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Prefiguring the Future of Democracy

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The mass protests and the coronavirus crises in the United States and Europe have exposed the fault lines in representative democracies, and appear to confirm the relative superiority of Eastern political capitalism over Western liberal capitalism. They point to a convergence of Western liberal democracy and Eastern political capitalism, the most likely future of the system that will rule the world.

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At the end of January 2020, I discovered a paper by Sean Coughlan entitled “Dissatisfaction with democracy within developed countries is at its highest level in 25 years” on the BBC website. This article summarised the findings of a worldwide survey carried out by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy that revealed that the proportion of the global population that was dissatisfied with democracy reached 58 per cent in 2019. “Confidence in democracy has been slipping because democratic institutions have been seen failing to address some of the major crises of our era, from economic crashes to the threat of global warming,” said Dr. Roberto Foa, the main author of the study.

After reading that worrying article, I had to revisit the various definitions of democracy. Political theory offers a distinction among many types of democracy. Some of these distinctions are primarily based on the relationship between government and the governed, such as direct democracies (including participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, etc.) or representative democracies (including parliamentary democracy, presidential democracy, etc.). Other categorisations focus on the role of individual freedoms or the relationship between citizens and the market (such as liberal democracy, social democracy, etc.)

Whichever the flavour of democracy, according to some political scientists, the Western democratic ideal is based on two principles: political participation and political contestation. Political participation means free electoral systems and political contestation means freedom of expression (including speech, press, etc.). If we add to these two principles the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary (as posited by Montesquieu), we get a rather simple definition of what the media and the “common man (and woman)” may understand by democracy – a system that prevails all over Europe and North America. This definition has three main features:

  1. Free and fair elections and universal suffrage;
  2. Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press;
  3. Rule of law applied by an independent judiciary system.

Respect for human rights could be included but we assume that it could be derived from rule of law and freedom of expression.

At the time of Dr. Foa’s briefing, I had just read three stimulating books that shed some light on the question of dissatisfaction with democracy, and which gave me a better understanding of this phenomenon. These books also shed light on the relations between capitalism and democracy and on the geopolitical evolution of our world. Let’s browse through these books.

Branko Milanovic, Capitalism, Alone

Prof. Branko Milanovic, a famous economist known for his work on inequality, explains in his most recent book, Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World (Harvard University Press, 2019), how capitalism became the one and only political system in the world. However, he makes a distinction between liberal capitalism (the pattern found among most OECD countries today) and “political” capitalism (formerly known as state capitalism when describing the Soviet Union). In liberal capitalist systems, inequalities prevail and are growing, particularly due to a lack of “intergenerational income mobility” (leading to a reproduction of the elites, also analysed by Pierre Bourdieu), that is exacerbated by “social separatism”.

Indeed, the Western way of development is essentially characterised by increasingly unacceptable social and territorial inequalities. This view is shared by Paul Collier in his recent masterpiece, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties. According to the British development economist, the biggest rifts tearing apart the fabric of Western societies today are between the highly educated and the less educated, and between cosmopolitan metropolises and declining regions. Thomas Piketty, in his bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century, also demonstrated that the rate of capital return in Western countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth, and that this causes increasing wealth inequality.

Inequality is less of a constant in political capitalist systems. According to Milanovic, in these systems, “the population tolerates its lack of voice as long as the elite delivers tangible improvements in living standards, provides tolerable administration of justice and does not allow glaring inequalities”. For Milanovic, China and Vietnam are the paradigmatic examples of political capitalism, but Malaysia, Singapore and some African countries could also fall in the same category.

He, however, notes that the lack of an independent judiciary in these countries could more easily allow corrupt practices and may, therefore, undermine the social compact required by political capitalism. Nonetheless, he views political capitalism (particularly the “regionally decentralised authoritarianism” found in China) as more efficient economically than liberal capitalism, where the population’s decisions could inadvertently result in policies that reduce growth rates, increase pollution and inequalities, reduce life expectancy, etc. Given that public opinion is constantly manipulated (see below), such counterproductive outcomes indeed seem particularly likely in liberal capitalist countries.

Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads

In his masterly account of the ongoing shift in global economic power towards Asia, The New Silk Roads: The New Asia and the Remaking of the World Order (Vintage Books, 2019), Prof. Peter Frankopan, a brilliant historian at Oxford University, clearly demonstrates that the countries of the Silk Roads (Asia in short) are those that really matter in the 21st century. For him, it is clear that “we are living in the Asian century already, a time when the movement of GDP from the developed economies of the West to those of the East is taking place on an astonishing scale – and at astonishing speed”.

In fact, Asian countries, primarily China, have become a reference and inspiration for other developing regions and their leaders, particularly in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Turkey, at the confluence of East and West and a NATO member, may constitute the best example of this changing paradigm: Eastern models focused on infrastructure development are progressively replacing Western ideals that have been predominant in the 20th century, particularly since the end of the Cold War.

