The peeping game
In 2017, some sharp-eyed IT managers at the African Union (AU) realized that bugging devices had been planted in the computer servers and conference rooms of the shiny new headquarters building. It was only inevitable that the Chinese were to be seen as prime suspects, given that it was them that had so kindly met the cost and physical labour of putting up the building.
In the ensuing debates, only then incoming AU chairperson, Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, was unbothered.
“I don’t think spying is the specialty of the Chinese. We have spies all over the place in this world,” the chairman said. His only concern was that Africa had not got its act together. “We should have been able to build our own building.” but even then, he mused: “if you bring people to build for you, they may still spy on you.”
Such candour was refreshing, and brings another context about the mutual accusations of spying, subterfuge and intrigue being exchanged between the regimes of Rwanda and Uganda.
Mid-August regional media reports –to the extent that they can be relied upon, given the greatly partisan atmosphere- tell us that the mounting tension in the Uganda-Congo-Rwanda border region may have finally spilled over into open fighting, with Rwanda seeking to eliminate what it has been saying is an armed threat from a Uganda-backed rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (again), and led by former Kigali insiders.
A source close to the Kigali regime recently assured me that reports of the Rwanda Special Forces decimating a significant encampment of Rwandan National Congress (RNC) rebel forces are completely true, based on photographic evidence he claimed to have seen.
Since then: a frosty diplomatic process facilitated by the state of Angola, has sought to de-escalate tensions, by coaxing the presidents of the two countries into signing a 21st August Memorandum of Understanding. Its key points are: respecting mutual sovereignty; no acts of subversion in the territory of the other party, as well as third countries (read Congo); do nothing to create the impression of an interest in such destabilization, thereby eliminating all factors that may create such perception; and respecting the civic rights and freedoms of each other’s visiting citizens.
A source close to the Kigali regime recently assured me that reports of the Rwanda Special Forces decimating a significant encampment of Rwandan National Congress (RNC) rebel forces are completely true. His assertion is based on photographic evidence he claims to have seen.
The last clause is critical here. It clearly refers to the many Rwandan citizens that Kigali says are and have been held for long periods of time –some up to two years- by Uganda intelligence operatives, and subjected to inhuman treatment.
The Rwandan state, and its regional media allies point the finger squarely at Uganda’s historically notorious Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI).
The facts are that the CMI acquired this fearsome reputation well back in the early days of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) 1986 ascension to power. Known then as the Directorate of Military Intelligence (as its Rwanda counterpart is now called), it was the grinding stone against which many a rebellion, coup attempt and even simple civilian political agitation was ground to dust by very brutally efficient methods of murder, torture, deception, intrusion, and intimidation.
This accusation comes weighed down with a most striking irony: in those early days, the Directorate’s deputy Director was one Paul Kagame, still incarnate as an officer of the NRA.
All this tells us quite a few things.
First, that the accusation that CMI is illegally apprehending and then torturing Rwandans is entirely credible, given its history, particularly of the early days of basically physically crushing the armed resistance that had spring up in northern Uganda. These episodes are not particularly well-known, as the global human rights NGO police, and rising Ugandan corporate feminist movement and the Western diplomatic community seemed to see many opportunities in the freshly-minted NRA regime, and chose to simply “not see”, what was going on. In addition, in the subsequent decade, many of the regime insiders in Uganda who were to become leading opposition voices after the falling out, also seem to have difficulty in making specific references to this foundational period of the regime. This could well be because they were in positions where they were much better informed than others back then, to now claim ignorance.
This focus on Rwandans could even be considered an act of inclusivity, given that CMI stood accused of torturing everyone else in the days when it was heavily staffed by Rwandans of various citizenship.
Secondly, it is entirely possible, and in fact quite logical, that Rwanda’s government would seek to maintain an information-gathering network inside Uganda. Given President Kagame’s reaction to the AU scandal, it would be naïve to assume that he did not see a need to also build a Rwandan “back door” in the Ugandan intelligence outfit he helped to build. This, as the AU chairman pointed out in that context, is how the spying game works.
By the same token it would be entirely logical and natural to assume that if the Rwanda regime is in fact deploying its spies to Uganda that the Ugandan regime’s security apparatus would endeavor to seek out and apprehend any such person.
Naturally, it would also be quite logical that the human resource of any such network would comprise Rwanda nationals, Uganda nationals of Rwandan descent, and of course even other Ugandan nationals seeking pecuniary or other gain.
So, for any Rwandan national to now find themselves captive of a Ugandan organization designed in part by his or her president, this is a very ironical kind of homecoming indeed, as clearly, those institutional habits did not begin only after (now President) Paul Kagame left.
Thirdly, given the long public record established by President Museveni in reneging on agreements -and also President Kagame’s knowledge of this from his time as a high-level enforcer of Museveni’s will during his own time as a Uganda regime apparatchik- observers would be wise to see the Luanda MOU as the latest stage in a continuing feud, as opposed to the beginning of its end.
The intelligence, combat and diplomatic shenanigans are therefore neither a cause nor a solution to this game; they are merely details in a game still being played out. We need to look deeper.
