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Boko Haram: The Psychology of a Murderous Sect

15 min read.

SANYA OSHA delves into the mindset of a sect that has embarked on a path of death and destruction in north-eastern Nigeria in the name of Islam.

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Boko Haram: The Psychology of a Murderous Sect
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Perhaps the most singular act of terror that thrust Boko Haram into the global spotlight was the 2014 mass abduction of 276 girls from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. A global outcry ensued that Boko Haram, for the most part, ignored. Although some of the girls managed to escape (57 of the girls managed to flee in 2016) to freedom, all of them were most probably molested in various ways. including sexually. This brazen act gave rise to an international outcry under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

However, this unfortunate incident is not the first act of Boko Haram’s distressing trail of terror randomly targeting and slaughtering students. On July 6, 2013, 42 students at the Government Secondary School in Mamudo were killed. In the same year, on September 29, about 50 students were murdered during an attack on the College of Agriculture, Gubja. The Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, assumed the presidency based on widespread expectations that he would be able to curb the spiralling activities of Boko Haram.

The Boko Haram Reader: From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State (2018), edited by Abdulbasit Kassim and Michael Nwankpa, is a broad compendium of texts culled from video recordings, lectures, numerous rants and different interpretations of the Islamic faith based on the Holy Qu’ran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. These various texts provide a panorama through which to read the psychology of Boko Haram, the terrorist sect operating mainly in Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, and which has been pulverising the north-eastern parts of Nigeria for a decade.

The supposed mind of Boko Haram is terrifying to say the least because it contains its own self-exculpatory and complete justification regarding what it recognises as its manifest destiny, which upholds the mass slaughter of perceived infidels – in short, the waging of total war against all of those it considers to be enemies of Islam. In this self-contained and self-absorbed fundamentalist cocoon, the idea of toleration, compromise and alterity is deemed to be anathema and idolatrous, and therefore worthy of the wrath and vengeance of a jihad.

If Boko Haram views its enemies with utter disgust and contempt, it then becomes possible to follow a rigid mindset down an unforgiving path of death and destruction to all infidels. Jihad, all through and through, is deemed a supreme necessity.

Faith by dogma

Most of the teachings of Muhammed Yusuf, who was killed by Nigerian law enforcement authorities in 2009, and the current Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, are what form the key tenets of the sect. Boko Haram denounces the Nigerian state and its constitution, together with all its organs and agencies of governance. It also disapproves of Christianity, Judaism, Western education, and secularism, that is, anything that does not fall within an insufferably narrow radius of its definition of Islam. And through exhortations and inexorable doses of indoctrination, the sheer blindness of dogma becomes clearly evident.

There is also a powerful anti-Semitic streak in the numerous public pronouncements of the leaders of Boko Haram. Sometimes this antipathy is conflated with an equally virulent dislike for Europeans, who are dismissed in the following terms by Yusuf:

“It does not escape any Muslim, upon whom Allah has bestowed understanding, the severity of the Jews’ and Christians’ enmity towards the Muslims. They will never stop their onslaught on Islam and Muslims day and night. They have taken different measures and attempted to find every means to wreak havoc on the Muslims. They want to remove the Muslims from their religion of truth towards the abyss of misguidance. They fought Muslims with weapons for many years during the time of colonial rule. Then they came to teach the lessons of scepticism, in the minds of Muslims, scepticism about their religion, their Qu’ran and their Prophet Muhammed.” (p.17)

The quotation above reveals a chronic persecution complex to which the sect always resorts in justifying its mayhem and carnage and which it employs in describing what it perceives to be its unacceptable plight within the shores of Nigeria:

“Now, they have also killed children, burnt and roasted them. In the face of all these killings, they still claim that we do not have power to do anything. It is a condition. Is it until they finish their killings? There is nothing that will prevent these killings except jihad in Allah’s path, but they said they will not allow us. They made all efforts to perceive us by taking reports about us to the SSS [State Security Service]. They will inform the SSS to be careful about us.” (p.115)

Nothing best defines the modus operandi of Boko Haram than the constant infliction of faith by dogma. Once the power of dogma takes hold, it becomes impossible to view the world through an alternative lens, or at least, without the risk of death. At times, Boko Haram tries to portray itself as a victim tearing asunder swathes of north-eastern Nigeria and other countries in the region and it is apparent that its intention has never been to live in peace with its neighbours and those who subscribe to different belief systems. Its beliefs are couched in a sordid, monochrome hue that forbids the admission of alterity, non-conformity or dissent. It is as such against all that we have to come to historically define as civilisation and what we understand it to mean today.

