In all too familiar scene, a number of Ugandan civilians were shot dead by men with guns (some in uniform) in the process of the National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) government quelling public unrest in various locations around the country in mid-November. The disturbances, which mainly took the form of wananchi blocking highways with burning barricades, some stone-throwing, and also the emergence into broad daylight of muggers and highway robbers, had erupted because of the arrest and detention of the popular opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine) and continued after a fashion until he was produced in court some six days later.
This is not to say that the reported sixty or so fatalities (and many more injured), largely from gunshots, were actively involved in the rioting. Neither is it to say it should be an acceptable method of stopping mass disturbances.
The best indications of how wilfully random these shootings were are the oldest and the youngest shooting victims, both in Kampala city: Amos Segawa was a 15-year-old schoolboy who was killed while standing next to his mother while she locked up her shop as they prepared to leave town; John Kitobe, a 72-year-old retired former accountant and academic, who happened to be in town on personal business, was shot as he made his way out of an office building towards his car.
The intention was clear: deadly collective punishment in a deliberate act of mass intimidation in the name of “security”. This was a continuing fulfilment of a 2016 promise made by the Secretary General of the NRM party, one Justine Kasule Lumumba, to a restive population back then: “The state will kill your children,” she stated in a public speech to parents about the then post-election demonstrations. We now know that she meant their grandparents as well.
But this is completely normal. And that is the tragedy of Uganda’s politics. It is also the ultimate triumph of the NRA/M as an organisation: to have seduced the country into mistaking the political value of security for valuable politics itself.
Without being forensic, one can trace a direct line from these latest killings back to the 1990 shooting dead of two Makerere University students at a sit-down strike protesting the abolition of student allowances; the military deployments against the repeated 1990s attempts by now-forgotten opposition activist Michael Kagwa to hold demonstrations for a return to multipartyism (eliciting the taunt from President Museveni for them to proceed “if you wish to see dead bodies”); the increasingly regular violence from the 1996 election onwards; the 2009 Buganda uprising shootings; the 2010 shootings of demonstrators protesting the burning of Buganda’s royal tombs; and the 2016 killings of over one hundred Rwenzururu palace guards and others in Kasese, and so on.
There is absolutely nothing new in what has just happened, how it happened and what will (not) happen next.
The core item that the National Resistance Army brought to the political table in the 1980s was security. This has remained its primary identity, and key selling point – the issue that made many choose to ignore or overlook its multitude of sins, flaws, and contradictions, but also what made it so valuable to imperialism, concerned, as it has always been, with ensuring its grip on this bounty at the headwaters of the Nile, which feeds other areas of its bounty.
The backstory to this is very critical in understanding why the regime can send operatives on the streets – on foot and in random vehicles, without uniforms or insignia – to shoot to kill an assortment of civilians, with no consequences, domestically, internationally, legally or morally.
The space called Uganda has historically been unstable. However, it suffered two particular periods of intense social and political turmoil that resulted in armed conflict.
The core item that the National Resistance Army brought to the political table in the 1980s was security. This has remained its primary identity, and key selling point…
In the first instance, this was the politics that created the country, where, after some twenty years or so of preaching to children, they had raised an army of militant Christians who proceeded to conquer the region. What we call “Uganda” is actually the end-product of the 1899 victory of the Anglican Christian militia over the rival Muslim and the Catholic militias intent on the same goal: control the Nile at source, and therefore control Egypt. The victors have since then presented this factional advantage as the introduction of “order”, or “peace”, or even “civilization” to the region, delivering it from centuries of slave-dealing, war-mongering heathen African despots. They conveniently forget to mention that it was their religious activism that started the conflict in the first place.The underlying theme to this had been the propagandistic idea of Africa as a chaotic, brutal place in need of a civilizing order.
In the second instance, it is this very same theme that Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Army updated, mined extensively, and carried forward as the essential value of their project: their militarist outfit as the competent sub-contractors for the bearing of the White Man’s Burden, bringing an order to a place bedeviled by mad and incompetent despots. Again, what was not mentioned was how all those previous despots had been installed by the West in the first place.