Inequality is less of a constant in political capitalist systems. According to Milanovic, in these systems, “the population tolerates its lack of voice as long as the elite delivers tangible improvements in living standards, provides tolerable administration of justice and does not allow glaring inequalities”.

A number of books about the rise of “Chindia”, published in the last two decades, share this analysis. However Frankopan raises an important caveat: “Indices measuring press freedom across Asia – from Turkey to Thailand, Iran to India, Pakistan to the Philippines, China to almost all the states of Central Asia – are not just failing to improve; they are in decline, in some cases dramatically. A new world is emerging in Asia, but it is not a free one.” This is consistent with Milanovic’s opus as a confirmation that Asian “political” capitalism is economically more efficient (albeit democratically less attractive) than Western liberal capitalism.

However, it is important to remember that a majority of Western citizens are not satisfied with the functioning and outcomes of their democratic systems. (The Black Lives Matter protests currently taking place in various US cities and around the world are the most recent manifestation of this dissatisfaction.)

So might Europeans and Americans be ready to support an evolution towards political capitalism? As Milanovic observes, “Everyday experience seems to show that many people are willing to trade parts of democratic decision-making for greater income.” This is certainly true in the developing world, particularly in most African countries where economic and social rights (to education, health, housing, etc.) remain largely unfulfilled. The current coronavirus crisis, which has had a devastating impact in Western Europe and North America, also appears to confirm the relative superiority of Eastern political capitalism over Western liberal capitalism; but only time will tell if this superiority will prevail in the long term.

A convergence of liberal and political capitalism might be the most likely future of the system that rules the world. We will consider two possible models for this convergence in our conclusion below – but first and before moving to the third author, we need to open a parenthesis to better understand the forces undermining representative democracy today.

What representative democracy does not deliver

Representative democracy, based on periodical elections, is the dominant political system in Europe and America, but also in Africa. Its flaws and limitations have been analysed by hundreds of scholars and political scientists since the 18th century. Among the most frequently identified flaws, the following could be highlighted:

  1. Representative democracy puts the elites in positions of power, both in the executive and legislative branches of government. These intellectual, financial and technocratic elites are not bound by the wishes of the electorate. They are supposed to adopt policies in the superior interest of the nation, as they understand it and as it evolves overtime. And usually the so-called interests of the nation are more to do with finance and economics, rather than social issues, such as education and health.
  2. Because the “power of the people” typically erodes after an election has taken place, elected officials become deceptive and untrustworthy. After they win the vote, they are free to pursue the collective agenda of the elites. Once the representatives are elected, they are no longer accountable. They follow the directives of their parties and forget their specific promises. The only option left to the citizens is not voting for them in the next election.
  3. A representative democracy depends on majority rule to implement policies and take most decisions. A democratic government, reflecting the “majority” view (usually of the upper middle class), can take action that oppresses a particular minority, the poor, for instance. When the majority is not ethically or morally correct (as in South Africa during the apartheid era), the structure of government can threaten the lives or undermine the interests of people who are not represented or belong to minority groups. In many ways, these groups are left to solve their own problems because they do not have the voting power to overwhelm the majority. Many elections have been won by 51 per cent of the votes, leaving 49 per cent of frustrated voters on the sidelines. In some cases, elections in a single round (a.k.a. “first-past-the-post”) are won by much less than 50 per cent of the population. In other cases (specifically in the USA), the deciding electoral vote (by an electoral college) differs from the popular vote (by the people themselves).

Other flaws have been noted, such as the huge financial cost of electoral processes, increasing abstentions, particularly among disenfranchised classes, or practices to deliberately distort democratic representation (such as gerrymandering i.e. the manipulation of boundaries of electoral constituencies in the USA). However, what appears to matter even more in the current period are two fundamental problems:

  1. Short-termism is prevalent in Western political systems (with the notable exception of Norway). Most elected officials don’t have a long-term perspective as their main concern is to be re-elected. Therefore, they model their actions on opinion polls and on social media, which provide immediate reactions to each and every event. They have a preference for policies that bring short-term benefits to the electorate (or to themselves) before the next election, rather than unpopular policies with longer-term benefits. Climate change is a typical example. Most leaders know what has to be done in terms of mitigation and adaptation to climate change, but they postpone radical actions that may be unpopular with some important sections of the electorate.
  2. Insufficiency of political education and lack of critical thinking also remain widespread in Western societies. Electoral democracy can reflect the interests of the people only if voters educate themselves on governing decisions. Someone can turn in a ballot that is a straight-party ticket with no consideration of the issues at stake. In addition, the current web-surfing culture is not really prone to encouraging objective thinking and in-depth understanding of public policy options. Some tech experts already talk of “the digital disruption of democracy”, whereby a non-regulated glut of information results in disinformation while individual attention spans are narrowing faster and faster. Less educated people are more affected by fake news, lies, unrealistic promises, etc., and could be easily influenced by propaganda, for instance on the perceived risks of “migrant invasion”. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum are good examples of people voting against their own interests due to poor education and limited understanding of the consequences of their votes. This is where our third recommended book comes in.

