On October 17, 2019, while speaking at the unveiling of the plaque for the expressway linking the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the Westlands area in Nairobi, President Uhuru Kenyatta said: “Wanasema ati BBI ni ya kutafutia Uhuru kazi. Mimi sitaki kazi, nimechoka. Eeeh, BBI ni ya kuhakikisha ya kwamba hakuna Mkenya hatamwaga damu tena katika nchi yetu kwa sababu ya siasa. Tuko pamoja?” People are saying BBI is an excuse for getting Uhuru a job. I don’t want a job, I’m tired. BBI is for ensuring that no Kenyan will ever shed blood again because of politics. Are we together?
Exactly a month later, on November 16, the president met a 3,000-strong delegation of MPs, senators, former MPs and other leaders from the Mt Kenya region at Sagana State Lodge in Kiganjo, Nyeri County, for an eyeball-to-eyeball face-off meeting. This meeting had been overdue because, as the president himself acknowledged, there had been simmering disapproval of his leadership in his backyard that had led to loud murmurs of discontent and grievances.
At the meeting, to which he came late, delegates had been asked to assemble as early as 8 am, (Uhuru himself arrived in the afternoon). President Uhuru conducted the business of the day in the Gikuyu language. “Ati Uhuru niigutuika Prime Minister? Ndingethura kuneneha ringi…” You mean, Uhuru can be the Prime Minister? Huh, I wouldn’t mind being at the helm once more…” expressed the president, while claiming that he did not know the contents of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).
In 30 short days, President Uhuru had forgotten his vow to Kenyans that he would give up presidential powers in 2022. At Sagana, he had the effrontery to allow himself to be enticed with an (executive) job offer that of a prime minister, which was purportedly contained in a document whose contents he allegedly knew nothing about.
In the seven years that he has been president, Uhuru has become the master of doublespeak: he will wax lyrical about one thing, and then will do the exact opposite. And when put to task about his sudden change of position, he will blame overwhelming demons or will become overtly angry and hot-tempered.
Restricting ourselves to his promise of “going home” once his term is over, because apparently he is “tired”, the “sudden surprise” posture of interest in the prime minister’s position is very telling. “The BBI is all about creating the position of an executive prime minister for Uhuru Kenyatta,” said a Jubilee MP who counts the president and his deputy as his personal friends and has known them since the time they were all in KANU. Dubbing it BBI (II), the MP said, “This is the real BBI, forget about BBI I and the shenanigans that took place at Bomas of Kenya.”
After the BBI team rounded off its town hall-like meetings across the country sometime in early August last year, it launched its report at the Bomas of Kenya on November 27, 2019, where it publicly handed over the report to the “handshake” duo: President Uhuru and ex-Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the former 2017 presidential contender under the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition outfit. “What we saw on that day was a charade, a farcical display of political tomfoolery of a people whose intentions were to test the waters, even as they tested the patience of Deputy President William Ruto,” said the Jubilee MP.
“The BBI is all about creating the position of an executive prime minister for Uhuru Kenyatta,” said a Jubilee MP who counts the president and his deputy as his personal friends and has known them since the time they were all in KANU. Dubbing it BBI (II), the MP said, “This is the real BBI, forget about BBI I and the shenanigans that took place at Bomas of Kenya.”
That charade was witnessed by scores of Kenyans across the country – the function was beamed live on radio and television stations. Seventy-year-old Wandia Kimaita, who watched the proceedings from Iriani village in Mathira constituency in Nyeri, was later to observe how she was appalled by how President Uhuru treated his deputy. “I really sympathised with Deputy President Ruto for all the humiliation he underwent that day. Why would Uhuru behave like this; seemingly gleeful and laughing recklessly? This was unbecoming of the President. Even if they humiliate him [Ruto], my vote is still with him.”
A matter of trust
The 156-page BBI (I) document that was hailed at the Bomas jamboree as a “peace document” included a non-executive position of prime minister, with its attendant deputies. The prime minister in the BBI (I) report is an appointee of the president who wields executive powers.
