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Uganda and the Bobi Wine Proposition

8 min read.

The history, age, religion, tribe or whatever other characteristic of whoever challenges Museveni doesn’t matter. When everything else fails Museveni resorts to the use of force.

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Uganda and the Bobi Wine Proposition
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When Yoweri Museveni was declared winner of the January 14 election in Uganda, the situation in Kampala and other towns and townships across the country remained calm. There were no spontaneous celebrations. His party’s secretariat would hours later organise a victory procession from the spot where the declaration was made to Kololo Airstrip, the venue where Museveni will take the oath of office for the sixth time on May 12. One could clearly see that the procession, which took place under tight security, was largely made up of paid participants.

The absence of spontaneous celebrations after Museveni is declared winner is not news; it has been like this before. Museveni being declared winner and his opponents disputing the results has been a ritual that has been repeated every five years since 1996. When Museveni defeated Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere in 1996 amidst accusations of rigging, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, was 14 years old, too young to vote.

Much earlier – in 1980 – Museveni took part in his first presidential election as a candidate more than a year before Kyagulanyi was born. Museveni failed to win even in his own constituency on that occasion and the victory went to Milton Obote, the man who commanded the guns at the time. Museveni turned things in his favour when he started a war after that election and took control of the guns and the country’s leadership in 1986. He hasn’t looked back since.

Of course some Ugandans vote for Museveni, but perhaps they consider it too risky to openly celebrate. It is risky because many of their compatriots who vote against Museveni are angry at the establishment and do not understand how a Ugandan in full possession of their mental faculties can vote for Museveni in the year 2021. Many Ugandans have been attacked for showing support for Museveni, and when demonstrations take place, one would be well advised not to be caught wearing yellow, the colour of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Those Ugandans who don’t vote for Museveni believe that elections are habitually rigged in Museveni’s favour. And there is another group of Ugandans who have grown too despondent to participate in any election in which Museveni is a candidate. A regular commentator has over the past few months repeatedly wondered why Ugandans are keen to participate in polls whose outcome is known in advance.

The country is deeply divided and very few believe that the government is committed to democracy. An opinion poll that was conducted by Afrobarometer, whose results were released two days to the election, showed that whereas 78 per cent of Ugandans want their leaders to be chosen through periodic free and fair elections, only 36 per cent of the citizens are satisfied with how democracy works in Uganda. (Afrobarometer describes itself as an Africa-wide survey research project that measures citizen attitudes on democracy and governance, the economy, civil society, and other topics.)

That is the setting in which Kyagulanyi took on Museveni. The popstar-cum-politician whipped up emotions and motivated many – especially the youth – and ran a campaign against Museveni in particularly difficult circumstances. He had 64 days to campaign in 146 districts in what was his first ever countrywide tour as a politician. He had attempted to tour the country before the campaigns – and the law allows a presidential aspirant to conduct such a tour one year to the election – but the authorities blocked him. His music concerts were banned over three years ago when he made it clear that he harboured presidential ambitions.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to drop like manna from heaven for Museveni, and it was quickly seized upon to ensure that Kyagulanyi’s campaign activities in dozens of districts were blocked, while those in the districts he visited were over-policed and strictly controlled. To say that Kyagulanyi campaigned in the actual sense of the word would be to stretch matters. 

The same thing happened to the other candidates in the race. Museveni did not personally address rallies and limited himself to fairly small meetings with leaders of his party in different areas in observance of the rules that the electoral body had put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But he has interacted with the same voters for decades and as in all previous campaigns, he again had the entire state machinery doing his bidding in every village, paid for by the taxpayer.

Like Kizza Besigye, who before him had challenged Museveni at the polls four times, Kyagulanyi ran his campaign through defiance and made it clear at the outset that he would not abide by the rules set by the electoral body ostensibly to control the spread of COVID-19;  he would only abide by the electoral laws as set out in the constitution and the relevant statutes. Although Kyagulanyi acknowledged that COVID-19 is real and had sent out messages asking Ugandans to protect themselves, he also pointed out that by the time the campaigns started, Ugandans were interacting freely and such restrictions were almost nonexistent in markets and other areas, and argued that it was not logical that the government should think that people could only contract COVID-19 at political events.

In any event, he added, the government had not showed a commitment to the fight against COVID-19 and, as an example, pointed out that whereas money had been appropriated to supply all Ugandans with masks six months before the campaigns started, millions of Ugandans still hadn’t received them.

Kyagulanyi would be vindicated when after the election – and having been declared winner – Museveni drove from his country home hundreds of kilometers from the capital, making several stopovers along the way and addressing crowds of people who were not observing the preventive measures that had been strictly enforced during the campaigns. The veil was off and the lie was laid bare the moment Museveni obtained the result he was after.

Kyagulanyi disregarded the regulation to have a maximum of 200 people per meeting and called mass rallies. The authorities held their breath for a moment, hoping that the popstar would fail to draw crowds in areas away from his native Buganda region and his efforts would collapse on themselves. When the campaigns kicked off on 9 November 2020, Kyagulanyi started with a bang in an area far away from his native land. The crowds kept growing bigger and the narrative that he was only popular in his native Buganda region collapsed as quickly as it had been been constructed by regime propagandists. As the days wore on Kyagulanyi continued to pick up steam as he went through the districts and his tour of Buganda region drew closer. The regime ran out of patience.

