newspaper Le Monde recently stated that Haiti was one of the four drug hubs of the Caribbean region, the paper neglected to add the reality that as a drug hub, Haiti had become an important base for US imperial activities, including imperial money laundering, intelligence, and criminal networks. No institution in Haiti can escape this web and Haitian society is currently reeling from this ecosystem of exploitation, repression, and manipulation. Under President Donald Trump, the US heightened its opposition to the governments of Venezuela and Cuba. The mercenary market in Florida became interwoven with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the financial institutions that profited from crime syndicates that thrive on anti-communist and anti-Cuba ideas.
But even as Haitian society is reeling from intensified destabilization, the so-called Core Group (comprising of the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union, the United States, France, Spain, Canada, Germany, and Brazil) offers plans for “consensual and inclusive” government that will continue to exclude the majority of the citizens of Haiti from participating in the running of their country. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, CARICOM countries are calling for more profound changes that would empower the population while mobilizing international resources to neutralize the social power of the money launderers and oligarchs in Haitian society.
Haiti since the Duvaliers
For the past thirty-five years, the people of Haiti have yearned for a new mode of politics to transcend the dictatorship of the Duvaliers (Papa Doc and Baby Doc). The Haitian independence struggles at the start of the 19th century had registered one of the most fundamental blows to the institutions of chattel slavery and colonial domination. Since that revolution, France and the US have cooperated to punish Haiti for daring to resist white supremacy. An onerous payment of reparations to France was compounded by US military occupation after 1915.
Under President Woodrow Wilson, the racist ideals of the US imperial interests were reinforced in Haiti in a nineteen-year military occupation that was promoted by American business interests in the country. Genocidal violence from the Dominican Republic in 1937 strengthened the bonds between militarism and extreme violence in the society. Martial law, forced labour, racism and extreme repression were cemented in the society. Duvalierism in the form of the medical doctor François Duvalier mobilized a variant of Negritude in the 50s to cement a regime of thuggery, aligned with the Cold War goals of the United States in the Caribbean. The record of the Duvalier regime was reprehensible in every form, but this kind of government received military and intelligence assistance from the United States in a region where the Cuban revolution offered an alternative. Francois Duvalier died in 1971 and was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who continued the tradition of rule by violence (the notorious Tonton Macoute) until this system was overthrown by popular uprisings in 1986.
The Haitian independence struggles at the start of the 19th century had registered one of the most fundamental blows to the institutions of chattel slavery and colonial domination.
On 16 December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency by a landslide in what were widely reported to be the first free elections in Haiti’s history. Legislative elections in January 1991 gave Aristide supporters a plurality in Haiti’s parliament. The Lavalas movement of the Aristide leadership was the first major antidote to the historical culture of repression and violence. The United States and France opposed this new opening of popular expression such that military intervention, supported by external forces in North America and the Organization of American States, brought militarists and drug dealers under General Joseph Raoul Cédras to the forefront of the society. The working peoples of Haiti were crushed by an alliance of local militarists, external military peacekeepers and drug dealers. The noted Haitian writer, Edwidge Danticat, has written extensively on the consequences of repeated military interventions, genocide and occupation in the society while the population sought avenues to escape these repressive orders. After the removal of the Aristide government in 2004, it was the expressed plan of the local elites and the external forces that the majority of the Haitian population should be excluded from genuine forms of participatory democracy, including elections.
Repression, imperial NGOs and humanitarian domination
The devastating earthquake of January 2010 further deepened the tragic socio-economic situation in Haiti. An estimated 230,000 Haitians lost their lives, 300,000 were injured, and more than 1.5 million were displaced as a result of collapsed buildings and infrastructure. External military interventions by the United Nations, humanitarian workers and international foundations joined in the corruption to strengthen the anti-democratic forces in Haitian society. The Clinton Foundation of the United States was complicit in imposing the disastrous presidency of Michel Martelly on Haitian society after the earthquake. The book by Jonathan Katz, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, provides a gripping account of the corruption in Haiti. So involved were the Clintons in the rot in Haiti that Politico Magazine dubbed Bill and Hilary, The King and Queen of Haiti.