So, the real “consumer” of this security has been the Western corporations, whose investments in minerals, agribusiness, predatory banking and the rest, are kept safe by these excellent askaris. Any local that benefited did so only as an afterthought.
The everyday greeting in the Gisu area of Eastern Uganda is “Mirembe?”, asked as a question. This word literally means “peace”. However, this is not the actual indigenous traditional greeting. It is a form of salutation that emerged from the Anglican military conquest of the East for the emerging British colony as its Christian army marched eastwards between 1898 and 190, under the trusted generalship of the Muganda Anglican Semei Kakungulu. It was a statement of affirmation between the greeters that all resistance was over, and the new dispensation was now imposed. Shall we accept it, and call that peace?
This is the birth of the duality in Ugandan political thinking, where the absence of overt conflict is mistaken for “peace” as an actual condition. It is a thinking birthed by the contradiction of colonialism: on the one hand, its need to extract and make profit off the colonised space means it must arrive through deception, blackmail, and a lot of violence. On the other hand, there needs to be some kind of order, if not regimentation, for exploitative production to then take place. It is that order that is being misnamed as peace, whereas in fact all it is, is the provision of some kind of security to the new owners.
Even after (southern) Ugandans eventually got tired of reminding each other of how much more “secure” their lives had become after period of the overt military rulers between 1966 and 1986, the NRM continued to do it to them, loud and long, in the decades that followed. Certainly, business-oriented Ugandans (which is most of us) were initially relieved that they could go about their lives without having their homes and businesses invaded, or without being mugged and extorted by individual soldiers jealous of their progress. But they were unable to speak out because such private complaints could then be deliberately misunderstood as public political pronouncements against the government.
It is a thinking birthed by the contradiction of colonialism: on the one hand, its need to extract and make profit off the colonised space means it must arrive through deception, blackmail, and a lot of violence. On the other hand, there needs to be some kind of order, if not regimentation, for exploitative production to then take place.
There were only two flaws with this argument. First, most of north and northeastern Uganda were anything but secure, let alone peaceful, for the first nearly two decades of the NRM period. Second, it is the NRM regime that has gone on to facilitate the robbing, extortion and mugging of the entire Ugandan society of their historically accumulated wealth by removing all remaining barriers to foreign capitalist looting.
Many could not see it then, in the main. “Kasita twebaka ku ttulo” (at least we get to sleep now) emerged as the smug, fatuous and deliberately disengaged response to any attempt to educate them about the new dictatorship being assembled in plain sight. The result is a society of economically and socially insecure, under-skilled, landless underemployed people whose plight has been articulated politically and musically by the very presidential candidate whose arrest sparked these disturbances. They certainly see it now.
So we are back to the stand-off set up in 1897, when the Anglican “order” first asserted itself by imposing a “treaty” on the throne of Buganda, using a two-day gunpoint ultimatum, in which tax revenue, control of weapons and trade routes had to be surrendered to the Imperial British East African Company. This anti-native coup d’état thus check-mated the intentions toward the Nile of other imperial powers: Leopold’s Belgium from its Congo base in the West, Arab expansionism from Sudan in the north, and even the more remote French, German and Italian speculations, embedded in the Catholic mission stations, and budding in military bases on the other side of Ethiopia, dreaming of an opportunity.
Whose violence, whose state?
The only violence the West will accept is violence carried out in its own interest, when it is replacing one regime with another, or when its chosen regime is keeping “order”.
The mass killings in 1966 did not deter Britain from protecting the new government until it also became dispensable. Likewise, after the 1971 coup that brought Colonel Idi Amin to power, the West enjoyed very warm relations with him until he chose the other side in the Cold War.
Britain was deeply involved in seeking to violently destabilise the 1979-1980 post-Amin Marxist-led coalition government, and finally succeeded in toppling it through Paulo Muwanga’s May 1980 coup, which was the stepping stone to returning Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party through the violent rigging of the December 1980 elections.
Britain then went on to heavily backstop the violence that the UPC government meted out to the population in an attempt to steady itself in power. When that government collapsed in June 1985, the West was faced with a choice of two purveyors of political violence: the Okello junta that had overthrown Obote, or the NRA/M, still recovering in western Uganda to where it had relocated following some better organised government offensives against it, just before the coup. Finally, the West settled on the NRA as its latest sweetheart, and after six months of heavy investment, January 1986 happened.
