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Dominic Ongwen: LRA Victim or Perpetrator?

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Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander who was put on trial at the ICC, is appealing his conviction and sentencing. A question that persisted throughout his trial was whether Ongwen was a victim or a perpetrator in the northern Uganda conflict.

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All sides involved in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Dominic Ongwen agreed that he did not voluntarily join the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and that he was subjected to the group’s violent initiation rituals to force him to submit to the LRA.

What they disagreed on is whether Ongwen’s brutal induction into the LRA meant that he was himself a victim throughout the 27 years he was a member of the LRA, that he was always submissive and incapable of making his own decisions, including whether to escape the group.

Ongwen’s trial covered only a fraction of the time he was with the LRA— the period between 1 July 2002 and 31 December 2005. In 2002, Ongwen was 24 years old, well past the age of 15 years, the upper limit for him to be classified as a child solider under the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding law.

Ongwen’s lawyers advanced the “once a victim, always a victim” argument. The prosecution disagreed, pointing to the testimony of multiple former LRA members who, just like Ongwen, were abducted and forced to join the group but later chose to escape the LRA despite the threat of death if they were recaptured. Lawyers representing the victims said their clients had shared a similar  a experience of their LRA superiors “beating the civilian” out of them but they later chose to leave the group at great risk to themselves.

The three judges of Trial Chamber IX agreed with the arguments of the prosecution and the victims’ lawyers when they unanimously convicted Ongwen of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity on February 4 this year.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt and Judges Péter Kovács and Raul C. Pangalangan also considered similar arguments when determining what sentence to give Ongwen. They sentenced him to 25 years imprisonment in a 2-1 decision issued on May 6.

The duress defence

In their 1,077-page judgement, Judges Schmitt, Kovács and Pangalangan explained why they concluded that when Ongwen committed the crimes he was charged with he was not under “a threat of imminent death” nor was he under threat of “continuing bodily harm.” These are the two elements Ongwen’s lawyers needed to demonstrate in their argument that their client was under duress when he committed the crimes he was charged with.

“In fact, based on the above, the Chamber finds that Dominic Ongwen was not in a situation of complete subordination vis-à-vis [LRA leader] Joseph Kony. The evidence indicates that in the period of the charges, Dominic Ongwen did not face any prospective punishment by death or serious bodily harm when he disobeyed Joseph Kony. Dominic Ongwen also had a realistic possibility of leaving the LRA, which he did not pursue. Rather he rose in rank and position, including during the period of the charges,” said the judges.

The judges further addressed the issue of Ongwen being a victim because of his abduction when he was nine years old and concluded,

“The Chamber has duly considered the above facts underlying these submissions [by the defence]. In addition, and while acknowledging that indeed Dominic Ongwen had been abducted at a young age by the LRA, the Chamber notes that Dominic Ongwen committed the relevant crimes when he was an adult and, importantly, that, in any case, the fact of having been (or being) a victim of a crime does not constitute, in and of itself, a justification of any sort for the commission of similar or other crimes.”

Dominic Ongwen also had a realistic possibility of leaving the LRA, which he did not pursue.

One reason the judges reached the conclusions they did about Ongwen was that dozens of witnesses who testified before them described having suffered similar experiences to what Ongwen underwent in the LRA. They testified about their abduction at a young age. They testified about their brutal initiation into the LRA. They testified about their constant fear of being killed on suspicion of wanting to escape but, in many cases, they overcame that fear or resigned themselves to the possibility of being killed and chose to escape anyway.

In their majority decision on Ongwen’s sentencing, Judges Schmitt and Kovács said they took into account Ongwen’s abduction by the LRA when he was nine years old and what he went through as a child. They said they weighed that against the gravity of the crimes for which they convicted Ongwen. Judge Pangalangan said he agreed with their reasoning regarding Ongwen’s sentencing but he disagreed with the sentence itself. In a partially dissenting opinion, Judge Pangalangan said he would have sentenced Ongwen to 30 years in prison. All the judges were agreed, however, that they would not sentence Ongwen to life imprisonment as the lawyers for the victims had asked.

Ongwen’s age

Another issue Judges Schmitt, Kovács and Pangalangan determined in their February 4 judgment was Ongwen’s age and the year he was abducted. After analysing the different testimonies placed before them, the judges concluded that Ongwen was abducted in 1987 and that he was nine years old at the time.

The judges decided to make a determination on Ongwen’s age and the year he was abducted because, as Ongwen’s case proceeded, different people gave Ongwen a different age at the time of his abduction. They included Ongwen himself who said he was 14 years old when he was abducted. He said this on the first day he appeared before the ICC in January 2015.