In 2015, Jovenel Moïse was elected president in a very flawed process, but was only able to take office in 2017. From the moment he entered the presidency, his administration became immersed in the anti-people traditions that had kept the ruling elites together with the more than 10,000 international NGOs that excluded Haitians from participating in the projects for their own recovery. President Moïse carved out political space in Haiti with the support of armed groups who were deployed as death squads with the mission of terrorizing popular spaces and repressing supporters of the Haitian social movement. In a society where the head of state did not have a monopoly over armed gangs, kidnappings, murder (including the killing of schoolchildren) and assassinations got out of control. Under Moïse, Haiti had become an imbroglio where the government and allied gangs organized a series of massacres in poor neighbourhoods known to host anti-government organizing, killing dozens at a time.
Moïse and the extension of repression in Haiti
Moïse remained president with the connivance of diplomats and foundations from Canada, France and the United States. These countries and their leaders ignored the reality that the Haitian elections of 2017 were so deeply flawed and violent that almost 80 per cent of Haitian voters did not, or could not, vote. Moïse, with the support of one section of the Haitian power brokers, avoided having any more elections, and so parliament became inoperative in January 2020, when the terms of most legislators expired. When mayors’ terms expired in July 2020, Moïse personally appointed their replacements. This accumulation of power by the president deepened the divisions within the capitalist classes in Haiti. Long-simmering tensions between the mulatto and black capitalists were exacerbated under Moïse who mobilized his own faction on the fact that he was seeking to empower and enrich the black majority. Thugs and armed gangs were integrated into the drug hub and money laundering architecture that came to dominate Haiti after 2004.
After the Trump administration intensified its opposition to the Venezuelan government, the political and commercial leadership in Haiti became suborned to the international mercenary and drug systems that were being mobilized in conjunction with the military intelligence elements in Florida and Colombia. President Jovenel Moïse’s term, fed by spectacular and intense struggles between factions of the looters, was scheduled to come to a legal end in February 2021. Moïse sought to remain in power, notwithstanding the Haitian constitution, the electoral law, or the will of the Haitian people.
So involved were the Clintons in the rot in Haiti that Politico Magazine dubbed Bill and Hilary, The King and Queen of Haiti.
Since the removal of Aristide and the marginalization of the Lavalas forces from the political arena in Haiti, the US has been more focused on strengthening the linkages between the Haitian drug lords and the money launderers in Colombia, Florida, Dominican Republic, and Venezuelan exiles. It was therefore not surprising that the mercenary industry, with its linkages to financial forces in Florida, has been implicated in the assassination of President Moïse. The Core Group of Canada, France and the US has not once sought to deploy the resources of the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to penetrate the interconnections between politicians in Haiti and the international money laundering and mercenary market.
Working for democratic transition in Haiti
The usual handlers of Haitian repression created the Core Group within one month of Moïse’s assassination. Canada, France and the United States had historically been implicated in the mismanaging of Haiti along with the United Nations. Now, the three countries have mobilized the OAS (with its checkered history), Brazil and the European Union to add their weight to a new transition that will continue to exclude the majority of the people of Haiti. It has been clear that under the current system of destabilization and violence, social peace will be necessary before elections can take place in Haiti.
Moïse sought to remain in power, notwithstanding the Haitian constitution, the electoral law, or the will of the Haitian people.