Like the original 1899 Anglican factional victory, it was sold as “Liberation” and “Peace”. In reality, it was the latest imposition of violent “order” by the real owners of the colony.
With the exception of Rwanda, Uganda is significantly smaller than any of the countries that border it. But these intense imperial maneuverings of over a century and half, plus her permanent presence in the commentaries of the Western media since the reign of Kabaka Muteesa I (r.1837-1884), betray an interest that far outweighs her relatively small size: again, the Nile headwaters, and all that flows from that physically, therefore economically, therefore strategically, therefore politically, and therefore militarily. The leadership of the NRM understood this intimately, and chose a side. And it was not the side of the native.
This is why, by contrast, any spontaneous or autonomous activity, especially one with a capacity for its own violence that cannot be imperially co-opted (as the NRA/M was) is brutally suppressed, as the NRM (now as a tool of the West) has done again and again with spontaneous outbursts, and before that in northern Uganda, to Buganda demonstrators, and to subjects of the Rwenzururu kingdom, as well as far beyond Uganda’s borders to “secure order” in the literal Eden, lying between the two Rift Valleys with the Nile at its centre, for the Empire.
In all such cases, the West has, and will, look away, after maybe a bit of anodyne hand-wringing, just as a memsahib would not want to know the gory details of exactly how her houseboy removed a rat from her kitchen, only that he did it effectively. She will even indulge in a bit of grumbling about how much of a mess he has left her kitchen in, in the process. But the critical thing is that she wanted the rat killed, and now it is dead. Good boy.
So, political agitation is one thing, an actual uprising is quite another. It does not matter what the issue is, the West will not tolerate an actual popular uprising in Africa. The natives must never develop the means to reclaim what was taken from them at gunpoint in 1897.
Certainly, the natives must be prevented from regaining control over the source of the Nile.
This is why we have almost been workshopped to death by donor activism – to learn how to express our political aspirations within the acceptable (which basically means ineffective) methods and language of political careerism. Once we step outside those boundaries, either spontaneously or otherwise, then Kakungulu’s death machine is activated, and people are killed like kitchen rats until “order” is restored.
So, political agitation is one thing, an actual uprising is quite another. It does not matter what the issue is, the West will not tolerate an actual popular uprising in Africa. The natives must never develop the means to reclaim what was taken from them at gunpoint in 1897.
This is why we can experience a mass killing in the middle of a general election campaign, and the elections will still carry on. It is because these are, in fact, two separate “political” processes being implemented: one to keep the political classes co-opted, and the other to keep the natives excluded.
Nothing valuable, beautiful or just can be built on such an iniquitous foundation.
We need to be clear: what we have had was never “peace”, but simply security for the Empire’s interests.
And without real peace, even that security will eventually disappear.
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Who Won Kenya’s “Nominations”?
Being nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine grass-roots legitimacy but it is hard not to suspect that some of the losers in the nominations process might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn.
Who won Kenya’s “nominations”, the tense and often unpredictable political process through which parties select which candidates they want to represent them in the general election scheduled for 9 August? That may sound like a silly question. Social media is full of photographs of smiling candidate clutching their certificates of nomination—surely we need to look no further for the winners?
But maybe we do. Beyond the individual candidates in the contests for nominations, there are other winners. One may be obvious: it seems the general feeling is that Deputy President William Ruto came out better from the nominations than did his principal rival in the presidential race, former opposition leader Raila Odinga—about which more below. However, for some, coming out on top in the nominations may prove a poisoned chalice. Where nominations are seen to have been illegitimate, candidates are likely to find that losing rivals who stand as independents may be locally popular and may gain sympathy votes, making it harder for party candidates to win the general election. This means that there are often some less obvious winners and losers.