The labelling game
Since the difference between Ugandan and Rwandans –from throne to commoner- have never really been as real as the current Kigali-Kampala standoff have made it, there can be perhaps no greater illustration of the appearance of Birds fighting their reflection in a window pane. If anything, the dispute is a critical example of how similar the two political cultures –old and new- are.
The concept of Rwandan immigration to “Uganda” is a rather fluid one. Rwanda existed long before Uganda ever did, and before either colony was created. In some sense, anyone in south western Uganda could be considered Rwandan just as anyone in certainly northern Rwanda could be considered “Ugandan”.
And Rwandan indigenous communities are organized along lines followed also by communities in south and south-western Uganda, not to mention Burundi, right down to often having the same clans. There are families -some now quite prominent- in what is now south-western Uganda, whose ancestry can be traced to migration from Rwanda as far back as the 16th Century.
Perhaps we should therefore see the colonial project, and this neo-colonial one now being held together by these bickering presidents, as an interruption and distortion to those historical relations.
The concept of Rwandan immigration to Uganda is a rather fluid one. Rwanda existed long before Uganda ever did, and before either colony was created. In some sense, anyone in south-western Uganda could be considered Rwandan just as anyone in northern Rwanda could be considered Ugandan.
Subsequent to colonization, there were groups of people who migrated to Uganda, who were now being called Rwandan. The first known such group was a group of embattled aristocrats from the Rwandan royal court, who had to leave following an internal political upheaval. The eventually settled in Namutamba, mid-western Buganda.
There followed a few waves of economic migration, due to the growth of Uganda’s colonial economy. It should be noted that it was the district authorities in Western Uganda that first passed laws restricting migration from Rwanda, followed eventually by the colonial government as a whole.
The migrations culminated in the almost exclusively Tutsi influx that followed the 1959 Hutu “revolution” mentioned in part II.
Many prominent Ugandans can be traced to all these developments.
The actor-playwright Deborah Asiimwe, proprietor of the Kampala International Theatre Festival once told me of her grandmother whose speaks very fluent Luganda as a result of having lived in the Buganda royal court in the 1930s, where she had been expected to become a wife to then Kabaka Daudi Cwa, whose reign ended in 1939.
The late Dede Majoro (d. 1995), perhaps the most gifted guitarist this region has ever seen, also lived for a while in Buganda royal court in the reign of Kabaka Edward Muteesa (1939-1966), along with many of his siblings. Kabaka Muteesa provided them sanctuary after their father Silas Majoro (and former schoolmate at Buddo), a senior advisor to the deposed Rwandan King Kigeli (1936-2016), who had been assassinated by Belgian agents in their process of actively supporting the Hutu “revolution”. Dede’s sister, Grace Kaboyo was until recently one of President Museveni’s district commissioners.
Mr Robert Kalumba is a very visible public relations officer at Kampala City Council Authority, whose grandfather was granted a tidy parcel of land in Buganda by the sister of Edward Muteesa.
Another member of the Rwanda royal family who also fled to Uganda and married a Ugandan woman. They were to have a son who went on to marry one of Edward Muteesa’s daughters. He went on to become a very senior immigration officer. I went to school with him.
They were to have a son who went on to marry one of Edward Muteesa’s daughters. I went to school with him.
The deposed King Kigeli himself took refuge in Uganda for a while. As a child, I recall our mother pointing out to us his very tall frame walking along the street, as she drove us passed the apartment block he lived in, near the city centre.
In short, the problem has never been the presence of Rwandans in Uganda as such, since there have always been Rwandans in Uganda even before Uganda became Uganda (and then took parts of what was independent north Rwanda with it). The problem is the political culture that comes with that presence, given the historical record that continues to show that the biggest single persecutors and killers of Rwandans have always been other Rwandans.
In his play A Time of Fire Uganda writer Charles Mulekwa reflects on the common failing of political peoples fleeing war and persecution of actually bringing the causes of the war with them. It is a case of a refugee and migrant community that has “learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”, as was said of the early 1800s French Bourbon dynasty exile who, having taken back power in France, then proceeded to replicate all the political mistakes that had caused them to lose power in the first place.
It is a challenge of political culture of Rwanda. Of the stubbornness of old habits, which, as is said, die hard.
But where did it start?
The imposter game
In the biblical tale of Naboth’s vineyard, an unwitting King finds himself in possession of a vineyard he has coveted for a long time. It belonged to his neighbour Naboth, who had declined to sell it, as it was part of his own inheritance from his father, and according to Jewish custom could not be disposed of in such a way.
Wife Jezebel had her own plan to cheer up the frustrated monarch. She had Naboth framed, murdered, and his property seized. The King learns of this only when confronted by the Judges of his Kingdom. For them the real sacrilege is that beyond the murder, the perpetrator then assumes the place of the victim, in the form of claiming to be the rightful owner of his inheritance. This is the true meaning of the verse: “Have you killed and also taken possession?” (Kings 21:19), now colloquially known as the syndrome of “Naboth’s vineyard”.
In his play A Time of Fire, the Ugandan writer Charles Mulekwa reflects on the common failing of political peoples fleeing war and persecution to actually bring the causes of the war with them. It is a case of a refugee and migrant community that has “learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”…
In the biblical story, the King repents and atones. In the real world of African politics, many a murderous usurper has simply soldiered on regardless, with this disastrous game.