“The BBI (II) is about expanding the executive,” said the influential Jubilee MP. “It is about creating a powerful position for the ‘tired’ president. It is true, the president doesn’t intend to extend his presidential term, but it is not true that once his terms expires, he wants to fade into oblivion. He wants to stick around in a powerful position within the government because – I’ll be very forthright with you – the Kenyatta family doesn’t trust one William Ruto.”
This trust issue is something that has consistently cropped up in my interviews with Jubilee Party politicians, most of whom are past or present MPs from Central Kenya and the greater Rift Valley regions who have remained close to the two powerful men. I have also spoken to Jubilee Party mandarins and aficionados who have worked around and with President Uhuru and his deputy and who, therefore, can, with a fair amount of surety, authoritatively comment on the two. The verdict I always get on why the bromance between the president and his deputy has been waning since January 2018 (when Uhuru and Raila shook hands) is that trust between the two has been broken.
But in seeking to understand precisely why, after fighting so hard to retain their power as incumbents in 2017, their bromance “suddenly” died, I sought the views of two senior politicians, one from Central Kenya and the other from Rift Valley, who are knowledgeable in Kenya’s presidential and succession politics. Both have been witnesses to Kenya’s tumultuous presidential successions at their critical junctures.
“The now emerging problems between Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are not about the presumed governance style, the apparent contestations and greed for power, state theft, or even ethnic affiliations. They are just about one thing – trust,” said a senior veteran Central Kenya politician, who requested anonymity. “The Kenyatta family simply doesn’t trust Ruto. Trust is not something you feed someone like porridge – if the trust is not there, it’s not there; you cannot force yourself to trust someone.”
The Kenyatta family is not convinced that Ruto, once he assumes the reins of the presidency, will not destroy their business empire – they know it, said the politician. “They are persuaded that this is what he will do when he becomes president.” The politician claimed that the Kenyatta family (here he referred specifically to Mama Ngina, Uhuru’s mother, and Muhoho, his younger brother) categorically asked Uhuru to stick around because he was too young to exit the political scene, least of all, to even contemplate going home. They advised him to work to create the position of an executive prime minister purely in order to protect and safeguard the family’s wealth.
Why the position of the prime minister? I asked. “Because it doesn’t interfere with the constitutionally-mandated two-term presidential limit. The idea of changing the constitution to sneak in a third term clause was going to be messy and Kenyans were going to reject it outright,” said the senior politician. “Hence, no one can accuse him of abrogating the law. Still, he would have to change the constitution to accommodate the new position and its deputies”.
“The now emerging problems between Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are not about the presumed governance style, the apparent contestations and greed for power, state theft, or even ethnic affiliations. They are just about one thing – trust,” said a senior veteran Central Kenya politician, who requested anonymity.
Recently, President Uhuru spoke about being betrayed by people he had entrusted to work for him: he was referring to his deputy after the narrative of corruption failed to fly. He now seems to have stumbled on a new idea: the trust narrative, which he hopes Kenyans this time will buy, pointed out the veteran politician. “William Ruto was being used as a ladder by the Kenyatta family to capture power; after that he was going to be dumped like a used rag”.
“Uhuru telling us that he has been betrayed is really stale news,” said a mzee from Limuru. “Who tells Uhuru he’s the only one who can be betrayed? We entrusted him with the presidency, and he has betrayed us big time. That’s why we don’t want him anywhere near the executive – he should just go quietly and leave us alone. They want to create the position of the executive prime minister with this BBI (II) for him, we know, and we will defeat the referendum when it comes.”
The mzee said that the BBI project has one linear argument: “Don’t vote for Ruto because he’s bad, he’s untrustworthy. What I object to, is the moral highhandedness of the purveyors of BBI to think that we Kikuyus don’t know Ruto is bad. We know he is very bad. Has Uhuru and all the others been good? Ruto is corrupt, a thief, will bring down the country…we know. They have numerously hinted to us that the country will be worse off…where is it now? Is it any better? Who has amassed more wealth and money in this country than the Kenyatta family? Who has brought down the country? Who did we elect as president? Is it Ruto? If Ruto has been the president, please let us know.