Larry Tye, The Father of Spin

Edward L. Bernays (1891-1995) is little-known in academic circles, but he played a key role in developing and applying the concept of “public relations” in many areas during a very long and exceptional career. Born in Austria, he was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and should be considered as a major ideologue of the 20th century.

The Father or Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Publishing (Crown Publishing Group, 1999), the biography of Bernays by Larry Tye, shows how public opinion in Western countries has been successfully manipulated since the 1920s (including in Nazi Germany). As a result, “free and fair” elections are heavily influenced by demagogic parties and charismatic leaders and their teams.

According to biographer Larry Tye, “Bernays used sociology and crowd psychology to rob consumers of their free will, helping his clients predict, then manipulate, the very way their customers thought and acted.”

Because the “power of the people” typically erodes after an election has taken place, elected officials become deceptive and untrustworthy. After they win the vote, they are free to pursue the collective agenda of the elites. Once the representatives are elected, they are no longer accountable.

In his own publications – from Propaganda (1928) to The Engineering of Consent (1955) – the liberal and cynical Bernays described all the techniques available for manipulating public opinion on commercial or political matters. He convinced his many clients (companies as well as political leaders) that persuasion rather than coercion was the best method of getting their way with the masses, which he described as subject to herd instinct. He was very successful and died in Boston as a billionaire at 103 years of age.

In Propaganda, he wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

Since the end of the Second World War, the ideas, techniques and methods advocated and tested by Bernays have flourished in Western countries, particularly in advertising, but also in the political field. Concentration of media ownership has led to major distortions in democratic processes. Indeed, the corporate media limits the availability of contesting views and provides a narrow spectrum of elite opinions. Meanwhile, the eruption of alternative news sources available online and on social media has come as a laudable reaction to media concentration, but has also provided additional tools for the manipulation of public opinion by battalions of spin doctors. As a result, while elections are formally free, they are far from being fair due to “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the opinions of the masses”.

The future of democracy

We see two possible models for the future of democracy – two different hybrids of Milanovic’s liberal capitalism and political capitalism. The first model is ominous, the second is inspiring.

Currently, dissatisfaction with Western representative democracy has brought to the fore a number of populist movements or parties that are changing the political landscape because they tend to tap into emotion rather than rational thinking. These movements and parties are particularly attractive to less educated citizens. These far-right populist parties are promoting an “illiberal democracy” based on strong autocratic men in power, economic protectionism, a controlled judiciary and hostility to migrants and foreigners. Using the categories defined by Milanovic, it can be argued that this populist model borrows some features from political capitalism in order to transform the existing liberal capitalism. In this perspective, the Russian Federation may be seen as a prototype for the future of Western democracies.

Another and opposite model could be to insert some components of Western liberal democracy into the more economically efficient Eastern political capitalism. Basically, the rule of law and freedom of expression would go hand-in-hand with state-controlled economic development, regulated markets, reduced income and spatial disparities and long-term socio-economic strategies. Electoral processes would be minimised and counter-balanced by more participatory local democracy. Already local authorities play an ever-increasing role in national politics, and in many respects they are more effective than nation-states. While they are not exempt from clientelism, local governments are increasingly willing to adopt participatory approaches (as notably demonstrated in several Latin American countries).

Concentration of media ownership has led to major distortions in democratic processes. Indeed, the corporate media limits the availability of contesting views and provides a narrow spectrum of elite opinions.

In this ideal world, political elites would be selected on objective criteria; then the best administrators, incorruptible and accountable, would rise and be periodically evaluated by their peers and by local leaders (mayors, governors, etc.). They could be replaced following media campaigns and social mobilisation, which have become a new and important mode of political expression all over the world.

From Santiago to Algiers, Madrid to Baghdad, New Delhi to Sydney, Stockholm to Hong Kong, New York to Caracas, Paris to Beirut, Jakarta to Khartoum, an innovative form of democracy based on mass and recurrent demonstrations has been trying to emerge in recent years.

So far these popular protests have not achieved much in terms of institutional outcomes. However, they reflect the dissatisfaction and determination of millions of people, the youth in particular, and will certainly influence the future of democracy and the evolution of capitalism. These social movements will, hopefully, ensure that of the two possible futures for democracy, the second model – a combination of Western liberal democracy and Eastern political capitalism – prevails in the long run.

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Daniel Biau is a former Director of UN-Habitat’s Regional and Technical Cooperation Division. He retired in March 2011 after 30 years in urban development. Daniel Biau's articles and insights can be found at The Urban Guru website.