But now, the moment of truth is fast arriving, and we are all about to be found out.
With Uganda, the fraudulent nature of the three-decade-old government is better known and a lot more explicit.
In the case of Rwanda, we must begin with a similar usurpation, by one Kanjogera, dowager in the Royal House of Rwanda in 1896, who conspires with the encroaching Germans to have the then monarch murdered in favour of Musinga her own biological son. This is an event replete with the kinds of abominations that shocked the judges in Naboth’s case.
One Muhumuza, mother of the murdered monarch led the initial resistance to this usurpation.
Despite it having been seen as a movement among very ordinary people, Muhumuza became an adherent of the Nyabinghi movement.
Nyabinghi was the sovereign of the 16th Century kingdom of Karagwe, which name now lives on as a district in northern Tanzania.
She was murdered by her husband Ruhinda, king of the Mpororo just to the north, in his attempt to take over her throne.
Her spirit was to haunt him and his accomplices for years afterwards, and became the foundation of a “cult”, that passed it down the generations through initiating young women into its priesthood. The Nyabinghi belief-system soon spread to neighbouring regions, and was taken up by persons nursing deep grievances against existing authority, making it a target for state repression.
This became a particularly acute problem in pre-colonised Rwanda -which included what is now parts of south-western Uganda- where the various Kings had tried to stamp it out.
She can be said to be the African patron saint of the betrayed.
Naturally enough, the anti-colonial sentiments in Rwanda, sparked by Kanjogera’s allegedly German-backed coup, found a home among the Nyabinghi movement.
Having been inducted into the Nyabinghi priesthood, Muhumuza became the incarnation of the spirit of the long-dead queen. This set the stage for the showdown that sucked in the German, British and later Belgian colonial authorities.
“These fanatical women are a curse to the country.” One colonial official reportedly complained.
This was nothing unusual, except for the times it was dealing with. It is something of a tradition here to literally channel a long-passed on leader’s spirit when faced with an extreme leadership challenge.
During the 1953-1955 British exiling of Kabaka Muteesa, a man called Kiganira declared himself the reincarnation of Kibuuka, Buganda’s Achilles-like war-spirit, and began agitations that led to his arrest and execution.
The spirt of a long-dead Shona monarch Nehanda, also inspired the initial resistance to the British colonizing mission. It has been handed down to possess generations of women in particular family lines. At the time of the colonizing invasions, it was held by Charwe Nyakasikana, whose invocation of it was instrumental in the initial anti-colonial resistance, until she and her companion were captured by the British and hanged in 1898.
The colony of Rwanda comes into existence and is later inherited by Belgium. In that success, these imposed imposter states show that illegitimacy can be made to work. Kogonjera’s usurpation becomes an understanding of politics, and produces a form of white Pan-Africanism:
Muhumuza is captured by the colonisers and exiled to be held captive in colonial Kampala, until her passing in 1944.
The history game
The past matters. And this is why those in the present always seek to control it.
With the rise of later African nationalism, old tales of the initial German conquest, as well as current experiences of the apartheid system were mined to design a toxic mix of hate, and racist anthropology history which become an official mantra of PARMEHUTU, a party led by one Gregoire Kayibanda; a man until recently the private secretary to the Belgian head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda. This Hate History lays the foundation of the Hutu “revolution” of 1959, that created the mass exodus of Tutsi into neighboring countries. Kayibanda becomes president, and Hate History remained taught.
His victory is cut short when his army chief of staff Juvenal Habyarimana, overthrows him and then allegedly has him and his wife starved to death while in detention (thus taking possession and then killing, in his case).
Similar betrayals dogged the rebellion organized from exile against this new set of imposters, and vicious, internecine conflict seemed to have characterized its journey all the way to victory over the Habyarimana regime.
With the rise of later African nationalism, old tales of the initial German conquest, as well as recent experiences of the apartheid system, were mined to design a toxic mix of hate, and racist anthropology-history, which become an official mantra of PARMEHUTU, a party led by one Gregoire Kayibanda, a man until recently the private secretary to the Belgian head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda.
Historically, the monarchy had seemed to be the focal point around which all Rwandans within its ambit organised their various identities. There seemed to have been a push within the rebellion to put the monarchy question back on the table.
The standing accusation, best documented by the writer Timothy Kalyegira, is that those now in power in Kigali, first hijacked the initial rebellion, and the formation of RPF was in itself a usurpation of an earlier initiative organised by Rwandan exiles not embedded in the Uganda state, against the Rwandan Habyarimana regime that the current leadership of the RPF suppressed using their then high positions within the Ugandan NRA security apparatus. This initial initiative may have been known as inkotanyi.
This can be framed as a continuation of Kanjogera’s coup: usurpation upon usurpation, and a legacy of illegitimate political inheritances.
The most prominent example of this of course would be the assassination of (former NRA bush war veteran, and Uganda government deputy minister of Defence) Col. Fred Rwigyema who, as first field commander of the RPF invasion, suffered the ignominy of being shot dead within 24 hours of crossing into his country.
Illegitimate power cannot rule legitimately, and remains permanently insecure, in crisis or near failure.