The continuous infighting among the Haitian ruling elements after the assassination was temporarily resolved at the end of July when Ariel Henry was confirmed by the US and France as Prime Minister. Henry had been designated as prime minister by Moïse days before his assassination. The popular groups in Haiti that had opposed Moïse considered the confirmation of Ariel Henry as a slap in the face because they had been demonstrating for the past four years for a more robust change to the political landscape. These organizations mobilized in what they called the Commission, (a gathering of civil society groups and political parties with more than 150 members), and had been holding marathon meetings to publicly work out what kind of transitional government they would want to see. According to the New York Times, rather than a consensus, the Core Group of international actors imposed a “unilateral proposal” on the people of Haiti.
Haiti is a member of CARICOM. The Caribbean community has proposed a longer transition period overseen by CARICOM for the return of Haiti to democracy. With the experience of the UN in Haiti, the Caribbean community has, through its representative on the UN Security Council, proposed the mobilization of the peacekeeping resources and capabilities of the UN to be deployed to CARICOM in order to organize a credible transition to democracy in Haiti. The nature and manner of the assassination of President Moïse has made more urgent the need for genuine reconstruction and support for democratic transition in Haiti.
How Dadaab Has Changed the Fortunes of North-Eastern Kenya
Despite the hostile rhetoric and threats of closure, the presence of refugees in the camps in northern-eastern Kenyan has benefited the host communities.
In the 1960s, Kenya had a progressive refugee policy that allowed refugees to settle anywhere in the country and to access education. This approach created in Kenya a cadre of skilled and professional refugees. However, the policy changed in the 1990s due to an overwhelming influx of refugees and asylum seekers escaping conflict in Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Kenya switched to an encampment policy for refugees, who were mainly confined to camps.
Although there are refugees living in urban and peri-urban areas elsewhere in the country, for over two decades, northern Kenya has hosted a disproportionate number of the refugees living in Kenya. The region has been home to one of the world’s largest refugee camps, with generations of lineage having an impact on the economic, social, cultural, and ecological situation of the region because of the support provided by the government and by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in education, health and security services.
Mandera and Marsabit counties, both of which boarder with Ethiopia, Wajir County which borders with both Ethiopia and Somalia and, Garissa County which borders with Somalia, have hosted refugees and migrants displaced from their countries of origin for various reasons. In 2018, the town of Moyale, which is on the Ethiopian boarder in Marsabit County, temporarily hosted over 10,000 Ethiopians escaping military operations in Ethiopia’s Moyale District.
Elwak town in Wajir County occasionally hosts pastoralist communities from Somalia who cross into Kenya seeking pasture for their livestock. While the movement of refugees into Marsabit and Wajir counties has been of a temporary nature, Garissa County has hosted refugees for decades.
Located 70 kilometres from the border with Somalia, the Dadaab refugee complex was established in the 1990s and has three main camps: Dagahaley, Ifo, and Hagadera. Due to an increase in refugee numbers around 2011, the Kambioos refugee camp in Fafi sub-county was established to host new arrivals from Somalia and to ease pressure on the overcrowded Hagadera refugee camp. The Kambioos camp was closed in 2019 as the refugee population fell.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and the Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS), the Dadaab refugee complex currently hosts over 226, 689 refugees, 98 per cent of whom are from Somalia. In 2015, the refugee population in the Dadaab refugee complex was over 300,000, larger than that of the host community. In 2012, the camp held over 400,000 refugees leading to overstretched and insufficient resources for the growing population.
Under international refugee and human rights law, the government has the sole responsibility of hosting and caring for refugees. However, there is little information regarding the investments made by the Kenyan government in the refugee sector in the north-eastern region over time. Moreover, the government’s investment in the sector is debatable since there was no proper legal framework to guide refugee operations in the early 1990s. It was only in 2006 that the government enacted the Refugee Act that formally set up the Refugee Affairs Secretariat mandated to guide and manage the refugee process in Kenya.
While the Refugee Act of 2006 places the management of refugee affairs in the hands of the national government, devolved county governments play a significant role in refugee operations. With the 2010 constitution, the devolution of social functions such as health and education has extended into refugee-hosting regions and into refugee camps. While devolution in this new and more inclusive system of governance has benefited the previously highly marginalised north-eastern region through a fairer distribution of economic and political resources, there is however little literature on how the refugees benefit directly from the county government resource allocations.