Politics

‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’

Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.

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Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.

Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.

The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.

Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.

On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.

Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.

Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.

This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.

Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.

It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.

At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.

A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.

More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.

Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.

Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.

Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?

***

The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.

Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.

“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.

A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.

At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.

None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.

***

The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.

My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.

Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.

In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.

Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.

A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.

***

As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?

None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.

To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?

Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.

For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.

Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).

What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.

Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.

Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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Politics

Southern Cameroon: War and No Peace

The longue duree of the conflict in the Southern Cameroons, the rise of the current Ambazonian movement, as well as the dismal prospects for conflict resolution.

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Southern Cameroon: War and No Peace
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In power since 1982, Cameroon President Paul Biya has ruled autocratically for more than four decades. While Cameroon is officially bilingual, one manifestation of such authoritarian governance is the persistent marginalization of the minority English-speaking population in the Northwest and Southwest regions, the former British Southern Cameroons. Since 2016, in the face of state violence, peaceful protests by Anglophone groups have morphed into armed conflict in which separatist groups are fighting for an independent Republic of Ambazonia. In its sixth year, this hidden and neglected war has killed thousands and forcibly displaced more than  one million people. Biya’s autocratic regime remains intent on a military solution to a political problem, uninterested in peace negotiations, and with little or no external pressure.

The colonial and post-colonial roots of this contemporary conflict are well-known to English-speaking Cameroonians. Originally a  German colony (1884-1916) called Kamerun, after World War I, it was divided between France (80 percent) and Britain (20 percent), under League of Nations and then United Nations mandates. Britain subdivided its territory into Northern and Southern Cameroons and governed them as part of Nigeria. A botched reunification process occurred at independence in 1960 and 1961. French Cameroun and Nigeria gained their independence in January and October 1960 respectively.  In February 1961, an UN-organized plebiscite was held to decide the future of Northern and Southern Cameroons, with the choice of joining either independent French Cameroun or Nigeria, but not independence as a separate state. Northern Cameroons voted to join Nigeria, while Southern Cameroons voted to join Cameroon. The terms of reunification between Southern Cameroons and French Cameroun were then agreed upon at the Foumban constitutional conference in July 1961, resulting in the Federal Republic of Cameroon, consisting of two federated states: West Cameroon (former Southern Cameroons) and East Cameroon (former French Cameroun).

The Federal Constitution came into effect in October 1961, with the federal system perceived to uphold the bi-cultural and bi-lingual nature of Cameroon within which the state of West Cameroon retained some autonomy, inclusive of separate governance structures and distinctive legal and educational institutions. However, federalism was short-lived, despite article 47 of the Constitution stating it to be “indissoluble.” In May 1972, President Ahmadou Ahidjo held a controversial national referendum that led to the abolition of the federal constitution and the creation of a unitary state called the United Republic of Cameroon. The 1972 referendum removed West Cameroon’s autonomous governance structures, most notably the West Cameroon House of Assembly.

In 1984 President Biya re-named the country, in French, as La Republique du Cameroun, returning to the name before reunification with Southern Cameroons. Writing in 1985, the barrister Fon Gorji Dinka described the 1972 referendum as a “constitutional coup” and the 1984 decree as an “act of secession” of La Republique du Cameroun from the 1961 union with Southern Cameroons. Current Anglophone separatist groups call themselves “restorationists,” fighting for the “restoration” of the state of Southern Cameroons or Ambazonia, and perceive this as an anti-colonial struggle given that British colonization was replaced by colonization by La Republique du Cameroun in 1961.

Although the current violence in Southern Cameroons is unprecedented, today’s conflict is a consequence of longstanding Anglophone grievances coupled with a strategy of “denial and repression” by the Francophone-dominated state towards Cameroon’s so-called Anglophone problem. Being Anglophone in Cameroon goes beyond language to encompass a cultural identity that has a history linked to Britain and a set of distinctive institutions. For decades, many Anglophones have felt that the Francophone-dominated state’s policy of assimilation has attempted to erode that identity, and feel treated as second-class citizens within Cameroon, with marginalization experienced in the socio-cultural, political, economic, and linguistic fields.

Anglophone opposition has risen at different times. In the early 1990s, political liberalization enabled Anglophone-specific trade unions, interest groups as well as political groups to emerge, advocating for Southern Cameroonian interests, notably the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). Of particular note were the All-Anglophone Conferences (AACI and AACII) held in 1993 and 1994 and attended by more than 5,000 delegates from Anglophone organizations and associations.  AACI’s Buea Declaration I called for a return to two-state federalism, but total disregard of such demands by Biya’s regime led to secession being placed on the agenda in the declaration from AACII. The aim was stated as “the restoration of the autonomy of the former Southern Cameroons which has been annexed by La République du Cameroun.” SCNC in particular advocated for secession, but notably by non-violent means through the “force of argument rather than the argument of force.”