It is often aware of this, and as a remedy, seeks to clothe itself with the garments of legitimacy. Kanjogera commits regicide, but then seeks refuge in a “neo-traditionalist” gambit of continuing the same monarchy in the form of her son, so as to hide behind the legitimacy of a throne, despite having just desecrated it.
And given the chance, imperial power will always seek to enter a society, and tilt the balance of power away from the most legitimate in favour of the least legitimate, which must then depend on it to one extent or another. This remains the story of Africa’s domination.
Nearly every historic victory of rebel organisations on our continent holds a record of being tempted by Western powers to reach for absolute power, where a peace-making coalition may have worked more in the mass interest instead.
In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi’s minority Tigrayan People’s’ Liberation Front was able to militarily dominate the broader anti-Mengistu resistance, and subsequent regime, through the significant logistical resources delivered to it under the cover of Western famine relief, once the West realized that Mengistu’s days were numbered.
Museveni’s NRA dragged out the Nairobi 1985 Nairobi Peace TalkS for months on end while using material support channeled by the West through the notorious LONRHO corporation to increase the size of the army nearly ten-fold, before storming the capital.
All Africans are advised: look again at your resident liberators; how exactly did they come to power?
This is essentially a crisis of legitimacy. For both sides. Illegitimate power cannot rule legitimately, and remains permanently insecure, in crisis and in need of self-validation.
It is often aware of this, and as a remedy, seeks to clothe itself with the garments of legitimacy. Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army brought an exceptional level of illegitimacy to our politics in the way it seized power in 1986, through series of opportunistic exploitation of every old and current political grievance it could harness, and has held on to it. As mentioned in part II, it came carrying the seeds of the Rwanda Patriotic Front in its womb.
The 1993 wholesale invasion of Rwanda by the RPF was therefore –amongst other things- the exportation of that habit of illegitimacy to another country. As said, this was to be the fate of the DRC, even later.
The strategic resources game
This long and twisted story continues. It will create new approaches to known facts, and then bring unknown facts into creation.
I insist that this remains a struggle to be the principal conduit -broker, even- through which to channel the latest generation of strategic minerals, to Western corporations.
This is not just an African story. In the history of the conflicts of the modern world, certain zones stand out as having suffered from the accident of being located where strategic resources were to be found. Before the DRC, there was Western Europe and the Middle East.
Underneath the usual romanticisation of European conflict lies the story of coal and iron. Until perhaps the 1960s, the Alsace-Lorraine region, which lies where the lands of France and Germany meet, held the largest known deposits of iron ore in the world. Together with the abundant supplies of the coal in the neighbouring regions, this created the opportunity for the bulk production of perhaps the most significant material to the emergent industrial revolution: steel.
Three significant wars linked to this region have been fought in Western Europe: the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 which ended with a German occupation; the 1914-1918 British-German war in France; and the 1939-1945 British-French-American-Russian war against Germany and Japan that left much of the continent and beyond devastated.
This is not just an African story. In the history of the conflicts of the modern world, certain zones stand out as having suffered from the accident of being located where strategic resources were to be found. Before the DRC, there was Western Europe and the Middle East.
This recurrent conflict was only suspended for the last eighty years with the creation of a trade mechanism that enabled countries from all parts of the continent to access those and later other resources for their domestic industries, without having to also physically control the territory.
This mechanism was named the European Coal and Steel Commission, which became the European Economic Commission, which became the European Commission, and which is now known today as the European Union. Its core function is to prevent the buildup of the economic pressures that lead to war.
From the 1890s, the military forces of Western Europe and increasingly, the United States and underwent an extensive debate regarding the relative advantages of continuing to rely on steam-powered engines fueled by the burning of coal, over the emergent liquid fuels. By 1912, the liquid fuels camp had won the debate: oil was easier to excavate, transport, store and deliver. It was scalable, yielded more energy per unit, and did not require the maintenance of a global network of “coaling stations” dependent of a small fleet of labour-intensive “coaling ships” supplying their navies.
It did however, require the establishment of a guaranteed supply. This is how the entire middle east, with its vast, accessible oilfields, increasingly became the focus of rival empires seeking to gain a foothold on this strategic reserve.
The British navy, for example, decided to strategically switch from coal in the period just before the 1914-1918 war.
The subsequent dismantling of the Turkish Ottoman empire, leading to the carve up of its Arab dominions into the unstable oil-producing region known today, is one visible result.
Then came the dawn of nuclear energy, particularly its use in warfare, heralded by the 1945 American destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomic weapons were being developed by all sides during that war. They came as the logical outcome of the war’s increasing dependence on widespread destruction of cities and the civilian hinterland as a way of hampering the physical capacity of the enemy to maintain war. An atomic bomb offered the opportunity to impose strategic paralysis on an enemy through wiping out an entire city with one devastating operation.
A person no less than Albert Einstein, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, as well as pioneer of nuclear science was among the voices that advised the then US President to ensure it got and stayed ahead in the coming nuclear arms race, by developing the first bomb before Germany, or anyone else did. For this, they advised, the US was going to need a reliable supply of good quality Uranium.
“The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities” they warned in a 1939 letter: “There is some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo.”