One reason for this is that nominations shape how voters think about the parties and who they want to give their vote to, come the general election. Research that we conducted in 2017, including a nationally representative survey of public opinion on these issues, found that citizens who felt that their party’s nomination process had not been legitimate were less likely to say that they would vote in the general election. In other words, disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out. In 2017, this appeared to disadvantage Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), whose nomination process was generally seen to have been more problematic—although whether this is because they were, or rather because this is how they were depicted by the media, is hard to say.
In the context of a tight election in 2022, popular perceptions of how the nominations were managed may therefore be as significant for who “wins” and “loses” as the question of which individuals secured the party ticket.
Why do parties dread nominations?
The major parties dreaded the nominations process—dreaded it so much, in fact, that despite all their bold words early on about democracy and the popular choice (and despite investments in digital technology and polling staff), most of the parties tried pretty hard to avoid primary elections as a way of deciding on their candidates. In some cases that avoidance was complete: the Jubilee party gave direct nominations to all those who will stand in its name. Other parties held some primaries—Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) seems to have managed most—but in many cases they turned to other methods.
That is because of a complicated thing about parties and elections in Kenya. It is widely assumed—and a recent opinion poll commissioned by South Consulting confirms this—that when it comes to 9 August most voters will decide how to cast their ballot on the basis of individual candidates and not which party they are standing for. Political parties in Kenya are often ephemeral, and people readily move from one to another. But that does not mean that political parties are irrelevant. They are symbolic markers with emotive associations – sometimes to particular ideas, sometimes to a particular regional base. ODM, for example, has been linked both with a commitment to constitutional reform and with the Luo community, most notably in Nyanza. So the local politician who wants to be a member of a county assembly will be relying mostly on their personal influence and popularity—but they know that if they get a nomination for a party which has that kind of emotive association, it will smoothen their path.
Disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out.
This means that multiple candidates vie for each possible nomination slot. In the past, that competition has always been expensive, as rival aspirants wooed voters with gifts. It occasionally turned violent, and often involved cheating. Primary elections in 2013 and 2017 were messy and chaotic, and were not certain to result in the selection of the candidate most likely to win the general election. From the point of view of the presidential candidates, there are real risks to the primary elections their parties or coalitions oversee: the reputational damage due to chaos and the awareness that local support might be lost if a disgruntled aspirant turns against the party.
This helps to explain why in 2022 many parties made use of direct nominations—variously dressed up as the operation of consensus or the result of mysterious “opinion polls” to identify the strongest candidate. What that really meant was an intensive process of promise-making and/or pressure to persuade some candidates to stand down. Where that did not work, and primaries still took place, the promise-making and bullying came afterwards—to stop disappointed aspirants from turning against the party and standing as independents. The consequence of all that top-down management was that the nominations saw much less open violence than in previous years.
So who won, and who lost, at the national level?
Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates. That brings us to the big national winners and losers of the process. Odinga—and his ODM party—have come out rather bruised. They have been accused of nepotism, bribery and of ignoring local wishes. This is a particularly dangerous accusation for Odinga, as it plays into popular concerns that, following his “handshake” with President Kenyatta and his adoption as the candidate of the “establishment”, he is a “project” of wealthy and powerful individuals who wish to retain power through the backdoor after Kenyatta stands down having served two-terms in office. In the face of well-publicised claims that Odinga would be a “remote controlled president” doing the bidding of the Kenyatta family and their allies, the impression that the nominations were stage-managed from on high in an undemocratic process was the last thing Azimio needed.
Moreover, perhaps because Odinga seems to have been less active than his rival in personally intervening to mollify aggrieved local politicians, the ODM nominations process seems to have left more of a mess. That was compounded by complications in the Azimio la Umoja/One Kenya Alliance Coalition Party (we’ll call it Azimio from now on, for convenience). Where Azimio “zoned”—that is, agreed on a single candidate from all its constituent parties—disappointed aspirants complained. Where it did not zone, and agreed to let each party nominate its own candidate for governor, MP and so on, then smaller parties in the coalition complained that they would face unfair competition come the general election. That is why the leaders of some of these smaller groups such as Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua made dramatic (or theatrical, depending on your view) announcements of their decision to leave Azimio and support Ruto.
Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates.