These long-standing grievances re-emerged in late 2016 with peaceful protests by lawyers and teachers against the francophonization of the legal and educational systems in the English-speaking regions. Lawyers were unhappy about the appointment of French-speaking magistrates educated in civil law and unfamiliar with common law, as practiced in the Anglophone regions, while teachers were concerned about the influx of French-speaking teachers. Separately, they undertook strike action and demonstrated in October and November 2016 respectively. These peaceful protests were violently dispersed by the security forces using tear gas and bullets, with some fatalities and many arrests. Following this violence, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) was established, advocating a return to pre-1972 two-state federalism. CACSC initiated “Operation Ghost Towns Resistance,” with closures of schools and businesses in the Northwest and Southwest regions on selected days as a tactic of non-violent resistance. The government’s response in January 2017 was to ban the Consortium, along with SCNC, and arrest their leaders on treason and terrorism charges, as well as a three-month internet blackout. Writing in April 2017, sociologist Piet Konings and anthropologist Francis Nyamnjoh likened the Francophone-dominated state’s approach to Anglophone grievances to that “of a workman whose only tool is a hammer and to whom every problem is a nail.”  One consequence was that separatist voices became stronger.

State repression of, first, legitimate expression of grievances and, second, peaceful advocacy of federalism, led to increasing calls for secession of Southern Cameroons. Following the banning orders, existing separatist organizations, largely active in the diaspora, came together to form the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front (SCACUF), with Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, previously involved in CACSC, appointed as chairperson. While advocating secession, his strategy remained non-violent, echoing SCNC’s position in the  1990s. Divisions shortly became apparent, however, with Ayaba Cho Lucas, leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC), one of SCACUF’s constituent organizations, advocating armed struggle.

While SCACUF’s leadership remained largely outside of Cameroon, notably in Nigeria, civil disobedience continued in the Northwest and Southwest during 2017 with widespread support for the weekly “Ghost Town” days. The state’s response was military occupation, with arbitrary arrests and detention of young men on the pretext of supporting secessionism. In response, the AGC announced the deployment of their armed wing, the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF), with the first attack on September 9, 2017 in which three soldiers were killed. On October 1, 2017, the anniversary of Southern Cameroons’ independence from Britain, the independent Republic of Ambazonia was declared by SCACUF, alongside mass demonstrations in which 17 people were killed by state security forces. The SCACUF transformed itself into the Interim Government of Ambazonia (IG) on October 31, with Ayuk Tabe as President. The state intensified its militarization of the Anglophone regions, and on November 30, 2017 President Biya declared war on the secessionists, described as “terrorists.” Armed conflict continues to date.

War causes misery. Over five years later, the impact on the four million population has been severe. While figures are approximate and underestimated, at least 6,000 people have been killed and hundreds of villages razed, with 1.1 million people displaced by 2020, including 70,000 registered refugees in Nigeria, and 2.2 million in need of humanitarian assistance. School closures have caused education disruption to hundreds of thousands of children for years. Gross human rights violations committed by both warring parties have been widely documented, including by the Cameroon-based Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. The military is accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, unlawful imprisonment, torture, as well as the burning and destruction of homes, schools, and health centers. Armed separatist groups are accused of kidnappings and extortion of civilians, killings of alleged informants (so-called “blacklegs”), and beatings of teachers and students for non-compliance with the school boycott. Evidence indicates that the security forces are responsible for a greater proportion of the various atrocities, with the World Bank stating that government forces have caused 10 times as many civilian deaths as separatist armed groups. Rape and other forms of sexual violence have increased dramatically, described as “pervasive” and “rampant” in a UN report, and perpetuated with impunity by the military and non-state armed groups. As in other conflicts, rape has been used as a weapon of war, terrorizing local communities into submission and grossly violating women and girls.

The Cameroon government’s approach to the war was described recently as one of “hammer and lies,” in other words, military force alongside a disinformation campaign. The government continues to fight a counter-insurgency war, while simultaneously denying that a conflict exists, preferring to refer to a “security crisis” in the English-speaking regions, one which is largely resolved with a Presidential Plan of Reconstruction and Development in place from 2020. The lie to this is evident by Biya’s deployment of a new military commander and special elite forces to the two regions in September 2022. Essentially Biya seeks a military victory by crushing the separatists. But how strong is the Ambazonian movement and what threat does it entail to the Cameroonian state?