“To paint Ruto as the most wicked politician will not change our resolve: we [Kikuyus] will still vote for him in 2022. Those talking about Ruto have nothing else to talk about, or offer any alternative. It’s best they keep quiet and go away. Agikorwo Gikuyu matigothoma na giki kia Uhuru…gutiri hindi magathoma, megutura me ngombo cia mbari ya Kenyatta”. If Kikuyus this time will not learn from the travails that Uhuru has made them go through…they will never learn, they will remain slaves to the Kenyatta family.”
The senior politician from Central Kenya said the president has been telling Kenyans – and specifically Kikuyus – that the sole aim of BBI is to sue for peace and that this country should never go to war again, which the Kikuyus totally agree with. “But they part company when then he tells them, by his words and deeds, that they should shun William Ruto…”
The senior politician from Central Kenya said the president has been telling Kenyans – and specifically Kikuyus – that the sole aim of BBI is to sue for peace and that this country should never go to war again, which the Kikuyus totally agree with. “But they part company when then he tells them, by his words and deeds, that they should shun William Ruto. How? ‘If we don’t want Rift Valley Kikuyus to ever shed blood again because of politics, it is prudent then we vote for one William Ruto’ say the Kikuyus. But the president doesn’t seem to get it, or does he?”
“The Kenyatta family’s property”
The politician said President Uhuru cannot believe the Kikuyus have turned their back on him. “Because since 1963, it has always worked: The Kenyatta family has always beckoned on the Kikuyus to do their bidding without fail and without opposition. The Kikuyus have been the Kenyatta family’s property – they do with them as they wish. Now the family is facing open rebellion and the president doesn’t want to believe it’s over – it’s the people who are tired with the Kenyatta family, for taking them too much for granted and ensuring they are economically finished.” The politician said that the Kenyatta family replaced the British masters who had ruled Kenya for 70 year, as the new black Kenyan colonisers.
“All what the Kenyattas want is to expand and ensure their business empire is intact and thriving going forward, the rest are details. Everybody else could be eating cake for all they care. The only thing that has grown in this seven years is the Kenyatta family businesses. As its empire grew, the converse has been happening to the Kikuyu people and the rest of Kenyans.”
The politician, who knows Uhuru since his formative years, says the president is living in the past: “He’s used to getting his way, doesn’t listen to [wise] counsel, but worse still, and more ruefully, to hide his ineptitude, his stupefying reaction is to be bombastic, dictatorial, lose his temper and throw tantrums. He cannot believe Kikuyus are no longer enamoured by the Kenyattas, much less him. He wants to be feared, just like his father and Moi wanted. When that doesn’t happen, he becomes abusive and insults everyone. He wants to be feared and loved at the same time.”
The BBI (II) is a dynastic elite pact between the Kenyatta and Moi families that is assisted by Raila Odinga to retain their stranglehold on the country’s political power, surmised a senior from Rift Valley and a close friend of the deputy president. “For Uhuru to hang onto power, he has to expand the executive to accommodate and calm the aspirations of several other ethnic kings to assuage his own power grab.”
To this extent, said the politician, BBI (II) wants the executive expanded into having a president and his two deputy presidents, an executive prime minister and his two deputies and finally regional governors. “In short, BBI (II), by proposing the new positions of regional governors, is resorting to the old format of a provincial administration structure of provincial commissioners, district officers and local chiefs reporting to the centre.” The politician hinted that the centre has never been comfortable with devolution. The recent unconstitutional transfer of powers from the Nairobi County to the executive is just a curtain-raiser of things to come.”
For this to happen, the grand architects of BBI (II) cannot escape a referendum. “Änd this is where their real problems will begin,” said the Ruto ally. “Why? Because Ruto has stolen the thunder from President Uhuru and Raila. His strategy is to fight within the BBI territory and not without. As his close friend told me, he is better off peeing inside than outside, which is why Ruto and his team decided to not openly fight the proponents of BBI and their document.”
“But the 60-million-dollar question is this,” posed the politician, “Do you think if it came to the referendum question and Ruto decided to oppose it, the BBI (II) proponents would defeat him in a straight fight?” The Ruto ally told me that the deputy president was toying with several options in his efforts to tame BBI (II). One of them is to, at the appropriate time, assemble a team of between 30 to 50 legal experts who would have scrutinised and scoured the document with a toothcomb before going to court and arguing that the document is neither anchored in the Kenyan law nor recognised by any constitutional statutes.