This is where the fate of what we now know as the DRC was sealed. In retrospect, it was clear that Patrice Lumumba barely stood a chance. As early as 1947, the newly formed US Central Intelligence Agency had already dispatched agents to establish the viability of Uranium supply from Congo, and how to work with Belgian mining corporations there, to secure it. A truly independent Congo was seen as a threat to that objective, with US president Eisenhower even developing something of a personal obsession with Lumumba,
“The Shinkolobwe stockpile was about 200 times purer than average uranium sources at the time.” Notes Kenyan journalist Parselelo Kantai, who has researched this subject extensively.
What followed is not just known history, but a continuing story.
Western capitalism still holds a vision for the future: a fully automated world, in which goods and services are made, sorted and delivered by unmanned machinery, and paid for electronically.
This means an administrative layer of control and co-ordination. The vision therefore, is for a fully wired world, centralized around digital, online control, tracking everything from production levels, to individual consumer preferences.
This is the essence of the 5G “fourth industrial revolution”: digital technology stepping up to a level of broad-span interconnectivity primed to a speed and versatility previously unseen.
We are encouraged to think of a “cloud”, but this whole information infrastructure is not ephemeral. It requires physical warehousing and relies therefore on earth-bound space and technologies: wires, server farms hosting acres of capacity, routing stations, transmitters, communication devices and the like.
Three materials among many, are absolutely critical to all of this: copper, coltan and fiberglass. Of the three, Coltan is the most highly valuable. It makes the heat-resistant circuity in all devices. Its global trade expected only to expand exponentially as the 5G revolution takes root.
And once again, the unfortunate Democratic Republic of Congo finds itself as the primary future source for all this bounty. DRC may hold the single largest known reserves (estimated by some to be up 60% of the global supply) of the mineral.
My point is simple: once a strategic resource of the future has been identified, then the region that has them is in for decades, if not centuries of war and destabilization. Control the DRC (or at least part of it), and you control the oils and uraniums of the future. Welcome back to the new Alsace-Lorraine or middle east. Or the old Congo.
As I said in part II of this series, no place deserves a break from this relentless plunder as does the DRC.
Key government figures in Uganda and Rwanda have long been accused of orchestrating this plunder. First directly, during their respective armies’ invasions and occupation there, and then late indirectly, through the proxy militias they propped up and left behind.
Three materials, among many, are absolutely critical to all of this: copper, coltan and fibreglass. Of the three, coltan is the most valuable; it is used to make heat-resistant circuits in all digital devices. Its global trade is expected to expand exponentially as the 5G revolution takes root.
Despite furious denials, these accusations have been given substance by both the United Nations, as well as a whole host of campaigning organisations. And the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of Congolese, including children, are now living and dying as exploited artisanal miners of the ore of these and other precious minerals.
But once dug up and loaded, this valuable cargo has to go somewhere. Who talks to whom? Who gets to be the middleman? Whose borders will have to be crossed -or closed- to settle those questions?
The answer lies in the answers to those questions.
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The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.
The information disorder (i.e., mis- and disinformation) pervasive on social media has arguably interfered with democratic processes across the world. As public authorities and political actors continue to embrace social media as a broadcast and civic engagement tool, the potency of manipulated narratives online is further entrenched. This is debatably truer in electoral contexts where issues are perhaps more emotive and divisive. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s general elections, a notable amount of mis- and disinformation on social media was observable. As Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal noted, doctored images of crowds during political rallies, mild deepfake videos, doctored photos, and fake accounts passing off as political actors or mainstream media were just some of the categories of mis- and disinformation observable on social media. These observations tie in with earlier research by Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, highlighting the practice of using bloggers for disinformation campaigns. During the actual elections, the EU Election Observer Mission also observed “manufactured amplification and coordination of messages online by fake accounts and malicious, bot-driven activity in support of the presidential candidates”.
The impact of the information disorder on democracies has been extensively discussed and will not be the subject of this article. Instead, this article focuses on the diverse responses which have been mooted and implemented in Kenya by policy makers, media, civil society, and social media platforms in response to the information disorder. In particular, this article argues that these responses are largely ineffective when used in isolation and suggests that collectives comprised of a broad range of multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively are likely to have a higher chance at success. One such collective, Fumbua, was established in the run-up to the 2022 general elections in Kenya, and this article argues that the frameworks for collaboration it established can be repurposed to address the information disorder in numerous contexts.
Contextualizing the information disorder on social media
The proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media is made easier by the fact that such platforms, by nature, enable peer-to-peer engagement with little to no gatekeeping. While this characteristic has also meant that these platforms have served to create room for civic engagement and act as an equalizer, such civic engagement is often undermined by the harmful content that is prevalent. In recognition of the potential for harm their platforms pose to democratic processes, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies and tools specifically designed to address election-related mis-and disinformation. Comparatively, the content moderation tools applied in the Global South have arguably been scant. For example, in Brazil, the individuals tasked with enforcing Twitter’s policies during the presidential election only got access to the necessary internal tools a day prior to the election, and only in a limited capacity. Twitter allegedly utilized automatic enforcement technology and third-party service providers. According to numerous commentators, it is not uncommon for content moderation efforts in the Global South to be below par. From automatic enforcement tools trained on datasets lacking in local context, to human content moderators facing the same challenge, these platforms’ efforts to curb the information disorder are handicapped from the outset. These challenges are exacerbated in electoral contexts. Recent developments have shown that it sometimes takes third parties such as researchers or civil society pointing out harmful content for platforms to act.