Like similar movements, the Ambazonian movement has political and military wings. Leaders of the political wing are mainly based in the diaspora or imprisoned in Cameroon, with significant divisions between them. The military forces, known locally as the “Amba Boys,” comprise up to 30 armed groups across the two regions. Initially, the main political split was between the Interim Government (IG) led by Ayuk Tabe and the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC) led by Cho Lucas. However, in January 2018 Ayuk Tabe and nine other IG leaders were arrested in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon. They were detained without trial, then all sentenced to life imprisonment by a military tribunal in August 2019.  With Ayuk Tabe detained, US-based Samuel Ikome Sako was elected as interim IG president. However, infighting ensued with a split in early 2019 between “IG Sisiku” and “IG Sako.” Despite its initial rivalry with the Interim Government, the AGC supported the IG Sisiku faction and formalized cooperation ties in August 2019.  In 2021, the AGC also formed an alliance with Biafran separatists in Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra. Cho Lucas has also encouraged Francophone Cameroonian groups to take up arms against Biya’s regime.

Militarily, while the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) remains the largest group, there is a proliferation of smaller armed groups, for instance, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF), Ambazonia Restoration Forces, Red Dragons, Tigers of Ambazonia, and Vipers, comprising around 4,000 fighters in total. Allegiance with the political factions varies, with Red Dragons and SOCADEF believed to be aligned with IG Sako, for instance, while other armed groups operate quite independently. Initially, equipment was rudimentary, including hunting rifles and machetes. But the armed groups’ combat strength has increased through the acquisition of more sophisticated weaponry, including improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket launchers, with a greater intensity of operations. Precise figures are unknown, but both sides have lost considerable numbers of combatants.

The fragmentation of political leadership has led to disagreements and multiple policy directions. In response to the Swiss peace initiative, IG Sako formed the Ambazonia Coalition Team (ACT) in September 2019 to present a joint platform for negotiation. However, IG Sisiku refused to participate. Opposing policies over “lockdowns” (or “Ghost Towns”) and the so-called “liberation war tax” on civilians also indicate a lack of unity. The multiplicity of voices over policy directions is symptomatic of the disconnect between the diasporic leadership and their militias in Cameroon, with the absence of political authority on the ground.

While the war is unremitting and the government was forced to deploy special elite forces in September 2022 to bolster its counterinsurgency efforts, fragmentation and division amongst Ambazonian groups have weakened the movement.

As recently stated, the international response to the Cameroon Anglophone conflict has been “feeble.” with little or no pressure from Western governments and no political intervention from the AU or UN. Why is this? The Cameroon government’s “lies and disinformation” strategy has been relatively successful in hiding the reality of the war, and Western governments have prioritized economic and geo-strategic interests that require friendly relations with Biya’s regime. For the UK, for example, this included an off-shore natural gas deal in June 2018, and a UK-Cameroon Economic Partnership Agreement in April 2021. For France, its longstanding Françafrique policy prohibited criticism of the Cameroon government, evident in July 2022 when President Emmanuel Macron’s visit made no public reference to the Anglophone conflict. Stronger statements have come from the US Congress. House of Representatives’ Resolution 358 (July 2019) and Senate Resolution 684 (January 2021) which called for both warring parties to end all violence and pursue broad-based dialogue to resolve the conflict. However, neither congressional resolution has led to any significant action by the US government.

The African Union’s lack of response contrasts with the AU-led peace process in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, for instance. Cameroon’s membership of the AU’s Peace and Security Council has ensured its internal conflict has not been discussed. Similarly, successful lobbying by Cameroon’s diplomats has kept the conflict off the agenda of the UN Security Council.

More than forty years of autocratic and centralized rule under Paul Biya means that the Francophone-dominated state is intent on maintaining its control over Southern Cameroons, with little or no concession to Anglophone grievances, and currently unwavering from pursuing a military solution to a political problem, whatever the cost to the English-speaking population. The lack of international pressure has contributed to enabling the regime’s hard-line stance. However, the outlook of the Anglophone population would seem to have changed irrevocably. The unprecedented military occupation, repression, and violence from the Francophone-dominated state have given rise to a shift in consciousness. Although the desire for peace is profound, the political status quo is no longer tolerable. Any peace settlement will necessitate that the Anglophone population determines its future, for instance by means of an internationally-supervised referendum on constitutional arrangements, with options including federalism and independence.

If the decolonization process of the Southern Cameroons in 1960 and 1961 was botched and contravened the original UN Trusteeship Agreement, then decision-making on Southern Cameroons constitutional future has to be fully democratic some 60-plus years later.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Worked to Death: Lack of a Policy Framework Fails Kenyan Migrants in the Gulf

The government’s failure to adopt a labour migration policy has left Kenyan migrant workers in the Gulf region open to abuse, torture and even death.

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Worked to Death: Lack of a Policy Framework Fails Kenyan Migrants in the Gulf
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Reports by various institutions including Parliament, the Ombudsman and NGOs have established that the Kenyan government’s failure to develop a comprehensive policy and legal framework continues to put at risk thousands of Kenyan migrant workers in the Middle East and especially in the Gulf.

