Baluku Bismark was 14 years old when he sat for his school exams in early November 2016 with the goal of becoming a health worker in Kasese, western Uganda. A few weeks later, Baluku was among those killed by the Ugandan army during an attack on the region’s cultural institution, known as the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu (OBR).
By the end of a two-day assault on 26 and 27 November 2016 the military had killed 155 people using live ammunition and intentional fires; images of raging infernos and piles of bodies circulated on social media. Community members had killed at least 14 policemen. It was eight months after that year’s presidential and primary elections.
Baluku is one of many Ugandan citizens whose fate was sealed by state agents in the name of “restoring order”. In each instance, those agents “take orders from above” and are shielded from any accountability. Dig deeper and it is about power and votes.
Uganda is scheduled to hold elections on 14 January 2021. Ten opposition candidates, including former musician and member of parliament, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, are challenging President Museveni who has controlled nearly every aspect of government in Uganda since 1986.
As expected, the presidential campaign, which officially began on 9 November 2020, has been marred by partisan law enforcement. Already, but unsurprisingly, state violence is defining the campaigns. Like previous presidential rival Dr Kizza Besigye, prominent opposition candidates Kyagulanyi and Patrick Amuriat have faced harassment, beatings, and various criminal charges. On 18 November police arrested Kyagulanyi during a rally in Eastern Uganda; Amuriat was arrested in Gulu. The arrests sparked spontaneous demonstrations in several towns, with the youth demanding their release. News reports indicate that security forces shot at least 45 people and hundreds more were injured.
For people in Kasese, these events are occurring as they prepare to vote in the first election since the horrific bloodshed that took place exactly four years ago this week. Unpacking the power politics behind the Kasese massacres is critical to understanding Uganda’s elections and the President’s stranglehold on power. It also tells a dismal story of total impunity no matter the scale of the killing.
Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu and cultural institutions in Uganda
The Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu is the cultural institution, or kingdom, of people that traditionally live in the western Rwenzori Mountains along Uganda’s border with Congo. The institution itself is headquartered in Kasese district.
Political recognition of cultural institutions in Uganda is part of the complex path that led to President Museveni’s ascension to power in 1986. For example, as a way of soliciting the support of the predominantly Baganda people of the central region, Museveni agreed to restore the region’s Buganda Kingdom which had been abolished in 1966 under the first post-colonial government.
But President Museveni, a master of political compromise, understood the delicate balance required. Buganda’s cultural leader was permitted to formally exist but he wasn’t allowed any actual political power. Over the years, as a form of bargaining for allegiance, Museveni has slowly accepted the restoration of other cultural institutions, such as the Bunyoro-Kitara in the west, and the Busoga and Tooro Kingdoms in the east and southwest, respectively. In a country as ethnically and linguistically diverse as post-colonial Uganda, these cultural institutions and their leaders can command significant loyalty and community support.
Such devotion was on full display in September 2009 when Museveni, seeking to curtail the influence of the Buganda Kingdom, sought to limit the freedom of movement of the kingdom’s leadership. Loyalists quickly took to the streets in protest. By the end of two days, security forces had killed at least 45 people to quell the uprising and the Luganda-speaking radios had been taken off the air.
Shortly thereafter, and despite criticism from those who deemed it unconstitutional, Uganda passed a law barring cultural leaders from participating in partisan politics or providing a platform for any politician. However, most cultural institutions have often remained influential, if constrained, despite efforts to rein in their influence using this law or attempts to co-opt them into the ruling party.
In 2006, Uganda held the first multiparty elections since Museveni first came to power through a military takeover. Already in power for 20 years, Museveni suffered what some felt was a humiliating political defeat in Kasese, with the opposition presidential candidate Dr Besigye garnering 56 per cent of the total votes to Museveni’s 45 per cent.
Some pundits interpreted the result as a rebuke to Museveni for ignoring the grievances of the Rwenzururu cultural institution in its plea for official recognition. In an attempt at political expediency, Museveni finally acquiesced in October 2009 – a few weeks after the violent suppression of the Buganda kingdom supporters. The Omusinga, or King in the Bakonzo language, was coronated and the Rwenzururu cultural institution was restored just in time for the campaign for the February 2011 elections. Museveni won the area vote and secured two seats for his party in parliament. But the recognition wasn’t without its critics, and clashes between pro- and anti-Obusinga forces escalated. Intercommunal fighting led to the displacement of both the ethnic Bakonzo and the Bamba, another ethnic group in the region. The government stepped in but was increasingly perceived to be siding with those opposed to the King.
Five years later, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change fared well in the Rwenzori region. All parliamentary and local posts in Kasese went to the opposition. National Resistance Movement (NRM) strongmen, such as Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga, lost their parliamentary posts.