The three north-eastern counties are ranked among the leading recipients of devolved funds: Mandera County alone received US$88 million in the 2015/2016 financial year, the highest allocation of funds after Nairobi and Turkana, leading to developmental improvements.
However, it can be argued that the allocation of funds from the national government to the northern frontier counties by the Kenya Commission on Revenue Allocation—which is always based on the Revenue Allocation table that prioritizes population, poverty index, land area, basic equal share and fiscal responsibility—may not have been taking the refugee population into account. According to the 2019 census, the population of Dadaab sub-county is 185,252, a figure that is well below the actual refugee population. The increase in population in the north-eastern region that is due to an increase in the refugee population calls for an increase in the allocation of devolved funds.
The three north-eastern counties are ranked among the leading recipients of devolved funds.
Dadaab refugee camp has been in the news for the wrong reasons. Security agencies blame the refugees for the increased Al Shabaab activity in Kenya, and even though these claims are disputed, the government has made moves to close down the camp. In 2016, plans to close Dadaab were blocked by the High Court which declared the proposed closure unconstitutional. In 2021, Kenya was at it again when Ministry of Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’I tweeted that he had given the UNHCR 14 days to draw up a plan for the closure of the camp. The UNHCR and the government issued a joint statement agreeing to close the camp in June 2022.
The security rhetoric is not new. There has been a sustained campaign by Kenya to portray Dadaab as a security risk on national, regional and international platforms. During the 554th meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Forum held in November 2015, it was concluded that the humanitarian character of the Dadaab refugee camp had been compromised. The AU statements, which may have been drafted by Kenya, claimed that the attacks on Westgate Mall and Garissa University were planned and launched from within the refugee camps. These security incidents are an indication of the challenges Kenya has been facing in managing security. For example, between 2010 and 2011, there were several IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) incidents targeting police vehicles in and around Dadaab where a dozen officers were injured or killed. In October 2012, two people working for the medical charity Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) were kidnapped in Dadaab. Local television network NTV has described the camp as “a womb of terror” and “a home for al-Shabaab operations”.
There has been a sustained campaign by Kenya to portray Dadaab as a security risk on national, regional and international platforms.
Security restrictions and violent incidents have created a challenging operational environment for NGOs, leading to the relocation of several non-local NGO staff as well as contributing to a shrinking humanitarian space. Some teachers and health workers from outside the region have refused to return to the area following terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab, leaving behind large gaps in the health, education, and nutrition sectors.
However, despite the challenging situation, the refugee camps have also brought many benefits, not only to Kenya as a country but also to the county governments and the local host communities.
According to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) half the refugee population in the IGAD member states are children of school-going age, between 4 and 18 years.
In Garissa, the education sector is one of the areas that has benefited from the hosting of refugees in the county because the host community has access to schools in the refugee camps. Windle Trust, an organisation that offers scholarships to students in secondary schools and in vocational training institutes, has been offering scholarships to both the refugees and the host communities. In July 2021, over 70 students benefited from a project run by International Labour Organisations (ILO) in partnership with Garissa county governments, the East African Institute of Welding (EAIW) and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) to give industrial welding skills to refugees and host communities.
However, despite the measures taken by the Kenyan government to enrol refugees in Kenyan schools, there is a notable gap that widens as students go through the different levels of education. Statistics show that of the school-going refugee population, only a third get access to secondary education of which a sixth get to join tertiary institutions. This is well below the government’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 target that seeks to ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. This also reflects the situation of the host community’s education uptake. Other investments in the education sector that have targeted the host communities include recruitment and deployment of early childhood education teachers to schools in the host community by UNHCR and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The presence of refugees has led to NGOs setting up and running projects in the camps. According to Garissa County’s Integrated Development Plan, there are over 70 non-governmental organisations present, with the majority operating around the Dadaab refugee complex and within the host communities. The UNHCR estimates that it will require about US$149.6 million to run its operations in Dadaab Camp this year. However, as of May 2021, only US$45.6 million—31 per cent of the total amount required—had been received.
