Myth-making, revisionism, and the way the powerful – broadly defined – use state and other apparatuses to rewrite history and the past have resurfaced in the past few weeks.
First, after the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe in Zimbabwe, the ruling party and state institutions went to great lengths to rewrite history, edit out Mugabe’s tyranny and re-project him, warts removed, as a “great Pan-African” and “founding father”.
Second, following the death of Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, the ruling political class, state institutions and the public discourse were flooded with uncritical hero-worshipping (except for a few critical voices) and deliberate stampeding to obliterate the warts of his 24 years of rule and project him as Baba (father). Third, more recently in South Africa, former President De Klerk disputed that apartheid was a “crime against humanity” and that when the United Nations made the declaration, it was under the influence of “communist control”.
In this article I point to the reasons why the arena of history, memory, myth-making and remembering is a landscape of fierce contest, especially because the powerful want to revise the record, deliberately rewrite historical suffering out and re-project feudal benevolence and authoritarianism as progressive.
Importantly, what can be called “history wars” is often the ruling class and its ideologues exercising a “class project” to form narrative bulwarks to protect their ill-gotten advantages, to secure their rule, and to hide historical injustices. Sometimes these advantages and injustices are portrayed as being inevitable consequences of human progress. The muddling of history cannot be separated from how post-colonial leaders learnt from “empire” and “capital”. Empires fiddle with historical narratives even when there is evidence of “drips of blood from every pore”.
Apartheid and the Nyayo House torture chambers: Contests over history
Debates over history have flared up in the context of three significant events: one, the death of Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for close to four decades; two, the aftermath of the death of Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for two and a half decades; and three, the ferocious blowback after FW De Klerk said “apartheid was not a crime against humanity”, in South Africa.
Importantly, what can be called “history wars” is often the ruling class and its ideologues exercising a “class project” to form narrative bulwarks to protect their ill-gotten advantages, to secure their rule, and to hide historical injustices.
The contest around how Africa’s “Big Men” and how apartheid is remembered can be termed history wars in which the past is being fiercely debated. After all, when the historian Howard Zinn wrote a “people’s history”, it was an attempt to project the past from the point of the underbelly where voice and action are often muted by powerful interests. It is not enough to leave historical narratives to officialdom, which often seeks to make myths and heroes of men (and a few women) whose contributions are projected in a monologue.
The political class especially, has no qualms erasing a lot of from the archives. From the Roman, British and what has been called the “American’ empire”, there has been a systematic project to wipe out memory, rewrite history and shape narratives to suit the interests of those that hold political, social, cultural, religious and economic power.
Blowback in South Africa
In South Africa, at the State of the Nation Address (SONA), the young radicals of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) pitted their political wits against the ruling African National Congress (ANC) over the presence of FW De Klerk in the joint seating of the National Assembly. The EFF’s stance against De Klerk was torched after the former white minority leader appeared on national television and claimed that “apartheid was not a crime against humanity”. But things even got worse when the De Klerk Foundation released a statement that seemed to claim that since apartheid “did not kill so many people”, it could have not been a crime against humanity. The foundation went further, claiming that when the UN made the declaration that apartheid was a crime against humanity, it was controlled by “commies” (communists).
The blowback was immediate: major political parties demanded a retraction; some demanded that FW De Klerk’s privileges be stripped and that a campaign be started to have the Nobel Committee rescind the Nobel Peace Prize from him. The De Klerk Foundation issued a statement retracting the statement and apologising for the “confusion”.
Running in the background of these contests is the way the white minority is busy trying to separate historical injustices from the state of poverty and marginalisation of the black population. The white-owned business empires built and sustained by a state-backed violent political and social system of inequality remains unchanged and the black underclass is being prepared, slowly, to accept the current wealth patterns as inevitable.