The relationship between the President and the King had been rocky for a few years prior to the election but the election results clearly indicated that the ruling party was losing traction in the region. Ruling party mobilisers started working harder to co-opt the king’s support base, sowing the seeds of instability.
Kasese in November 2016
Four years later, the full story of the horrific killings that took place in Kasese in November 2016 remains shrouded in secrecy. The government has never published the names of those killed or allowed independent investigations into why its army massacred almost 150 of its own citizens over two days. Spokespeople have only indicated that those who died were “terrorists” who sought to “take over Uganda”. Despite arresting and imprisoning over 180 people, the government has never presented any evidence in court and never proceeded to trial. The people arrested in November 2016 languish in prison to this day
Sporadic conflicts between communities, at times involving security forces, flared up after the 2016 elections. In one incident, the Police Flying Squad shot and killed a suspected Omusinga loyalist in a market as he bought food. A government soldier was later killed by machete, allegedly for spying on the King near the palace compound.
Rumours began to spread in Kasese at this time that the government would be handing over a demobilisation fee to the Omusinga’s “royal guards” – volunteers who are loyal to the Kingdom and work on its behalf. In a very low-income part of the country, such enticements inflated the ranks of the royal guards as people waited for handouts to support their families.
Eventually, word spread that the payout was imminent. But as people gathered in the palace compound on November 25, the military arrived and Kasese was brought to a standstill. Under the command of General Peter Elwelu, Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers, encircled the palace and told the people inside that they could not leave. Tensions escalated and, eventually, soldiers shot and killed eight royal guards at the kingdom’s office in town. The rumour that the kingdom was under attack spread into the outlying sub-counties. Community members attacked some police posts and 14 police officers and 32 civilians were killed in the conflicts. The next day, the UPDF made its biggest move, allegedly ordering royal guards to disband or face attack.
At 1 p.m. the UDPF launched an assault on the palace, shooting live ammunition and setting thatched roofing alight. The king was removed by force and transferred to Kampala. Photos of piles of bodies, some with their arms tied behind their backs, circulated on social media. Some of the dead were buried in a mass grave near a military barrack. Some people were never found. At least 15 children last seen inside the palace are missing to this day; 180 people were charged with murder, terrorism and treason. Those who managed to escape went into hiding and to this day, the palace remains closed.
Two months after the attack General Elwelu told a local newspaper that the “place had lost its legitimacy. It was no longer a palace. It became a legitimate military target because it had become a command post for all that was happening in Rwenzori.”
There is no doubt that the events of November 2016 ended any pretense that the right to freedom of expression existed in the region. Many believe that Museveni would most likely have tolerated the Rwenzururu king had he not shown open support for the opposition. No one could seriously believe the government’s line that the king posed any meaningful security threat to the country or that he would be able to orchestrate any secession. But, clearly, cultural leaders needed to be shown that they could not behave like the Rwenzururu king. What if other kingdoms followed suit?
Since 2016, the Omusinga’s movements have been largely restricted to his house in Kampala. He was barred from travelling to the Rwenzoris, even after seeking the court’s permission to attend the June 2019 burial of his mother. Security officials say that since the attack on the palace in 2016, the region is now peaceful. The region nurses its wounds and struggles to care for an estimated 300 widows and 600 orphans left behind by the massacre.
Despite some condemnatory statements from foreign embassies and civil society, the government has not been pressured to show any real evidence of why that scale of bloodshed was lawful or proportionate. In a classic case of co-option, President Museveni appointed the king’s brother as a minister in his government.
What happened in November 2016 in Kasese can only be viewed as a stark reminder to all cultural leaders – and frankly to any critic of the regime – that they should stay away from candid engagement in politics or consider supporting Uganda’s political opposition.
Those arrested were left to rot in jail, far from their families. But as the 2021 elections approach, perhaps they are suddenly again useful to the electoral landscape?
Uganda’s upcoming elections
As Bobi Wine ignites imaginations about new approaches to governance in Uganda, the government’s paranoia is at an all-time high and one can only imagine that there is significant work being done to ensure that the Rwenzori votes go to the ruling party. Word is already trickling out that the government is going to release those who have spent four years in prison without trial. But they will never be exonerated. It is likely that they are under significant pressure to admit some wrongdoing, to grovel and seek forgiveness from Museveni despite no clear evidence of their crimes having been presented. When Museveni releases the detainees just in time for the anniversary (and the voting,) he will demand blind loyalty. Even though his soldiers killed their families.
The patterns of state violence in Uganda are sadly repetitive; the ruling party obstructs burgeoning criticism to Museveni’s long stay in power. Organised dissent – Uganda’s cultural institutions, opposition members, civic groups, or just an outspoken citizen – is met with co-option, pressure and intimidation. A bank account is frozen, a cultural leader is coronated, a brown envelop of cash arrives. But at times, these efforts fail to silence the critics. Defiant voices rise up.