In 1987, when Ongwen was abducted on his way to school, the LRA was known as the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces before it later changed its name to the Lord’s Resistance Army. In the period during which he committed the crimes for which he was convicted and sentenced, Ongwen was a commander with the LRA’s Sinia Brigade. Between 2002 and 2005, Ongwen was first commander of the Oka battalion of Sinia Brigade and was later promoted to other command positions before being named overall brigade commander.

The crimes

The crimes for which Ongwen was convicted and sentenced include his role in attacks on four camps for internally displaced people in the Gulu and Lira districts of northern Uganda. Ongwen was also convicted of murder, persecution, pillaging, torture and attacking civilians in the Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok IDP camps. The attack on Pajule took place on 10 October 2003, the Odek attack on 29 April 2004, Lukodi on 19 May 2004 and Abok on 8 June 2004. These IDP camps and others in northern Uganda have since been closed and the people have returned to their villages, especially after the LRA left northern Uganda as part of the Juba-mediated peace process that ran from 2006 to 2008.

Ongwen was also convicted on 11 counts of sexual and gender-based crimes he committed himself. These include forcefully marrying five women identified in the verdict by their pseudonyms P-099, P-101, P-214, P-226 and P-227. Other sexual and gender-based crimes for which Ongwen was convicted include rape, torture, sexual slavery, enslavement and forced pregnancy. He was convicted of committing these crimes against seven women.

The former commander in the LRA’s Sinia brigade was also convicted of indirectly committing sexual and gender-based crimes against other women. Ongwen was also convicted of two counts of conscripting children under the age of 15 into the LRA and using them to participate in attacks.

Ongwen’s conviction on 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity is a record at the ICC. It is unlikely that Ongwen would be holding such a record had he not surrendered himself in January 2015. The ICC issued an arrest warrant in July 2005 but Ongwen evaded capture for close to 10 years. By the time he surrendered himself to a rebel group in the Central African Republic in January 2015, there had been an unsuccessful multinational effort in that country to capture Kony and other LRA commanders. So, what led to Ongwen’s surrender in January 2015? Ongwen did not testify during his trial so the reasons for his surrender remain unclear.

A prosecutor comes calling

But how did the northern Uganda conflict that Ongwen was part of end up at the ICC? The obvious answer would be that in December 2003 Uganda asked the ICC to investigate the atrocities committed in the region. This was the first such request to be received at the ICC after it began work in July 2002. The request led the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to investigate the atrocities in northern Uganda and request judges to issue an arrest warrant for five LRA commanders, including Ongwen. The arrest warrant was issued in July 2005 and, almost 10 years later, Ongwen surrendered to a rebel group in the Central African Republic and was later handed over to the ICC in January 2015.

However, it turns out that the ICC’s involvement in Uganda was not that straightforward. Uganda did not simply seek the ICC’s intervention—the official ICC line on the issue. On the contrary, the ICC’s first prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, actively encouraged Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to seek the ICC’s intervention in northern Uganda. The mid-2003 discussion between Moreno Ocampo and Museveni did not seal the deal; Museveni referred the matter to the Ministries of Justice and Defence and there was debate on the pros and cons before Uganda sent the ICC a referral request.

According to Phil Clark in his 2018 book Distant Justice, Phil Clark says that it is Moreno Ocampo who first broached the subject. In short, Moreno Ocampo did what in legal circles is sometimes referred to as ambulance chasing.

According to Clark, Moreno Ocampo reached out to the Ugandan government in London in May 2003. He based his information on an interview with an unnamed Ministry of Defence official that corroborated a 27 July 2009 report in The EastAfrican.

At the time Moreno Ocampo made that initial approach to the Ugandan government, the ICC was almost a year old and it had no case to its name.

In his book, Distant Justice, Clark argues that the Office of the Prosecutor actively pursuing cases in the early days of the court underlined, “a view within the Court—and particularly within the OTP—that, as a new global institution with substantial financial and diplomatic backing from State Parties, it needed to open investigations and prosecutions quickly to be seen as a legitimate actor on the world stage.”

Ongwen’s conviction on 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity is a record at the ICC.

This is echoed by an unnamed ICC official Clark interviewed in 2006. “What use is a court without cases? We wanted to hit the ground running and show the world that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” the official told Clark.