Also troubling is the fact that Boko Haram refuses to acknowledge the possibilities inherent in inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and instead is confined to a tunnel vision that perennially absolves it of responsibility and culpability for wrongdoing and violence committed in its name. If groups and communities outside its fold bear the brunt of its random violence, they in turn are responsible for it. In other words, apart from the impossibility of entering into a dialogue with it, it further turns logic upon its head by the unprecedented scale of its capacity for violence.

Most of the teachings of Muhammed Yusuf, who was killed by Nigerian law enforcement authorities in 2009, and the current Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, are what form the key tenets of the sect. Boko Haram denounces the Nigerian state and its constitution, together with all its organs and agencies of governance.

As mentioned earlier, another unlikely twist in this violent logic is Boko Haram’s constant ability to cast itself as victim – a victim of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and a victim of the mindless violence of the Nigerian army which kills, maims and rapes Boko Haram’s adherents. Boko Haram approaches the same Nigerian authorities it labels anti-Islam in a voice that appears conversant with the rules of reason as it recounts its woes, hoping to perhaps soften the infidel heart of the Nigerian state. So where it is possible that deceptive and cheap populism might work, then it is best to employ it. Here, it also becomes apparent that power is the ultimate goal of Boko Haram, a kind of power that defined the ethos established by the Taliban of Afghanistan.

Boko Haram adopts uncertain strategies of accommodation and half-hearted dialogue when it is obvious that it is losing momentum and it is somewhat vulnerable. But this ploy is exactly what it is, a ploy to deflect attention from its vulnerability in order to regain larger grounds and further entrench itself. But in between periods of ascendancy, redundancy and vulnerability, it never fails to shift its rhetoric from tones of accommodation to unbridled absolutism accordingly.

Muhammed Yusuf, who founded Boko Haram in 2002, is variously described as somewhat erudite, eloquent and analytical. Arguably, his extrajudicial murder by Nigerian law enforcement operatives was badly planned and misguided because it drove the Islamist movement underground where it was able to re-group, re-arm and radicalise itself and then embark on its own murderous rampage against the Nigerian state. The psychotic disposition of Abubakar Shekau, who came to prominence after Yusuf’s death, propelled Boko Haram into depths of maniacal depravity that entailed casualised beheadings, public humiliations and floggings of supposed wrongdoers, public executions, amputations, mass rape, kidnapping and human trafficking, slavery and the generalised infliction of pain and trauma on an unprecedented scale.

Under such unimaginably agonising conditions, it is often difficult to see the movement attracting a sizeable following as it roams about the wilds of multiple national jurisdictions on its killing sprees, fuelled, for the most part, by what appears to be maniacal glee aimed against non-believers. The traumatised lives and shattered dreams it leaves in its wake cannot be described by mere words. Even amid the involuntary acceptance that comes with deeply lodged trauma, those forlorn faces brazenly etched by Boko Haram’s wrath seem to ask how Allah could allow this to happen. What is the meaning of this hellish madness? When will this abominable nightmare end?

In leaving behind such a disconcerting trail of mayhem and trauma, Boko Haram has demonstrated that it isn’t a sect that builds or transforms society. It promises to establish a holy society of the faithful at the expense of the mass extermination of infidels; it also promises entry into paradise for its adherents who die in the pursuit of jihad. But eventually, people would have to figure out this spectre of gloom and despair. They would be led to ask: How many lives must be extinguished in order to create a society of supposed purity? Rather than attain allegorical purity, desolate landscapes are left littered with discarded limps, fragments of skull and flesh and abject, mangled bodies. This must be Shekau’s most piercing legacy.

Fanaticism and paranoia  

Wole Soyinka, in his book, The Climate of Fear, correctly notes that a major shift in Nigeria’s surge towards Islamic fundamentalism occurred after the May 2003 general elections when the northern state of Zamfara, shortly followed by nine other states, adopted the Sharia legal code, in effect, questioning the secular character of the Nigerian federation. Boko Haram can be regarded as being part of, as Soyinka writes, “the principal agents of the season of rhetorical hysteria that now seek to bind and blind the world within our climate of fear?” (p.67)

The not altogether unsurprising after-effect of mass scale terrorism is that it instigates excessive paranoia, which in turn leads to equally violent reprisals in the so-called free world as we have observed in the United States, which describes “othered” political and ideological adversaries as “The Evil Empire” or “The Axis of Evil”.