In that flashpoint, the state unleashes overwhelming violence against its own citizens and people like Baluku and many others die under the bullets of the state security agents. No previous military or police training supported by Uganda’s Western “partners in democracy” like the United States or United Kingdom prevents the blatant drive for political expediency.
In each incident – the Kayunga demonstration in 2009, the Walk to Work protests of 2011, the Kasese killings of 2016, the Free Bobi Wine demonstrations in November 2020, and countless other similar events – citizens, often innocent bystanders, or youth demonstrating against state actions are killed or arrested. Each time, the pro-government pundits quickly go on the attack, demonising those killed as terrorists or hooligans and then calling for peace.
Behind the scenes, those in jail will continue to suffer without being brought to trial, and with no credible evidence of their wrongdoing being produced. But no member of the security forces will face any questions to justify the bloodshed. International donors to Uganda’s ample security sector will momentarily issue condemnations and then return to the humdrum of diplomatic life in Kampala’s leafy suburbs. The graves of the dead, of people like Baluku from Kasese, are quickly forgotten.
If the government’s explanation of the reasons behind these horrific episodes is ever to be believed, it will need to hold both sides to account and be willing to allow for criticism, dissent and, most importantly, electoral loss. Military commanders, including generals like Elwelu, who allowed the killings of unarmed civilians, who allowed the bullets to fly, will need to be brought to open court, to answer tough questions from lawyers who don’t fear reprisals. As long as men like General Elwelu are promoted for killing civilians, as he was, the unabashed reliance on state violence as a political weapon in Uganda will continue. And horrific images of bloodied bodies – like those of November 2020 and November 2016 – will increase.
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Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The East African Community (EAC), whose goal is to achieve economic and political federation, brings together three former British colonies – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – and newer members Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Somalia first applied to join the EAC in 2012 but with fighting still ongoing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, joining the bloc was impossible at the time. Eleven years later, joining the bloc would consolidate the significant progress in governance and security and, therefore, Somalia should be admitted into the EAC without undue delay. This is for several reasons.
First, Somalia’s admission would be built on an existing foundation of goodwill that the current leadership of Somalia and EAC partner states have enjoyed in the recent past. It is on the basis of this friendship that EAC states continue to play host to Somali nationals who have been forced to leave their country due to the insecurity resulting from the prolonged conflict. In addition, not only does Somalia share a border with Kenya, but it also has strong historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural links with all the other EAC partner states in one way or another.
Dr Hassan Khannenje of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies said: ”Somalia is a natural member of the EAC and should have been part of it long ago.”
A scrutiny of all the EAC member states will show that there is a thriving entrepreneurial Somali diaspora population in all their economies. If indeed the EAC is keen to realise its idea of the bloc being a people-centred community as opposed to being a club of elites, then a look at the spread of Somali diaspora investment in the region would be a start. With an immense entrepreneurial diaspora, Somalia’s admission will increase trading opportunities in the region.
Second, Somalia’s 3,000 km of coastline (the longest in Africa) will give the partner states access to the Indian Ocean corridor to the Gulf of Aden. The governments of the EAC partner states consider the Indian Ocean to be a key strategic and economic theatre for their regional economic interests. Therefore, a secure and stable Somali coastline is central to the region’s maritime trade opportunities.
Despite possessing such a vast maritime resource, the continued insecurity in Somalia has limited the benefits that could accrue from it. The problem of piracy is one example that shows that continued lawlessness along the Somali coast presents a huge risk for all the states that rely on it in the region.
The importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean has seen Kenya and Somalia square it out at the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute.
Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group said that ”Somalia joining the EAC then might present an opportunity to discuss deeper cooperation frameworks within the bloc, including around the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute. The environment was not as conducive to collaboration before, and perhaps it explains why the ICJ came in. Integrating into the EAC potentially offers an opportunity to de-escalate any remaining tensions and in turn, focus on developing mechanisms that can be beneficial for the region.”
Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist in the region, said: “The East African states along the East African coast are looking for opportunities to play a greater role in the maritime security to the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Somalia joining the EAC bloc will allow them to have a greater say.”
Third, Somalia’s membership of the Arab League means that there is a strong geopolitical interest from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, Somalia stands to gain more in the long-term by joining the EAC rather than being under the control of the Gulf states and, to a large extent, Turkey. This is because, historically, competing interests among the Gulf states have contributed to the further balkanisation of Somalia by some members supporting breakaway regions.