The beginning of the year saw BBI (II) commence its popularisation campaign meetings in what one Jubilee Party mandarin cheekily described as NASA zones: Kakamega, Kisii, Mombasa and Kitui. “Let’s see how they are going to fair on in Eldoret, Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Meru, Nakuru and Nyeri.”
The BBI (II) is a dynastic elite pact between the Kenyatta and Moi families that is assisted by Raila Odinga to retain their stranglehold on the country’s political power, surmised a senior from Rift Valley and a close friend of the deputy president. “For Uhuru to hang onto power, he has to expand the executive to accommodate and calm the aspirations of several other ethnic kings to assuage his own power grab.”
A friend who works at the Makueni County governor’s office in Wote told me he recently accompanied the governor to inspect some county projects and the people who generally are happy with their governor, Prof Kivutha Kibwana, did not fail to put him to task over his apparent cozying up to BBI (II) mandarins.
“Musomi withinwa ni kyao yiulu wa BBI? Na yiikwaatene na maundu ma andu onthe. Nitwisi BBI nikyau…tikwondu wa mathina maitu…indi ni kwa kuaana maunini kwa ala oi nakumuthingii Uhuru silikalini.” Professor, why are you getting entangled with this BBI politics? We know what BBI is all about…it’s not about our welfare…it’s about elite power sharing and sneaking Uhuru back to power.
On January 20, 2019, Jubilee Party MPs and senators who are aligned to the deputy president, after congregating in Naivasha town for two days, issued a raft of ultimatums concerning the ongoing BBI (II) meetings. They styled their meeting like a Parliamentary Group meeting, which the party Secretary-General and Cabinet Secretary without portfolio, Raphael Tuju, objected to by issuing a press statement saying the MPs’ meeting was not a Jubilee Party affair. “We have noted with great concern the manner in which BBI popularisation rallies have been conducted so far,” said part of the Naivasha memo. “The discussions have mainly been on personalities and positions for the political class.”
On that same day, the president, feeling the heat of the Naivasha meeting, summoned Ruto to his office at State House, Nairobi. According to my sources, the president was breathing fire. Why are Jubilee Party MPs rebelling against him? asked a worked-up president to his deputy. The president also wondered loudly why Kikuyu MPs were taking him on. Convene a parliamentary group meeting and call the MPs to order, was supposedly his deputy’s answer.
Indeed, even as 2022 fast approaches and the political temperature in the country rises amidst hard economic times, food insecurity and locust invasions, it is crystal clear that BBI (II) inspires little confidence, especially in the president’s own backyard where people are tired of being held hostage by the Kenyatta family. It is a reminder that Kenya is stuck in a deep political rut and held hostage by a cabal of ethno-chauvinists who have perfected the art of subverting democracy by introducing a new cast of enemies-turned-allies.
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Who Won Kenya’s “Nominations”?
Being nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine grass-roots legitimacy but it is hard not to suspect that some of the losers in the nominations process might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn.
Who won Kenya’s “nominations”, the tense and often unpredictable political process through which parties select which candidates they want to represent them in the general election scheduled for 9 August? That may sound like a silly question. Social media is full of photographs of smiling candidate clutching their certificates of nomination—surely we need to look no further for the winners?
But maybe we do. Beyond the individual candidates in the contests for nominations, there are other winners. One may be obvious: it seems the general feeling is that Deputy President William Ruto came out better from the nominations than did his principal rival in the presidential race, former opposition leader Raila Odinga—about which more below. However, for some, coming out on top in the nominations may prove a poisoned chalice. Where nominations are seen to have been illegitimate, candidates are likely to find that losing rivals who stand as independents may be locally popular and may gain sympathy votes, making it harder for party candidates to win the general election. This means that there are often some less obvious winners and losers.