Soyinka argues that “fanaticism remains the greatest carrier of the spores of fear, and the rhetoric of religion, with the hysteria it so readily generates, is fast becoming the readiest killing device of contemporary times.” (p.76)

In addition, intolerable social and economic conditions can degenerate into a much deeper social malaise whereby the possibilities for toleration, dialogue and compromise become notoriously undermined and are replaced by escalating paranoia, unbridled violence, despair and despondency on all sides.

In such contexts, the fabric of civilised existence becomes frayed as brutal Hobbesian realities, or what Soyinka terms “the psychopathology of the zealot” (p.103), take hold. Of course, Soyinka reminds us that this inimical psychopathology bears no relation to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead the implacable credo of the fanatic ultimately leads to the chilling equation: “I am right, you are wrong, and therefore you are dead.”

If W.E.B. Dubois had argued that the question of race would be the central issue of the 20th century, Soyinka, on his part, argues that religion is the main socio-political conundrum of the 21st century. He concludes by stating that “the zealot is one that creates a Supreme Being, or Supreme Purpose, in his or her own image, then carries out the orders of that solipsistic device that commands from within, in lofty alienation from, and utter contempt of, society and community.” (p.118)

The leaders of Boko Haram do nothing to disguise the sect’s fanaticism. They denounce names of month, such as January and July, as the cognomens of idols. Furthermore, Western education must be rebuked as unbelief; the same goes for the national constitution. Polytheism is regarded as a sin that goes contrary to nature and the entire world itself. Nothing explains the dominance of polytheism in world affairs than the American defeat and occupation of Iraq. This development has meant that the United States seeks to dictate what happens in Iraq regarding matters of land, and foreign and domestic affairs, including having a hand in the appointment of those who run these various spheres. Unbelievers can thus not be allowed to manage the national affairs of those who remain faithful.

The intellectual arbiters of radical and extremist Islamic thought posit that there are three main categories of knowledge: knowledge that corroborates the strictures of the Qu’ran; knowledge that contradicts the teachings of the Qu’ran; and finally knowledge that neither confirms nor contradicts the dictates of the Qu’ran. This view lends the realm of knowledge a totalitarian cast; meaning everything is already known, discovered, and therefore nothing in relation to knowledge is exploratory or open-ended.

If W.E.B. Dubois had argued that the question of race would be the central issue of the 20th century, Soyinka, on his part, argues that religion is the main socio-political conundrum of the 21st century.

Inquiry and experimentation, which are fundamental aspects of the knowledge-making enterprise, then become unnecessary. Everything is known hence nothing is left to be discovered in the present physical world, not to mention the ever-contested domain of metaphysics. Indeed a universe so irreversibly compartmentalised, so absolute in its conceptual finality is akin to a nameless and infinite continuum of death; a form of death that needs to be constantly actualised through motions and mechanisms of ceaseless terror.

Freezing up of history

Boko Haram is undoubtedly against democracy and freedom of expression; many violent incidents and massacres have occurred on account of perceived insults to the Prophet Mohammed. Also, any form of collaboration with the Nigerian state is regarded as an act of infidelity to the “true” principles of Islam and must therefore not be condoned. Yusuf, the founder of sect, who even in death continues to serve as its guiding light, reasons thus:

“Why is it that whenever these events happen, they would say: “Sorry, you should exercise patience, wait for what the government will do or let us plead to the government to take measures.” Always that is what they say. Then Allah made me to understand that it is not like that. What will stop them from insulting the Prophet or killing the Muslims is jihad. But how are we going to carry out the jihad? With whom are we going to carry out the jihad? Allah made me to understand that first and foremost, we must embark upon the preaching towards Islamic reform. Then, we will have to be patient until we acquire power. This is the foundation of the preaching towards Islamic reform. It is founded for the sake of jihad and we did not hide this objective from anyone.” (p.94)

Boko Haram’s most distinctive hallmark is its complete discomfort with the modern world and the entire project of modernity itself. As Yusuf hinted in the excerpt above, it is against the nation, the idea of constitutionalism, an entire spectrum of modern institutions, the notion of democracy, polytheism, atheism, the modern conception of law and order, technological progress and even gender equality. Within this broad dragnet, the idea of human rights gets questioned, undermined and ultimately abandoned because in respect to the Sunni (practice), any form of deviation from the faith warrants utter repudiation, and in the final analysis, death.