On the other hand, the EAC offers a safer option that will respect Somalia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, EAC partner states have stood in solidarity with Somalia during the difficult times of the civil conflict, unlike the Gulf states. The majority of the troop-contributing countries for the African Union Mission to Somalia came from the EAC partner states of Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. Despite having a strategic interest in Somalia, none of the Gulf states contributed troops to the mission. Therefore, with the expected drawdown of the ATMIS force in Somalia, the burden could fall on the EAC to fill in the vacuum. Building on the experience of deploying in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is highly likely that it could be called upon to do the same in Somalia when ATMIS exits by 2024.
The presence of the Al Shabaab group in Somalia is an albatross around its neck such that the country cannot be admitted into the EAC without factoring in the risks posed by the group.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the government of Somalia must move to consolidate these gains – especially in central Somalia – as it continues with its offensive in other regions. However, Somalia may not prevail over the Al Shabaab on its own; it may require a regional effort and perhaps this is the rationale some policymakers within the EAC have envisioned. If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
Somalia’s admission comes with risks too. Kenya and Uganda have in the past experienced attacks perpetrated by Al Shabaab and, therefore, opening up their borders to Somalia is seen as a huge risk for these countries. The spillover effect of the group’s activities creates a lot of discomfort among EAC citizens, in particular those who believe that the region remains vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks.
If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
The EAC Treaty criteria under which a new member state may be admitted into the community include – but are not limited to – observance and practice of the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. Critics believe that Somalia fulfils only one key requirement to be admitted to the bloc – sharing a border with an EAC partner state, namely, Kenya. On paper, it seems to be the least prepared when it comes to fulfilling the other requirements. The security situation remains fragile and the economy cannot support the annual payment obligations to the community.
According to the Fragility State Index, Somalia is ranked as one of the poorest among the 179 countries assessed. Among the key pending issues is the continued insecurity situation caused by decades of civil war and violent extremism. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch ranks Somalia low on human rights and justice – a breakdown of government institutions has rendered them ineffective in upholding the human rights of its citizens.
Somalia’s citizens have faced various forms of discrimination due to activities beyond their control back in their country. This has led to increasingly negative and suspicious attitudes towards Somalis and social media reactions to the possibility of Somalia joining the EAC have seen a spike in hostility towards citizens of Somalia. The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Nicodemus Minde, an academic on peace and security, agrees that indeed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes will shape their behaviour towards Somalia’s integration. He argues that ”the admission of Somalia is a rushed process because it does not address the continued suspicion and negative perception among the EAC citizens towards the Somali people. Many citizens cite the admission of fragile states like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a gateway of instability to an already unstable region”.
Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the EAC has been how to involve the citizens in their activities and agenda. To address this challenge, Dr Minde says that ’’the EAC needs to conduct a lot of sensitisation around the importance of integration because to a large extent many EAC citizens have no clue on what regional integration is all about”. The idea of the EAC being a people-centred organisation as envisioned in the Treaty has not been actualised. The integration process remains very elitist as it is the heads of state that determine and set the agenda.
The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Khannenje offers a counter-narrative, arguing that public perception is not a major point of divergence since “as the economies integrate deeper, some of these issues will become easy to solve”. There are also those who believe that the reality within the EAC is that every member state has issues with one or the other partner state and, therefore, Somalia will be in perfect company.
A report by the Economic Policy Research Centre outlines the various avenues through which both the EAC and Somalia can benefit from the integration process and observes that there is therefore a need to fast-track the process because the benefits far outweigh the risks.
EAC integration is built around the spirit of good neighbourliness. It is against this backdrop that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has extended the goodwill to join the EAC and therefore, it should not be vilified and condemned, but rather embraced. As Onyango Obbo has observed, Somalia is not joining the EAC – Somalia is already part of the EAC and does not need any formal welcoming.
Many critics have argued that the EAC has not learnt from the previous rush to admit conflict-plagued South Sudan and the DRC. However, the reality is that Somalia will not be in conflict forever; at some point, there will be tranquillity and peace. Furthermore, a keen look at the history of the EAC member states shows that a number of them have experienced cycles of conflict in the past.
Somalia is, therefore, not unique. Internal contradictions and conflict are some of the key features that Somalia shares with most of the EAC member states. The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should, therefore, be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.
Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.
When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.
Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.
When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.
Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.
Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.
Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.
Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.
24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.
“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.
Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.
Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.
If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.
One couple’s story
Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.
The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.
Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.
I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)
I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.
At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.
Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller. The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”
To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger. They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”
The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat. Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers. As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey. It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”
On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.
“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing. But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest. I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.
“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”
“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.
“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded. Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights. The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”
At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard. “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.) Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.
Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country. In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years. What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself. Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar. But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff. One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child. Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”
“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.
I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.
I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”
Making sense of the world
World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.
Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.
This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.
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