The remaking of Robert Mugabe
In the aftermath of the death of Robert Mugabe, state institutions, the public media and the military were mobilised to celebrate Robert Mugabe as a “Pan-Africanist”, and “founding father of Zimbabwe”. Even the opposition, which was subjected to terrors of Mugabe-ism, made a beeline to the funeral to bury a “statesman” (so they claimed). The funeral at the National Sports Stadium was organised over days, and there was an attempt to build a mausoleum at a cost of millions in a country facing starvation. (Elsewhere, from Zambia, Kenya and across to Ghana, first or even second presidents have had “shrines” or mausoleums constructed so that the nation never forgets its heroes.) For some, especially within the ruling party, projecting Robert Mugabe as a hero was also about inserting the ruling party as the sole platform of liberation. Sipho Malunga, a lawyer and the son of Sydney Malunga, a veteran of the liberation movement, observed the following about Mugabe:
He mastered, deployed and instrumentalised violence, demagoguery and hate for political ends. For the most part it worked well for him until it was used against him. Having drawn and tasted blood of 20,000 Ndebeles in the 1980s, he considered the death of a few hundred MDC supporters in 2008 child’s play, boasting that, of the multiple academic degrees he held, he coveted most his degree in violence (Africa Report, September 2019).
This must also be read through a window of what Professor Terrence Ranger called “patriotic history” in Zimbabwe, in which the past is revised so as to entrench the political, social and economic domination by the liberation movement. But even within the liberation movement, there have been concerted efforts to write out the role of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), including the fact that the historical archives of Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo were confiscated. The report of a commission of inquiry into the brutal killings in South Western Zimbabwe lies buried in state vaults and we are left with only reports from human rights organisations.
Baba Moi: Kenya’s “professor of politics”
In the aftermath of the death of Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for over two decades, the nation was almost stampeded into a monologue about the death of a “father”, the passing on of the “professor of politics” and nationalist. It was almost a choreography of how other “Big Men” have been buried: a full public spectacle, stadiums, mass body viewing, full military honours and wholesale praise in full pages in newspapers, television and radio. Those who tried to go against the tide were either berated, pushed to the margin or accused of “failing to forgive”. Here is what Father Gabriel Dolan wrote on 22 February 2020:
When Kenyans were tortured and dehumanised in the Nyayo Chambers and detention cells, it was a crime committed by the state. It was state terror. The question arises then as to who was responsible for the heinous crime: the individual officer who meted out the torture, the state agency that mandated the punishment or the one at the top, the Commander-in-Chief? If we are ever to be reconciled with our tormentor, whose responsibility is it to initiate the process? How does a regime repair the damage it has done to its citizens?
But the Standard would not publish this critical narrative and Father Gabriel Dolan had to resign for the second time, following the first resignation with eight other columnists in April 2018. It took a lot of courage for a few critics to hold the banner up and demand that the warts of the one-party state be remembered, that the “ethnic wars” (some fanned by the powerful) be remembered, that the economic collapse and wholesale looting not be forgotten. Chief amongst these were former victims of the Nyayo torture chambers, like Koigi wa Wamwere who said that the “death of Moi is an opportunity to engage with his legacy”.
This silencing of the voices of the underclass also has colonial roots. A good example is the gulags of colonial Britain so intelligently chronicled by Caroline Elkins in the 2015 publication, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag and others memoirs of the past that have put into the public space the horrors of the past.
Why does history and memory matter for tyrants?
There is an interesting scene in a classic 2006 movie called 300. Leonidas, representing the Spartans, walks to confront Xerxes, whose army was rumoured to be so powerful it “drank the rivers dry” and so vast “it conquered all he set his eyes on”. Leonidas rejects to be colonised and made a war lord of Greece”. Xerxes’s ignites into fury and this is what he says about history:
I will erase even the memory of Sparta from the histories. Every piece of Greek parchment shall be burned. Every Greek historian and every scribe shall have their eyes put out and their tongues cut from their mouths. Why, uttering the very name of Sparta or Leonidas will be punishable by death. The world will never know you existed at all.