So Ruto looks like a nomination winner. But his success comes with a big price tag. His interventions to placate disgruntled aspirants involved more than soothing words. A new government will have lots of goodies to distribute to supporters—positions in the civil service and parastatals, diplomatic roles, not to mention business opportunities of many kinds. But the bag of goodies is not bottomless, and it seems likely that a lot of promises have been made. Ruto’s undoubted talents as an organizer and deal-maker have been useful to him through the nominations—but those deals may prove expensive for him, and for Kenya, if he wins the presidential poll.
Money, politics, and the cost of campaigns
Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword. In the short term, many of them will have saved considerable money: depending on exactly when the deal was done, they will have been spared some days of campaign expenses—no need to fuel cars, buy airtime for bloggers, pay for t-shirts and posters, and hand out cash. But that will be a brief respite. The disappointed rivals who have gone independent will make the campaigns harder for them—and likely more expensive. The belief that they were favoured by the party machinery may mean that voter expectations are higher when it comes to handouts and donations on the campaign trail. And the fact they were nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine their grass-roots legitimacy.
Others may experience a similar delayed effect. Among the short-term losers of the nominations will have been some of the “goons” who have played a prominent physical role in previous nominations: their muscular services were largely not required (although there were exceptions). The printers of posters and t-shirts will similarly have seen a disappointing nominations period (although surely they will have received enough early orders to keep them happy, especially where uncertainty over the nomination was very prolonged). The providers of billboard advertising may have seen a little less demand than they had hoped for, although they too seem to have done quite well from selling space to aspirants who—willingly or not—did not make it to the primaries. But where the general election will be fiercely contested, entrepreneurs will likely make up any lost ground as the campaigns get going. In these cases, competition has been postponed, not avoided.
Those in less competitive wards, constituencies or counties—the kind in which one party tends to dominate in the general election—are unlikely to be able to make up for lost time. These “one-party” areas may be in shorter supply in 2022 than in the past, due to the way that the control of specific leaders and alliances over the country’s former provinces has fragmented, but there will still be some races in which it is obvious who will win, and so the campaigns will be less heated.
Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword.
More definite losers are the parties themselves. In some ways, we could say they did well as institutions, because they were spared the embarrassment of violent primaries. But the settling of many nominations without primaries meant not collecting nomination fees from aspirants in some cases, and refunding them in others. That will have cost parties a chunk of money, which they won’t get back. That may not affect the campaigns much—the money for campaigns flows in opaque and complex ways that may not touch the parties themselves. But it will affect the finances of the parties as organizations, which are often more than a little fragile.
Are the losers actually the biggest winners?
Some losers, however, are really big winners. Think about those candidates who would not have won competitive primaries but were strong enough to be able to credibly complain that they had been hard done by due to the decision to select a rival in a direct process. In many cases, these individuals were able to extract considerable concessions in return for the promise not to contest as independents, and so disrupt their coalition’s best laid plans. This means that many of the losers—who may well have been defeated anyway—walked away with the promise of a post-election reward without the expense and bother of having to campaign up until the polls.
It is hard not to suspect that some of them might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn. In fact, some of them may have been aiming at this all along. For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome. Instead of spending the next three months in an exhausting round of funerals, fund-raisers and rallies, constantly worrying about whether they have enough fifty (or larger) shilling notes to hand out and avoiding answering their phones, they can sit back and wait for their parastatal appointment, ambassadorship, or business opportunity.
For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome.
For these individuals, the biggest worry now is not their popularity or campaign, but simply the risk that their coalition might not win the presidential election, rendering the promises they have received worthless. Those whose wishes come true will be considerably more fortunate—and financially better off—than their colleagues who made it through the nominations but fall at the final hurdle of the general election.
Separating the winners of the nominations process from the losers may therefore be harder than it seems.
Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.
The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.
Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.
According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.
A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.
The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?
A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.
What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.
Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.
Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.
Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.
As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.
While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.
Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.
“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.
Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.
Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.
Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.
The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.
Labour migration as climate mitigation
you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed
Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.
It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.
Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.
The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.
Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.
Reparations include No Borders
“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman
Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”
Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debt, unfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheid, labour exploitation, and border securitisation.
It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.
Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.
The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.
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