There could be anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Kenyan migrants in the Gulf countries. No one knows for sure as the Kenyan government doesn’t keep accurate records, though its estimates are at the lower end of the spectrum. Most are unskilled laborers, in sectors such as construction, hospitality and domestic work, and their numbers are expected to keep growing given the Gulf’s high demand for inexpensive foreign labour. Labour abuses in the region are widespread, systemic and deadly. And while the government has developed policies enabling Kenyans to seek employment abroad, it has been much slower to act to protect them once they are there, seemingly more interested in the remittances they send home rather than in their safety.

Concerns over the safety of workers, and especially the safety of domestic workers, in the Gulf and the Middle East in general are not new. In 2014, following the deaths of Kenyan workers and accusation of widespread abuses, the Kenya government suspended the export of workers to the region, revoking the licenses of 930 recruitment agencies involved in the trade. The ban was only rescinded in 2017 following the signing of bilateral labour agreements with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, the issues that had precipitated the ban, and the government inaction that had preceded it soon resurfaced.

At least 93 Kenyans died while working in the Middle East between 2019 and 2021, many of them in Saudi Arabia, the third largest source of remittances with Kenyans in that nation sending back KSh22.65 billion in the first eight months of 2022 alone. A study by the University of Chicago released in December 2021, whose findings reflect the experiences of Kenyans who had returned from the Gulf, found that “practically everyone heading to [Gulf Cooperation Council member states, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates]… would become a victim of forced labour at some point”. Over 98 percent of respondents claimed to have experienced some form of workplace abuse, or had been unable to leave an abusive employment situation. The abuses included physical violence, threats, restrictions on movement and communications, being forced to do something they did not want to do, denial of food and shelter, unfair and unsafe work environments, and deceptive contracts.

Parliament and other constitutional bodies have noted the absence of laws and regulations to secure the welfare of Kenyan labour migrants, and even recommended as recently as November last year, that labour migration to the Gulf be temporarily stopped until these are addressed. However, much of the focus has been on streamlining the system for recruitment and processing of migrants heading to the Gulf, rather than on fixing the conditions they face when they get there. For example, whilst the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Labour and Social Welfare, which visited the Middle East in April 2021, noted Kenya’s lack of a policy and a law to govern the migration process, its main thrust appears to be about reforms Kenya can make to make it easier for migrants to secure jobs. In its account of meetings with Saudi labour officials and employment agents, there is no mention of the deaths of Kenyans nor of the tribulations of those desperate to leave the Kingdom.

Still the committee recommended the immediate suspension of migration of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia until the Executive established the status of all domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and undertook a census of all Kenyans in Saudi prisons and detention centres with a view to their repatriation to Kenya. It also demanded the re-establishment of labour offices and safe houses in Jeddah and Riyadh, recognition of welfare associations in Saudi Arabia, and a review of the regulation of private employment agencies, including a minimum deposit to ensure swift repatriation of any domestic worker in distress.

Here there seems an implicit acceptance that Kenyans going to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf will be subjected to abuse and, rather than demand action from the governments in the region to stop it, the focus seems to be on mitigation. The aim seems to be enabling Kenyans navigate an abusive system rather than pressuring the Gulf states to end the abuses. Thus the report pushes for finalization of a labour migration policy and a Labour Migration Management Bill mooted in 2021, and notes that “labour migration to key labour destinations has been happening in the absence of formal agreement or MoUs. And where they exist, the agreements fall short of taking care of the interests of workers”. It stresses need to better regulate recruitment processes and recruitment agencies in Kenya, and to streamline pre-departure training for migrating workers as well as systems for their identification and registration on arrival. It also recommends improved linkages between relevant ministries in Kenya and those in destination countries. A September 2022 Report on Systemic Investigation into the Plight of Kenyan Migrant Domestic Workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Commission on Administrative Justice (the Ombudsman) came to similar conclusions.

The Kenya and Saudi Arabia Bilateral Labour Agreement on the recruitment of domestic workers was adopted in January 2016 and was meant to secure the interests of both domestic workers and employers. While Kenya was tasked with ensuring proper documentation and screening of departing workers, Saudi Arabia was to take measures to ensure that the welfare and rights of employers and domestic workers employed in Saudi Arabia are promoted and protected in accordance with the applicable laws, rules and regulations.

The Saudi government was also to ensure implementation of the employment contract, provide 24-hour assistance to the domestic worker; endeavour to facilitate the expeditious settlement of any contractual dispute arising and ensure that workers are permitted to remit savings derived from their wages.

However, going by the number of abuses and deaths, Kenyan domestic workers have not benefited from the agreement, despite the Ministries of Labour of both countries being designated as the implementing agencies.

In its analysis of the level of implementation of the Bilateral Labour Agreement, the Ombudsman found that the two governments have not implemented many of the provisions. For instance, nearly 7 years after the adoption of the Agreement, the Joint Technical Committee has yet to be constituted and as a result, the required annual meetings have not taken place. Moreover, although the Commissioner of Labour told the Ombudsman that a review had been initiated, it has not been completed as required by law.  