One reason for this is that nominations shape how voters think about the parties and who they want to give their vote to, come the general election. Research that we conducted in 2017, including a nationally representative survey of public opinion on these issues, found that citizens who felt that their party’s nomination process had not been legitimate were less likely to say that they would vote in the general election. In other words, disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out. In 2017, this appeared to disadvantage Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), whose nomination process was generally seen to have been more problematic—although whether this is because they were, or rather because this is how they were depicted by the media, is hard to say.
In the context of a tight election in 2022, popular perceptions of how the nominations were managed may therefore be as significant for who “wins” and “loses” as the question of which individuals secured the party ticket.
Why do parties dread nominations?
The major parties dreaded the nominations process—dreaded it so much, in fact, that despite all their bold words early on about democracy and the popular choice (and despite investments in digital technology and polling staff), most of the parties tried pretty hard to avoid primary elections as a way of deciding on their candidates. In some cases that avoidance was complete: the Jubilee party gave direct nominations to all those who will stand in its name. Other parties held some primaries—Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) seems to have managed most—but in many cases they turned to other methods.
That is because of a complicated thing about parties and elections in Kenya. It is widely assumed—and a recent opinion poll commissioned by South Consulting confirms this—that when it comes to 9 August most voters will decide how to cast their ballot on the basis of individual candidates and not which party they are standing for. Political parties in Kenya are often ephemeral, and people readily move from one to another. But that does not mean that political parties are irrelevant. They are symbolic markers with emotive associations – sometimes to particular ideas, sometimes to a particular regional base. ODM, for example, has been linked both with a commitment to constitutional reform and with the Luo community, most notably in Nyanza. So the local politician who wants to be a member of a county assembly will be relying mostly on their personal influence and popularity—but they know that if they get a nomination for a party which has that kind of emotive association, it will smoothen their path.
Disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out.
This means that multiple candidates vie for each possible nomination slot. In the past, that competition has always been expensive, as rival aspirants wooed voters with gifts. It occasionally turned violent, and often involved cheating. Primary elections in 2013 and 2017 were messy and chaotic, and were not certain to result in the selection of the candidate most likely to win the general election. From the point of view of the presidential candidates, there are real risks to the primary elections their parties or coalitions oversee: the reputational damage due to chaos and the awareness that local support might be lost if a disgruntled aspirant turns against the party.
This helps to explain why in 2022 many parties made use of direct nominations—variously dressed up as the operation of consensus or the result of mysterious “opinion polls” to identify the strongest candidate. What that really meant was an intensive process of promise-making and/or pressure to persuade some candidates to stand down. Where that did not work, and primaries still took place, the promise-making and bullying came afterwards—to stop disappointed aspirants from turning against the party and standing as independents. The consequence of all that top-down management was that the nominations saw much less open violence than in previous years.
So who won, and who lost, at the national level?
Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates. That brings us to the big national winners and losers of the process. Odinga—and his ODM party—have come out rather bruised. They have been accused of nepotism, bribery and of ignoring local wishes. This is a particularly dangerous accusation for Odinga, as it plays into popular concerns that, following his “handshake” with President Kenyatta and his adoption as the candidate of the “establishment”, he is a “project” of wealthy and powerful individuals who wish to retain power through the backdoor after Kenyatta stands down having served two-terms in office. In the face of well-publicised claims that Odinga would be a “remote controlled president” doing the bidding of the Kenyatta family and their allies, the impression that the nominations were stage-managed from on high in an undemocratic process was the last thing Azimio needed.
Moreover, perhaps because Odinga seems to have been less active than his rival in personally intervening to mollify aggrieved local politicians, the ODM nominations process seems to have left more of a mess. That was compounded by complications in the Azimio la Umoja/One Kenya Alliance Coalition Party (we’ll call it Azimio from now on, for convenience). Where Azimio “zoned”—that is, agreed on a single candidate from all its constituent parties—disappointed aspirants complained. Where it did not zone, and agreed to let each party nominate its own candidate for governor, MP and so on, then smaller parties in the coalition complained that they would face unfair competition come the general election. That is why the leaders of some of these smaller groups such as Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua made dramatic (or theatrical, depending on your view) announcements of their decision to leave Azimio and support Ruto.
Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates.