It is generally agreed that mis-and disinformation was prevalent on social media during Kenya’s August 2022 general election. For example, the EU Election Observer Mission indicated in its report that it had identified hundreds of misleading Facebook and Twitter profiles. Platforms triggered their civic integrity policies a few weeks prior to the election and set up information centres and moderately labelled misleading content. However, these labels were not consistently applied and were in fact only deployed during the election tallying process. Stakeholders seemingly lacked a clear solution to address the information disorder on social media. The lack of sustainable and scalable solutions is not unique to Kenya and the region. It is certainly a global problem and a key step in the right direction is securing more transparency from platforms in relation to their enforcement processes as this will enable stakeholders to co-create solutions. However, in the interim, the information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed. One way to accomplish this is through multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua.
Addressing the information disorder
Fumbua is a collective of media and media-related organisations which came together in the run-up of the 2022 general election with a view to addressing the information disorder as it relates to political campaigning. The efforts to address the information disorder in Kenya’s 2022 general election can largely be categorized into actions taken in anticipation of the mis- and disinformation (pre-emptive measures) and actions taken in response to the information disorder (reactive measures). Fumbua brought together organisations involved in both areas, such as fact checkers, “pre-bunkers” and traditional media. Both these reactive and pre-emptive measures are discussed below.
The information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed.
Mis- and disinformation has reportedly featured in Kenyan elections since 2013. Consequently, with each passing cycle, stakeholders have been able to understand its nature and develop solutions which are alive to Kenya’s specific context. Unfortunately, due to the rapidly evolving nature of mis- and disinformation practices, the solutions developed have often been reactive in that they seek to get rid of such harmful content or undo its effects after the fact. For example, by criminalizing false content through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, by fact checking such content, by using labels to warn audiences of the nature of the content, and by obtaining the takedown of such content from social media sites.
Fact checking has perhaps been the most prevalent or visible response to the information disorder. It essentially entails systematically breaking down the validity of claims made by public officials, institutions, and political actors with a view to identifying whether the claim is factual or not. In Kenya’s elections, various fact-checkers were active. These included independent media, the fact-checking desks of mainstream media, and collectives or associations. To name a few, Africa Check, Africa Uncensored, Pesa Check, Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Editors Guild and The Star were involved in fact-checking claims made during the Kenyan elections. While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder, especially when empirical evidence on the subject is divided. In highly politicized environments, it is unlikely that being exposed to verification of claims will affect an audience’s world view. This is more so the case where the objectivity and impartiality of the fact-checkers are in question. Fact-checkers often must compete with an audience’s confirmation bias and their credibility is often questioned due to the conflict their narrative poses to the world view of some audiences. This is not made easier by the fact that fact-checking is a difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive process which cannot compete with the speed at which false information is spread through social media. Add in the fact that false information more easily captures attention due to its ability to trigger negative emotions and one can understand why the utility and efficacy of fact-checking is limited. Fact-checking claims made through social media have also been especially difficult in Kenya due to the minimal and often performative support given to fact-checkers by social media platforms.
For fact-checking to be effective, it must offer an alternative narrative to that which it is disputing. The challenge is that such a narrative must exist in the first place and must be capable of being accepted by an audience. Where such a narrative exists, there is a risk that it may come with “political baggage” and as such be difficult to accept. In such cases, the efficacy of fact-checking is limited, and this is essentially the challenge faced by fact-checkers – purveyors of false information are not bound by the same rules. Despite all this, fact-checking has been found to positively affect audience beliefs notwithstanding pre-existing beliefs and whether an alternative narrative was presented. However, these credentials are limited as the effects on belief are weak and gradually becoming negligible. Additionally, they do not always translate to downstream effects (i.e., changing of votes).
For a long time, stakeholders seeking to curb the information disorder have found themselves on the back-foot, always responding after the fact. By the time interventions such as fact-checks, social media takedowns, and flags are deployed, harmful content has likely taken root. With this in mind, some pre-emptive solutions have been contemplated and used by stakeholders. These are discussed below.
While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder.
As discussed earlier in this article, fact-checkers often face the challenge of having to overcome an audience’s inherent biases and the political baggage accompanying the alternative narratives they seek to put forth. In seeking to overcome this reactionary approach, Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden argue that it may be more effective to inoculate audiences against harmful content by priming their minds to anticipate it. This has come to be referred to as prebunking, and it essentially entails exposing audiences to watered down versions of false or misleading content with a view to highlighting the tactics used by purveyors of such content. Prebunking efforts recognize that the information disorder may not necessarily be solved by disseminating more accurate information given that harmful content is often consumed in highly politicized contexts. Instead, these efforts seek to redesign information architecture through behavioural interventions (i.e., changing how audiences consume information). In Kenya, Stop Reflect Verify was the first publicly documented election-related prebunking program. It offered a misinformation quiz focused on the Kenyan elections.