When Moreno Ocampo initiated discussions with Uganda on a possible referral, he found a government thinking through what the court meant for world politics. Lucien Tibaruha, Uganda’s Solicitor-General of at the time, told Clark in a March 2006 interview that after Moreno Ocampo got in touch with Museveni, the issue of an ICC referral was passed on to both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence. Tibaruha told Clark that it was the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that followed up on the issue with the ICC.

“They started talking to the Court and they kept us informed. MoD is in charge of day-to-day ICC affairs. . . . In our referral we told the ICC the LRA is out of reach by the Ugandan government. We asked the Court to go get them. It’s clear we’re unable to prosecute the LRA because they’re currently outside the jurisdiction of Uganda,” Tibaruha told Clark.

A Ministry of Defence official who spoke to Clark on condition of anonymity gave him a similar account of how Moreno Ocampo initiated the discussions with Uganda.

“In all truth, it was a blessing because we’d tried everything against the LRA—[peace] talks, military operations, amnesties. We needed a new approach and here was something new, something unexpected,” the Ministry of Defence official told Clark in August 2011.

The Ministry of Defence official also told Clark that Museveni thought going the ICC route, “would be a good way to get rid of Kony and the [other LRA leaders] but he wanted to know what we in [in MoD] thought.”

“We said it was the right approach but some in the government, like the Ministry of Justice, weren’t so sure. They thought the ICC could be turned around and used against the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force). . . . Ultimately, the President agreed with us,” said the Ministry of Defence official.

What former Ugandan Solicitor-General Lucien Tibaruha told Clark about the military taking the lead in dealing with the ICC was in evidence during Ongwen’s trial. To corroborate witness testimony against Ongwen, the prosecution relied on Ugandan intelligence and police intercepts of LRA radio communications.

The UPDF and the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) recorded their intercepts of LRA radio communications. The UPDF and ISO members who were assigned to intercept LRA radio communications also took notes at the same time as they were recording the broadcasts. Separately, members of the Ugandan police force took notes of LRA radio communications they intercepted but they did not record those broadcasts. During Ongwen’s trial, it emerged that the UPDF had been intercepting LRA radio communications since 1995 and the ISO since 2000.

In total, the prosecution disclosed 600 cassettes of recordings of intercepted LRA radio communications and 22,000 pages of notes and other material related to those intercepts.

During the conflict in northern Uganda between the LRA and government forces, LRA commanders talked to each other and to their superiors via two-day radio. Former LRA radio operators who testified during Ongwen’s trial said some of the radios they used had been seized during attacks on the compounds of aid agencies working in northern Uganda.

The former LRA radio operators also said they used a cipher to communicate sensitive information over radio because they were aware that Ugandan security agencies were listening in on their conversations. They said the cipher changed regularly.

Moreno Ocampo did what in legal circles is sometimes referred to as ambulance chasing.

In addition to the cassettes and other material the Ugandan government handed over to the OTP, eight members of Uganda’s intelligence agency, military, and police testified during Ongwen’s trial. Four of them told the court about their routine as they intercepted LRA communications and described the cipher the LRA used while communicating sensitive information over radio. They said they learnt about the cipher from notebooks and materials seized by the Ugandan military during attacks on LRA positions.

Among the Ugandan military officers who testified was the top lawyer for military intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Nabaassa Kanyogonya. He told the court that the different intercept programmes had not been started with the aim of building a court case, but rather to aid the military in its fight against the LRA. Kanyogonya did say, however, that over time they also investigated LRA commanders and gathered evidence on 15 of them, including Ongwen. He said this evidence was handed over to the ICC.

Other LRA atrocities

Ongwen’s trial was limited to a three-and-a-half-year period and to attacks on four places in the districts of Gulu and Lira. His trial did not cover the span of the 20 years during which the Lord’s Resistance Army killed, brutalised and abducted tens of thousands of people in northern Uganda.

But it is easy to think Ongwen was being tried for all the atrocities committed in the name of the LRA. After all, three of the senior LRA commanders indicted by the ICC together with Ongwen are dead. The fourth—long-time LRA leader Joseph Kony—has evaded arrest to date despite a six-year multinational hunt for him and other remnants of the LRA in the remote areas of Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan.

Outside the ICC, it is only in Uganda where a former LRA commander, Thomas Kwoyelo, is on trial. The proceedings against Kwoyelo began in 2011 at the High Court and his trial is ongoing.

To corroborate witness testimony against Ongwen, the prosecution relied on Ugandan intelligence and police intercepts of LRA radio communications.