The public speeches of its key leaders are usually apocalyptic, often bearing secretive and intense messages meant only for the faithful. Boko Haram’s credo contains a total repudiation of the idea of historical progress or movement; in other words, everything lies frozen in time, untouched by technological innovation or, as mentioned earlier, the accoutrements of modernity and so on. This is the kind of blind faith that consummates itself through the fatal consumption of the non-believer.

Conceptually, Boko Haram promotes a freezing up of history and social movement. Therefore, the idea of progress, which is integral to human evolution, science and technology, is completely anathema. Once this is well understood, the necessity to kill, maim and plunder on a mass scale and at a global level becomes perhaps slightly less difficult to digest even though it doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Boko Haram’s violent onslaughts against the Nigerian state, and by extension, nation, stems from the fact that it views the Nigerian constitution as being an infringement on the law of Allah. Allah is the sole provider and arbiter of the law and any other laws that do not bear His seal of approval are considered instances of apostasy inviting the retribution of a jihad, which in this case, is a multi-faceted form of cleansing (religious, social, cultural, political and psychological) until the law and the reign of Allah are imposed.

This conception of Islam is, to put it rather harshly, totalitarian since it offers strict injunctions on all aspects of human life, with the laws of Allah, the Qu’ran and the Sunni (practice) of the Prophet, in conjunction, being the guide and unchangeable framework through which life must be lived. Shekau describes the constitution as “a collection of man-made laws”, and therefore the product of the minds of unbelievers.

Boko Haram considers it its supreme duty to launch an all-out war on those considered to be idolaters or even “moderate” adherents of Islam. Yet it considers it an act of grave injustice for state authorities to attempt to curb its violence by employing violent means.

If Boko (Western education) is Haram (forbidden), then the possibilities for conservation become highly constrained. In the absence of dialogue, violence and death become the norm and this is a reality and an outcome that the sect accepts wholeheartedly. Consequently, this is what makes the sect not only a formidable threat to the Nigerian nation but to all nations as they currently exist everywhere. Its version of Islam then replaces the nation as it seeks to expand its power and borders until it attains a borderless state.

In accomplishing the complete Islamisation of Nigeria and also of countries surrounding its north-eastern border, Boko Haram has run into a strategic impasse regarding how it intends to treat Muslims who are sceptical or half-heartedly committed to its uncompromising version of Islam. This impasse has created different factions within its ranks that have obviously impeded its overall organisational momentum and may possibly make it more difficult for Nigerian authorities to deal with the splintering that results in various often opposing sub-sects.

One of the central strengths of The Boko Haram Reader lies in presenting Boko Haram through its own words with lucid translations (by David Cook and Abdulbasit Kassim) of Hausa, Kanuri and Arabic texts of its leaders. In this manner, we wind our way through the unfiltered mind of Boko Haram, as it seemingly unself-consciousnessly spews its rigid interpretation of Islam, the Nigerian political landscape and also the combustible civilisational fissures that define contemporary global politics. Its view of the world might be warped but for its adherents and sympathisers, it has managed to assemble a consistent hodgepodge of beliefs, opinions and Islamic and educational texts by which it is able to convince itself of its piety.

Unfortunately, there is hardly any instance of Boko Haram entertaining the possibilities of accommodation in relation to the Nigerian state. As noted earlier, in moments of vulnerability or periods of retreat, it might soften its rhetoric or modify its hardline stance. But these must be regarded as momentary withdrawals, tactical feints until it can regain its momentum in the gory march towards the Islamisation of Nigeria.

However, this mission extends beyond Nigerian Muslims in order to forge strategic alliances with Islamic brethren and shaykhs in the Maghrib, the warriors in the Islamic state of Mali, the jihadis based in the embattled territories of Somalia, the equally beleaguered brethren in Libya, the shaykhs in the splintered nation of Afghanistan, brothers and shaykhs in the maimed nation of Iraq and the Levant, fellow jihadis in Yemen, brothers in the sundered state of Palestine and all the other places where Allah’s children endure oppression.