Kyagulanyi had scheduled rallies in the east on 17 November 2020, to be followed by his first rally in Buganda the following day. He visited Masaka –  the epicenter of anti-Museveni activities – on his first day in Buganda. The authorities couldn’t allow that so on the morning of 17 November, Kyagulanyi was arrested as he arrived at the venue of his scheduled rally. It took something like a garrison of the army and the police to arrest him, and after a mini scuffle the presidential candidate was whisked away like a hardcore criminal. The abduction was relayed live on social media and some of it was on television. Kyagulanyi’s supporters violently protested in Kampala, Masaka and other towns and after two days of rioting the security agencies had shot and killed at least 52 Ugandans. According to official records, two others were run over by vehicles that were caught up in the melee.

The effects of the events of 18 and 19 November are still in evidence all over Uganda. While Kyagulanyi has been under house arrest since election day and he disputes the results of the election – Museveni was declared winner with 58.64% with Kyagulanyi garnering 34.83% – his supporters have not raised their heads to protest. There are armed soldiers walking in single file every few hundred meters in Kampala and other urban centres, and Ugandans only have to look back at the events of two months ago to know that these armed men could kill them with little provocation.

President Museveni left no doubt at all whatsoever that this could when he spoke about the November protests and killings: “According to the police report, for instance, the five persons who died in Nansana were part of the rioting group. They had, apparently, “overpowered” the police. I will get the details of “over powering” the police. What actually happened? It is criminal to attack security forces by throwing stones or attempting to disarm them. Police will legitimately fire directly at the attackers if they fail to respond to the firing in the air. Many of the up-country police groups are not equipped with anti-riot equipment (shields, batons, water cannons, rubber bullets etc.) and should not be.  We should not have a country of rioters. It is the duty of everybody to keep the peace.”

It is therefore back to square one. The emergence of Kyagulanyi as his principal challenger excited many and ignited hitherto apolitical constituencies to rise up against Museveni. These groups include artistes with whom Kyagulanyi has interacted for decades and young Ugandans who were excited by the prospect of having a youthful president. But the optimism that was whipped up by Kyagulanyi’s superstar status has since dimmed. He is locked up in his own home and not even the American ambassador succeeded in meeting him when she tried last week. His lawyers and party officials have been pleading to meet with him so that, they say, they may prepare a petition against Museveni’s re-election.

After the 2016 election, Besigye was where Kyagulanyi now finds himself. He was locked up in his home from the day after the voting until the eve of Museveni’s inauguration – a period of three months – when he escaped and unexpectedly showed up in the busiest area of Kampala. Besigye was then arrested and flown in a military chopper to the remotest part of the country where he was charged with treason because he had declared himself winner of the election. The treason case has not been tried for five years and the state is clearly not interested in following through.

The objective – which was achieved – was to keep Besigye out of circulation and prevent him from organising a mass uprising, which Museveni’s government seems to believe is the only thing that can remove it from power. After the 2011 election, which Besigye again disputed, the opposition leader inspired what were dubbed walk-to-work protests, bringing Kampala to a standstill for months. Museveni is keen to ensure Kyagulanyi does not inspire such protests and his government has literally banned demonstrations; whoever tries to protest is met with brute force. On the other hand, those Ugandans who would perhaps like to protest against what they call a rigged election wouldn’t dare – the events of November are still very fresh in their minds.

Museveni has thrown at Kyagulanyi every weapon that he thinks might work. In an interview with an international television channel during the campaigns, he accused Kyagulanyi of being backed by foreigners and homosexuals and has repeated these claims many times over. Museveni made the same claims against Besigye, never mind that his stranglehold over Uganda for the last 35 years has been made possible in large measure by foreign funding.

A new accusation that has cropped up against Kyagulanyi is that he is promoting tribalism and sectarianism. Kyagulanyi is an ethnic Muganda and his tribesmen have for the first time since 1996 rejected Museveni and voted for Kyagulanyi. Museveni, however, has on each occasion since 1996 been overwhelmingly voted for by the Banyankole – his kinsmen – and most of western Uganda, but this does not come up in the tribalism talk that he and his spokespeople have now ignited. The import of what is happening is simple: Kyagulanyi, just like Museveni’s every opponent before him, will be fought by all means possible.

When all other methods fail, Museveni resorts to the use of force. In a video clip that went viral, Museveni vowed to obliterate Kyagulanyi’s group. A few days later, security forces arrested dozens of Kyagulanyi’s followers, accusing them of all sorts of crimes. Some of them are locked up by the military, accused of illegal possession of military equipment. The pressure exerted on Kyagulanyi was so intense that about a week to polling day he sent his children out of the country. He cut an isolated figure going into the election, only enjoying the company of his wife at home, with whom he now remains under house arrest. You can call it a home or a barracks, whichever you choose.

In the end, all the theories about whether Kyagulanyi would be a different proposition to Museveni collapse. It was always going to come to this; the history, age, religion, tribe or whatever other characteristic of whoever challenges Museveni doesn’t matter. When everything else fails Museveni resorts to the use of force. With his military strength still visibly intact, he will perhaps keep his foot on the gas peddle for as long as he can. Or maybe he will surprise us and engineer a negotiated exit.

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The writer is a journalist based in Uganda.

Politics

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.

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Who Won Kenya’s “Nominations”?
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Politics

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.

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“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 debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour 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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