While prebunking seemingly promises to reduce the reactionary nature of stakeholder efforts, there is insufficient proof that skills learned in prebunking programmes are applied in practical situations. Counterfactual thinking may be a useful strategy to incorporate into prebunking efforts. Counterfactual thinking involves stimulating an audience’s mind to consider alternative facts and hypotheses when presented with information in a bid to logically deduce the likely truth. The lack of consensus on the utility and efficacy of prebunking as an alternative to fact-checking points to the need for the deployment of multiple interventions in a coordinated fashion, and this is where multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua come in.
Building in sustainability
Periodically, civil society, media practitioners, and the donor community focus their efforts on election-related programmes in a collaborative manner (for example the media’s collaboration during presidential debates). In most cases, the collaboration does not survive the post-election period. As a result, these election stakeholders have to start anew during each election. A considerable amount of time and resources are dedicated to establishing the frameworks for collaboration, taking away from the potential impact these programmes may have. With collectives such as Fumbua, stakeholders are able to repurpose the goodwill that fostered collaboration during elections to continue to address the information disorder in other contexts. By sustaining the collaboration, stakeholders would be able to leverage on incremental gains and make a more impactful change. In relation to the information disorder, they would be better able to move towards how media is generated and consumed. The effect of this would be a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.
The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
Crisis is the new constant and advocacy efforts should seek ways of growing public awareness through civic education.
Are East African countries ready to face the next crisis or are they simply keen to go back to how things were? What does a new normal mean when speaking about public finance management (PFM)?
In continuing the struggle for structural transformation, economic justice efforts must work towards developing a new citizen and preparing for unpredictable or unforeseen events, more so those with extreme socio-economic and political consequences.
This is because, besides known challenges posed by existing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out how “unusual circumstances such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks and warfare … depress the ability of citizens to engage in economic activity and pay taxes as well as that of governments [capacity] to collect revenue [or] provide services”.
Such circumstances therefore demand more inclusion of human rights-based approaches in economic justice efforts to champion greater fairness within existing financial architecture.
Disasters should, therefore, not obliterate human rights but should heighten the need to respect, protection, and fulfilment of obligations through prioritizing expenditure on service delivery, as well as all elements of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) to “boost the capacity of residents to withstand shocks” by improving coping mechanisms.
Promotion of fair taxes among other broader economic justice initiatives within PFM should consequently adapt towards championing ESCRS within the context of more disruptive and unexpected incidents. Crisis is constant in the new normal.
Fiscal democracy and civil protection: Recovery, resilience, and transformation
Currently, conversations on recovery are focused on tackling reduced tax collection; slowed growth; depressed formal or informal productivity; exploding unemployment; diminished remittances; persistent poverty; decline in energy access; and escalating food insecurity.
This emphasis seeks to reverse the effects of various lockdown policies that placed restrictions on businesses, mobility, movement within and across international borders, [plus] public gatherings. However, it speaks mostly of a desire to return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity while vital systems in tackling the next crisis such as water, education, or health remain unaddressed.
Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda. This will then speak to the resilience, and transformation needed to ensure PFM works for Africans in good times or bad.
Understanding fiscal democracy takes the form of better prioritization, response to problems, and improved sanctions for mistakes in the revenue cycle.
Advocacy for increased domestic opportunities, promotion of childhood development, enhanced socio-economic mobility, support for workers, motivation of local entrepreneurship, diversification of public infrastructure from mega projects, as well as increased innovation through subsidized research and development should be at the heart of economic justice efforts.
Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda.
Civil protection gives a new framework of planning by envisioning contexts or processes in which a series of unfortunate events can emerge, thus providing adequate responses without breaking the social contract.
Transformation therefore occurs when both go hand in hand so that public facilities are not overstretched in the event of crisis. Hence, in looking at the impact of Covid-19, across the East Africa region, we must ask ourselves: How transformative are the current recovery efforts underway? Will they offer a new resilience?
The salvage job: Economic sustainability through reliefs, guarantees, subsidies, and funds
Responses have clearly been driven by the urgency to overcome the pandemic and the need to forestall outright disaster or collapse. The “short-term rescue mode” has seen efforts to ensure vaccine access and bolstering of public health systems.
On the economic front governments “Have sought debt relief, implemented corporate tax deferrals plus exemptions, made direct citizen transfers and interest rate adjustments. [They have also] implemented guarantees and subsidies, liquidity support and food relief … [with] examples of support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Cash transfers and other safety nets for poor and vulnerable populations are critical for an integrated … response. While not transformational, they are building blocks for a basic level of resilience to external shocks.”
The fact that these efforts are not transformational must motivate the infusion of a justice quotient in recovery efforts. This will enable a movement beyond an emergency-oriented recovery that recognizes existing modern challenges such as climate change, population growth, scarce resources, man-made or natural calamities.
In the case of tax justice, to make the linkages that will establish economic sustainability in East Africa, it is important to understand the effect of recovery efforts in relation to public debt; the tax burden on individuals or households; illicit financial flows; harmful tax practices; economic growth; and resource distribution.
Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities. Concerns were looming over the fact that 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries were in or at high risk of debt distress. Between 2010 and 2018, public debt in East Africa grew rapidly as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio
In this time, East African Community (EAC) governments failed to mobilize sufficient revenue despite an overall increase in taxes. The situation was therefore exacerbated by COVID-19, the consequence being that these countries are now stuck in a situation where they must tax more to bridge revenue gaps.
Basically this, first and foremost, creates a context of unfair tax policies in the region that burden their respective citizens, does not enhance service delivery, and is exclusionary in how debt repayment strategies are developed.
Lack of open debate about a country’s fiscal priorities within the existing PFM system neglects the needs of youth who constitute the majority of the population among other segments of society, curtails ideas on how to increase resources needed to provide for new economic opportunity(ies) and respond to the next emergency.
Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities.
Secondly, an environment or ecosystem of illicit financial flows (IFFs) that constitutes the formation of International Financial Centres (IFCs) in Kigali and Nairobi plus the signing of numerous Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) continues to perpetuate itself thereby providing loopholes within the tax architecture that undermine efforts at domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) because the monies going out of countries are so massive, outweighing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).
This is thanks to “Constitutionalism [among other legal questions] plus demands to implement new public finance management principles, growth in trade and services across countries in the region or with other countries across the globe, and discovery of natural resources requiring more inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI).”
On average IFFs accounts form 6.1 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thereby impeding economic development and sustainability. For instance, since 2011, Kenya is estimated to lose KSh40 billion annually “as government, local firms and multinationals engage in fraudulent schemes to avoid tax payments”. As of 2021, The State of Tax Justice Report indicates this has grown to an estimated KSh69 billion annually at current exchange rates.
Third, growing account deficits and rising external debt are heavily limiting to economic growth. Increased spending on debt repayment is restricting prioritization on essential public goods and services while borrowing remains one of the key sources of budget financing.
In as much as Kenya cancelled its recent pursuit of another Eurobond, the about-turn towards borrowing domestically following a surge in yields within international markets because of the Russia-Ukraine war is still going to punish the country’s citizens by squeezing them out of access to credit.
Lastly, the debt burden is disempowering the citizen. Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable. This is further worsened by limited access to information on debt or public spending. Moreover, there is weak oversight by parliaments as executives take full control of processes.
Policy-making processes during cascading crises: Fiscal Consolidation, Special Drawing Rights, and Open Government
By understanding that crisis is constant, and that it is likely to manifest as confluence events — merging risks of mitigatable disaster(s) — or major confluence events, that is, the combination of potentially unmitigated risk(s) at any one point in time, how does policy making at such a time help to prepare for the emergency next time?
For example, what does Kenya’s fiscal consolidation programme — which comprises of reforms to improve oversight, monitoring, and governance of state-owned enterprises; improved transparency of fiscal reporting; and comprehensive information of public tenders awarded including beneficial ownership information of awarded entities — have to do with preparing for the next series of cascading crises?
Several emergency relief funds have been established to address the impact of COVID-19, such as the Rapid Credit Facility, the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).
However, these efforts are not likely to unlock the existing “trilemma” of solving the health plus economic crisis and meeting development targets while dealing with a tightening fiscal space. This is because they are stuck in the present circumstances with no consciousness of how much the challenge is likely to prevail into the future.
East African Community governments, in this time, failed to mobilize sufficient revenue, despite an overall increase in taxes.
Adopting fiscal democracy not only provides a new agenda determining organizing principles, but it has the potential for establishing a new citizenship through further entrenchment of human rights-based approaches in economic justice, and commitment to open government principles.
It will also anticipate and prevent the disaster capitalism witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries seem to be in a constant state of crisis, thus allowing for IFFs through PFM malfeasance that locks corruption and fraud into procurement through bid rigging or collusion.
Principals of public participation, demands for accountability, championing non-discrimination, advocacy for empowering programing, and legitimacy through the rule of law should set standards on beneficial ownership while open contracting, open data for development, legislative openness, improving service delivery, access to information, and access to justice will help build resilience in government.
A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations
Somewhere along the way, capacity building and training programming took prominence over civic education. Advocacy efforts should look for ways to bring back more popular public awareness. Denial of resources for these kinds of activities has been a major blow for PFM advocacy among other activist efforts.
Civic education will re-establish links between individual claims to service delivery and assigned duties in the fulfilment of public demands. Citizens will be able to identify how the problem manifests and engage on the immediate, underlying or root causes of an issue.
Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable.
It will also allow them to establish the patterns of relationships which may result in the non-fulfilment of rights or absconding of obligations. This will enable them to assign appropriate responsibility by identifying the relevant authorities. It will keep an eye on resources through participating in decision making.
Governments and political leadership should therefore work to improve their communication capabilities in engaging the public so that once this new citizenry is involved, they can work together to achieve representative priorities for action.
This article is based on a presentation and comments made at the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Debt Conference, Towards strengthening accountability and transparency around public debt management and the use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in Eastern and Southern Africa, 20–21 June 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.
‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.
Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.
Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.
The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.
Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.
On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.
Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.
Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.
This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.
Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.
It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.
At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.
A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.
More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.
Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.
Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.
Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?
The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.
Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.
“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.
A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.
At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.
None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.
The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.
My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.
Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.
In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.
Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.
A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.
As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?
None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.
To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?
Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.
For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.
Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).
What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.
Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.
Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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