This ability to imagine and uphold a transnational vision of Islam, this interrogation of the possibilities for the establishment of a globalised Islam, is what makes Boko Haram so menacing. Its leaders are no parochial ignoramuses merely intent on a return to medieval savagery and anti-intellectualism. True, its intellectual traditions, or better still, preferences, may be highly selective but part of its vision and mission is the unfettered unfurling of an Islamised world organised through the law of Allah, the injunctions of the Qu’ran and the Sunni (practice) of the Prophet Mohammed. Undoubtedly, this would make it seem hermetic in its structure and constitution but it is also able to provide everything a true believer requires to navigate the temptations and obstacles of the unIslamised world while it struggles to impose its own version of the world. Boko Haram’s world would obviously also include brothers and shaykhs in Chechnya, Kashmir, the Arabian Peninsula, Algeria and Azerbaijan.

In accomplishing the complete Islamisation of Nigeria and also of countries surrounding its north-eastern border, Boko Haram has run into a strategic impasse regarding how it intends to treat Muslims who are sceptical or half-heartedly committed to its uncompromising version of Islam.

Micheal Nwankpa, one of the editors of the volume writes, that “a military approach to Boko Haram (armed combat) would not be suitable; rather, a criminal justice and law enforcement approach in addition to limited political concessions would represent the right counter-response” (p.285). It is difficult to fathom how this constitutes the most appropriate remedy for an organisation that construes the Nigerian nation as one led by unbelievers, an idolatrous constitution and an infidel army. Nwankpa himself admits that Boko Haram has spurned numerous entreaties for dialogue with the Nigerian government.

Due to its uncompromising stance, it is hard to see it aligning itself with the traditional leadership structures of northern Nigeria together with modern political elites in the region. Boko Haram repudiates the northern political elites because of their affiliation to a secularist state and hence at this juncture, it is quite impossible to see any alliance, or more appropriately, agreement being forged.

Shekau increasingly became a murderous, remorseless and heartless figure extolling kidnapping and hostage-taking, child soldiers and female sexual enslavement in the name of his psychopathic faith. He is crude, anti-intellectual and the opposite of the more suave and eloquent Yusuf. The multiple employment of twelve-year-old girls as suicide bombers, the awful event of the Chibok school girls’ kidnapping that outraged the world, the merciless and odious decapitation of adversaries and perceived non-believers, the instigations of widespread social chaos, violence and death across different national boundaries, the utter lack of civility in the conduct of war and the absolute disregard for human life already offers up an extremely vivid picture of hell on earth. But if this is the price to be paid to breach paradise, then nothing can assuage the memory or protracted agonies wrought by this relentlessly bleak and violent dystopia.

Nwankpa mentions a number of counterterrorist measures to check the advances of Boko Haram, which has been described as the West African Islamic state. The sect has evolved into a transnational succubus with various resources and networks available to it in enforcing its reign of death. So perhaps when it is in recession in north-eastern Nigeria, for instance, it could suddenly assume resurgence in say, Cameroon or Chad or Niger, which are all countries where it has adherents and has also managed to wreak a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

Nonetheless, Nwankpa explains why Boko Haram has not captured global consciousness in the way ISIS or al Queda have done. Boko Haram largely pursues a local(ist) agenda without having done significant and direct harm to global political and economic interests. In this sense, it is seen as pursuing the jihadist path trodden by Usman dan Fodio, who established the first great West African Islamic kingdom in 1804.

Boko Haram, at the zenith of its political and territorial powers between 2014 and 2015, never managed to create a viable Islamic state on the captured territories of north-eastern Nigeria. In addition, in political terms, rather than attract new adherents amongst die-hard Muslims, it has only succeeded in repelling them because apart from what appears to be its unalloyed nihilism and insufferable taste for violence and vengeance, it had very little else to offer.

In spite of these significant shortcomings, it is apparent that neither the Nigerian nor the Cameroonian government has the capacity to extinguish the murderous rage fuelling Boko Haram to ever more shocking depths of terror.

In view of such a dire prognosis, two approaches immediately come to mind: newer ways of living and coping with international terror would have to be found; and secondly, government authorities need to devise more integrated as well as multi-pronged approaches in deciding what forms of terror are likely to have global impact on a scale of priorities, and on that basis, initiate plans of action.

In an age when the whole of humanity trembles under constant threat, and basic humanism is sorely tested, post-traumatic stress disorder a widespread reality. Every effort ought to made without recourse to the textbook terrorism of professional terrorists (and that’s the hard part) to re-establish and retain what makes us simply and truly human.

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Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011) and Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011), An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012) and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition) (2021) among other publications. He works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Politics

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
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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

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

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.

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‘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.

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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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