The contest over history and memory matters, especially for tyrants. In Kenya, for example, President Moi named institutions, roads, primary and secondary schools, hospitals and a university in his name. In Zimbabwe, the airport was renamed Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, a university was being constructed in his name and when the new president took over, a naming spree has started in which his name is given prominence. There are several reasons why tyrants close the archives of a nation and why those with political, cultural, social and even religious power always want the nation to “forget and move on”. Chief among these reasons is to bury accountability.
Firstly, if we take the global history of “empire” and “capital”, it becomes clearer why the political and capitalist classes want history to be forgotten. Here the thread of how history is edited goes back to how capitalism emerged with “blood pouring from the pores”. Looked at this way, the ruling class is not interested in history because it will reveal who took what, when, how and where it is located; in other words, the ahistoricity of the ruling class is in fact a class consolidation project.
Secondly, the narrative of history that projects certain people as heroes means that a trajectory of their inevitability to rule over the “rubble” is established and undisputed by mere mortals. The history of empire always revolved around the genealogy of the hereditary lines of inheriting the kingdom and with that the privileges of power, wealth, and slaves and the right to author culture and religion too.
Firstly, if we take the global history of “empire” and “capital”, it becomes clearer why the political and capitalist classes want history to be forgotten. Here the thread of how history is edited goes back to how capitalism emerged with “blood pouring from the pores”.
So the mantle is passed from Jomo Kenyatta, via Moi to land into the hands of “Mt Kenya” again via Jomo’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta. On the other hand, the reins of Oginga Odinga slowly pass into the hands of his son Raila, and finally Moi’s rungu is now passed down to his son Gideon. Writing the history of Kenya outside the dominance of these families is resisted and quickly discredited and the government moves quickly to work on appointing an official historian so the stories of heroes, heroines and their feats for the nation can be told, not from the forests of the Mau Mau or the streets that fought against the one-party state, but from the families and cronies who share the country’s fat.
Thirdly, the politics of “order” or the “status quo” depends on stable rule, which is why liberalism is projected as “the end of history” – the last stage in the evolution of mankind so that it guarantees itself as the only logical mode of rule.
Fourthly, it is also about the displacement of alternative ideas, so that society is not tempted to play with other ideas and as such it means the silencing of resistance. Understood this way, history told by the political class is meant to displace counter-hegemonic projects that are possibly emancipatory.
Decolonisation and writing back: From Ngugi to Novuyo
After being imprisoned, Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir, which chronicles the terror of the Nyayo era and the molecular ways in which pain was inflicted. Many other “prison notebooks” have been written, including Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Aleksandr Solzhenstyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which chronicled the horrors of Stalinism in Russia and how opponents were dehumanised without relent.
Taken together, these books represent an important way in which ideas considered “dissident” continue to form a counter-hegemonic bulwark against the monologue of the ruling classes. The writers above, against often bleak conditions, wrote back to the powerful and because of this courage we have a better peek into how structures of suppression and exploitation worked and continue to exist and are not only objects for the archives.
These brilliant minds spent a painstaking amount of time, sometimes risking their lives, smuggling hurriedly written notes and writing on toilet paper so that officialdom narratives could be poked. Across the African political landscape, from Zimbabwe to South Africa and Kenya, fortunately, the writers and activists have been writing back against the monologues and revisionism of those in power. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie issues a gentle reminder about why multiple stories must be told:
The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult…Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.
South Africa has a rich tradition of political leaders and activists writing memoirs, meaning that the terrors of apartheid can never be buried under officialdom and revisionism. In Kenya, the past has been documented, and as highlighted above, the horrors of the Nyayo “error” refuse to be edited, obfuscated and stampeded into silence. In Zimbabwe some new literary explorations are constantly questioning the past, as told by the ruling elites. Novuyo Tshuma’s House of Stone falls into this category in which the past terrors of state-sanctioned killings, abductions and torture are powerfully retold. While the vaults of the state remain closed, the citizens’ voices are refusing to remain silent.
These contests over memory, history, and remembering are much about the present and the future and this makes, very appropriate, Chimamanda Adichie’s caution that “the single story must be rejected”.
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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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