The decrease in humanitarian funding has had an impact on the livelihoods of refugees and host communities in north-eastern Kenya. According to the World Bank, 73 per cent of the population of Garissa County live below the poverty line. In the absence of social safety nets, locals have benefited from the humanitarian operations in and around the camp. The UNHCR reports that about 40,000 Kenyan nationals within a 50km radius of the Dadaab refugee camp ended up enrolling as refugees in order to access food and other basic services in the camps.
In 2014, the UNHCR reported that it had supported the Kenyan community residing in the wider Daadab region in establishing over US$5 million worth of community assets since 2011. The presence of refugees has also increased remittances from the diaspora, and there are over 50 remittance outlets operating in the Dadaab camp, increasing economic opportunities and improving services. Using 2010 as the reference year, researchers have found that the economic benefits of the Dadaab camp to the host community amount to approximately US$14 million annually.
The UNHCR reported that it had supported the Kenyan community residing in the wider Daadab region in establishing over US$5 million of community assets since 2011 since 2011.
To reduce overdependence on aid and humanitarian funding in running refugee operations, the County Government of Garissa developed a Garissa Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan (GISEDP) in 2019 that provided ways of integrating refugees into the socio-economic life of the community to enhance their self-reliance. The European Union announced a Euro 5 million funding programme to support the socio-economic development plan, thus opening up opportunities for development initiatives including income generating activities such as the flourishing businesses at Hagadera market. The recent announcement of the planned closure of the camp has put these plans at risk.
The host community is increasingly involved in issues that affect both the locals living around the Dadaab refugee complex and the refugees themselves, with the voice of the community gaining prominence in decision-making regarding the county budget and sometimes even regarding NGO operations. NGOs periodically conduct needs assessments in and around the camp to guide the budgeting and planning process for subsequent years and the host community is always consulted.
Interest in governance issues has also increased. For example, between 2010 and 2015 the host community successfully lobbied for increased employment opportunities for locals in the UNHCR operations. With experience in the humanitarian field, some from within the host communities have secured positions as expatriates in international organizations across the globe, adding to increased international remittances to Garissa County.
Research reveals that, compared to other pastoralist areas, health services for host communities have improved because of the presence of aid agencies in Dadaab. Hospitals managed by Médicins Sans Frontières and the International Red Cross in Dagahaley and Hagadera respectively are said to be offering better services than the sub-county hospital in Dadaab town. The two hospitals are Ministry of Health-approved vaccination centres in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the massive investments made in the health sector by humanitarian organisations in and around Dadaab, both UNICEF and the World Health Organisation have identified the camp as an entry point for infectious diseases like polio and measles into Kenya. There was a confirmed case of WPV1 (wild poliovirus) in a 4-month-old girl from the Dadaab refugee camp in May 2013. This is a clear indication of the health risks associated with the situation.
Researchers have found that the economic benefits of the Dadaab camp to the host community amount to approximately US$14 million annually.
Other problems associated with the presence of the camps include encroachment of the refugee population on local land, leading to crime and hostility between the two communities. These conflicts are aggravated by the scramble for the little arable land available in this semi-arid region that makes it difficult to grow food and rear farm animals, leading to food shortages.
While it is important to acknowledge that progress has been made in integrating refugees into the north-eastern region, and that some development has taken place in the region, more needs to be done to realise the full potential of the region and its communities. Kenya’s security sector should ensure that proper measures are put in place to enhance security right from the border entry point in order to weed out criminals who take advantage of Kenya’s acceptance of refugees. The country should not expel those who have crossed borders in search of refuge but should tap fully into the benefits that come with hosting refugees.
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