Within government, ministries have been passing the buck and it is unclear who between the Foreign Affairs and Labour ministries bears overall responsibility for the mess. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told Parliament that it had in July 2021 written to the Ministry of Labour recommending a temporary ban on the recruitment and export of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia and describing the situation as “dire”. However, the Labour Ministry rejected the advisory, with then Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui saying the local job market could not absorb all new workers.  Chelugui’s comments appeared to prioritise the remittances from the Middle East, which at the time stood at KSh120 billion, at the expense of Kenyans’ safety and welfare in the Gulf states. ‘

“We will address the mistreatment of our people because from the statistics we have, about three to four per cent of Kenyans working in those countries are affected. Over 104,000 Kenyans are working in those countries who are doing their jobs happily,” Chelugui said, adding that there are “many social-economic benefits we gather from this migration”.

On the other hand, the advisory from the Foreign Affairs Ministry is an admission of the failure to implement the Diaspora Policy launched in 2014 which recognizes the constitutional imperative for government to protect citizens abroad, and requires it to develop a registry of Kenyans outside the country as well as review the 2007 Labour Institutions Act and gazette rules regulating operations of private employment agencies.

And while the Commissioner of Labour claims to have begun be reviewing the bilateral labour agreements, the senate in November was scheduled to debate a motion demanding the Foreign Ministry conduct the review.

The new Cabinet Secretaries for Labour and Foreign Affairs have committed to ending the problem once and for all. Dr Alfred Mutua chose Saudi Arabia as his first overseas trip as Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, but again suggested the problems facing Kenyan migrants start back home in Kenya. Following meetings with victims, agents, and Kenyan and Saudi officials, he blamed “massive corruption in the way Kenyans are prepared before they leave to be domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and follow up of Kenyans when they arrive”. According to him, the behaviour of Kenyan “cartels” and agencies was a major concern to everyone, “including the Government of Saudi Arabia”. There was no mention of the seeming lack of prosecutions of Saudi employers who have abused and murdered dozens of Kenyan workers, or compensation for their families. Instead he promised the yet-to-be-formed Joint Technical Committee would start its work on November 17 to fast-track “labour issues”.

The Ombudsman highlighted the creation of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration by an amendment of the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 in a bid to improve the standard of protection and promotion of the welfare of migrant workers, their families and overseas Filipinos in distress. This is not to say that Filipinos do not face challenges in the Middle East; they do and in fact, in January 2018, former President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to ban labour migration to the Middle East.

However, the Filipino government has taken steps to engage directly with the governments in the Gulf region to protect its nationals. In May this year, Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr lauded the labour reforms in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that protect Filipinos and encouraged other countries to follow suit. According to Philippines News Agency, the country collaborated with Bahrain in 2018 to provide flexible pathways to migration, leading to the issuance of flexible visas that regularized more than a thousand undocumented Filipinos. The government also invested some US$1.5 million to purchase flexi-visas for over a thousand Filipino migrant workers.

The Sri Lankan government has, for its part, developed a framework for labour migration that is enshrined in the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment Act, 1985. This was done through the creation of the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare to articulate State Policy regarding Sri Lankan citizens employed in other countries.

However, any engagement with the Saudi and other Gulf governments must recognize that the abuse, rape and killing of Kenyan migrant workers is happening within their jurisdiction and largely with their acquiescence. Reforms to systems within Kenya that does nothing to address their failure to provide justice and redress, including domestic reforms to hold perpetrators to account, will not protect Kenyans travelling there. Especially given the desperation of Kenyans to secure jobs, and the legendary corruption of the state, it is likely that there will continue to be incentives for people to circumvent bans and sidestep regulations. Ultimately the problem is not in Kenya but in the Gulf where most of the abuse is allowed to take place within families and behind closed doors.

The impotence of the government was highlighted by former Labour CS Chelugui during his vetting to become Cooperatives minister: “It is an issue that has not satisfied us as a country. We’ve been told some of the victims were (. . .) in breach of the laws of that country, but we cannot confirm these explanations since I have no jurisdiction there,” he told the vetting committee after Deputy House Speaker Gladys Boss questioned why many migrant workers end up dead in Saudi Arabia. Appearing before the Labour Committee in November, his successor, Florence Bore, blamed “insufficient budget, lack of enabling legislation and inadequate labour personnel” for the failure to protect Kenyans working in the Middle East.

For his part, PS Kamau has termed Saudi traditions around housework “very ancient” and suggested that the problem was actually the Kenyan victims’ lack of subservience! The sentiment encapsulates the Kenya government’s reluctance to take on their Saudi counterparts. And Kenyans will continue to pay the price.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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