So Ruto looks like a nomination winner. But his success comes with a big price tag. His interventions to placate disgruntled aspirants involved more than soothing words. A new government will have lots of goodies to distribute to supporters—positions in the civil service and parastatals, diplomatic roles, not to mention business opportunities of many kinds. But the bag of goodies is not bottomless, and it seems likely that a lot of promises have been made. Ruto’s undoubted talents as an organizer and deal-maker have been useful to him through the nominations—but those deals may prove expensive for him, and for Kenya, if he wins the presidential poll.
Money, politics, and the cost of campaigns
Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword. In the short term, many of them will have saved considerable money: depending on exactly when the deal was done, they will have been spared some days of campaign expenses—no need to fuel cars, buy airtime for bloggers, pay for t-shirts and posters, and hand out cash. But that will be a brief respite. The disappointed rivals who have gone independent will make the campaigns harder for them—and likely more expensive. The belief that they were favoured by the party machinery may mean that voter expectations are higher when it comes to handouts and donations on the campaign trail. And the fact they were nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine their grass-roots legitimacy.
Others may experience a similar delayed effect. Among the short-term losers of the nominations will have been some of the “goons” who have played a prominent physical role in previous nominations: their muscular services were largely not required (although there were exceptions). The printers of posters and t-shirts will similarly have seen a disappointing nominations period (although surely they will have received enough early orders to keep them happy, especially where uncertainty over the nomination was very prolonged). The providers of billboard advertising may have seen a little less demand than they had hoped for, although they too seem to have done quite well from selling space to aspirants who—willingly or not—did not make it to the primaries. But where the general election will be fiercely contested, entrepreneurs will likely make up any lost ground as the campaigns get going. In these cases, competition has been postponed, not avoided.
Those in less competitive wards, constituencies or counties—the kind in which one party tends to dominate in the general election—are unlikely to be able to make up for lost time. These “one-party” areas may be in shorter supply in 2022 than in the past, due to the way that the control of specific leaders and alliances over the country’s former provinces has fragmented, but there will still be some races in which it is obvious who will win, and so the campaigns will be less heated.
Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword.
More definite losers are the parties themselves. In some ways, we could say they did well as institutions, because they were spared the embarrassment of violent primaries. But the settling of many nominations without primaries meant not collecting nomination fees from aspirants in some cases, and refunding them in others. That will have cost parties a chunk of money, which they won’t get back. That may not affect the campaigns much—the money for campaigns flows in opaque and complex ways that may not touch the parties themselves. But it will affect the finances of the parties as organizations, which are often more than a little fragile.
Are the losers actually the biggest winners?
Some losers, however, are really big winners. Think about those candidates who would not have won competitive primaries but were strong enough to be able to credibly complain that they had been hard done by due to the decision to select a rival in a direct process. In many cases, these individuals were able to extract considerable concessions in return for the promise not to contest as independents, and so disrupt their coalition’s best laid plans. This means that many of the losers—who may well have been defeated anyway—walked away with the promise of a post-election reward without the expense and bother of having to campaign up until the polls.
It is hard not to suspect that some of them might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn. In fact, some of them may have been aiming at this all along. For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome. Instead of spending the next three months in an exhausting round of funerals, fund-raisers and rallies, constantly worrying about whether they have enough fifty (or larger) shilling notes to hand out and avoiding answering their phones, they can sit back and wait for their parastatal appointment, ambassadorship, or business opportunity.
For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome.
For these individuals, the biggest worry now is not their popularity or campaign, but simply the risk that their coalition might not win the presidential election, rendering the promises they have received worthless. Those whose wishes come true will be considerably more fortunate—and financially better off—than their colleagues who made it through the nominations but fall at the final hurdle of the general election.
Separating the winners of the nominations process from the losers may therefore be harder than it seems.
Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.
The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.
Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.
According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.
A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.
The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?
A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.
What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.
Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.
Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.
Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.
As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.
While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.
Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.
“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.
Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.
Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.
Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.
The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.
Labour migration as climate mitigation
you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed
Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.
It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.
Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.
The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.
Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.
Reparations include No Borders
“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman
Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”
Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debt, unfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheid, labour exploitation, and border securitisation.
It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.
Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.
The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.
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