Apart from the court cases, an amnesty programme for former rebels has also been in effect in Uganda and from the time the amnesty law came into force in 2000, more than 13,000 former LRA members have been given amnesty for their roles in the rebel group. Most were rank-and-file LRA members and, like Ongwen, a number were former senior or mid-ranking LRA members who were either his superiors or were his equals between 2002 and 2005. Some of them testified during Ongwen’s trial.

During the period between 2002 and 2005 when Ongwen committed the crimes for which he was convicted by the ICC, foreign news agencies regularly quoted 20,000 as the number of children abducted by the LRA, an estimate that was attributed to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Going by that estimate and subtracting from it the number of former LRA members granted amnesty by the Ugandan government, this means that as many as 7,000 people are unaccounted for in the northern Uganda conflict. How many of these are people who were killed during the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda? How many of them are people who survived the conflict but have not been able to return to their families?

These are not just academic questions. A clansman of Ongwen’s who was abducted together with him testified about these issues during the trial. Joe Kakanyero told the court that throughout the 27 years Ongwen was with the LRA the family was never sure whether he was alive or dead. Kakanyero, who testified for the defence, said it was only when they saw Ongwen on television making his first appearance at the ICC that they knew for sure he was alive and where he was.

Ongwen has been tried, convicted and sentenced and his family knows he is at the ICC Detention Centre. Thousands of survivors of the 20-year northern Uganda conflict do not know whether their sister or brother, mother or father, aunt or uncle is alive or dead.

Tom Maliti covered Dominic Ongwen’s trial for the International Justice Monitor from when it opened in December 2016 to when the judgment was issued in February this year.

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Tom Maliti is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He covered different trials and proceedings at the ICC for the International Justice Monitor for close to 10 years until March 2021.

Politics

Moving to the Metropole: Migration as Revolution

In an act that should be seen as revolutionary, Africans are moving to the centre to benefit from the resources that continue to be extracted from their continent.

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When African students and other black persons escaping Ukraine at the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict were being ejected from exiting transport (trains and busses) and denied entry into neighbouring Poland, many Africans were enraged with the shameless display of racism. One of these Africans was a middle-aged man from Congo—must have been a graduate student—only recently settled in Germany. Seated inside a café at the Berlin central train station with five of his German and British friends, he exploded: “One wonders how they built all these things? From where did you get all this money? Look where we are, this Hauptbahnof [main train station] must have consumed a fortune. The vehicles you make? No way!” His monologue lasted a while as his friends listened either in agreement or disbelief: “This is our money,” he went on.  “This is why you never stop these civil wars on the continent only to treat us like sub-humans. But we will not stop coming, whatever the cost!” he declared. His voice sounded austere, choked with emotion. None of his friends volunteered an immediate response. Then one said, this Ukraine situation is embarrassing.

While the angry tirade was sparked by the treatment of Africans trying to escape a war zone, clearly, this man had thought about all this stuff for some time. He must have been educated or observant enough to make the connections between the extraction back home in the DRC, the endless violent wars, the resources in Europe (as coming from his home), and the racist treatment of his kindred who otherwise deserve some respect for sustaining the beautiful lifestyles and infrastructures of the western world. Had he listened to Mallence Bart-Williams’ viral TEDx Talk? The story of this Congolese man, whom I will call Tshibumba Matulu (after the painter Tshibumba Matulu that Dutch anthropologist, Johannes Fabian writes about in Remembering the Present) is the story of “the metropole and the periphery” that dependency theorists Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The last line of his vitriol is interesting enough in the sense that now, Africans are seeking to see the world as one whole and thus determined to move to the centre—follow up on and seek to enjoy their resources—at whatever cost. Indeed, despite the innumerable roadblocks (immigration laws, expensive and convoluted visa processes, slave traders in the Maghreb, drowning in the Mediterranean, rank racism, and Islamophobia in the western world), Africans are moving to the centre, to the metropole, en masse. They are determined to follow up on their resources.

This is the story of both the open and disguised violence of neoliberalism, where Africa is heavily mined on the cheap, exploited through unequal exchange, climate/conservation colonialism, with the proceeds coming from African human and natural resources being stolen through inexplicable claims of value addition. This point of view has been recently, succinctly and loudly expressed by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in her fight with French President Emmanuel Macron over immigration policies in Europe. Known for her anti-immigrant policies, Meloni’s (selfish) position is that if the French stopped stealing resources from 14 African countries through the clearly colonial and extortionist CFA, Africans would not be forced to make the dangerous journeys to Europe (where, by implication, they come to follow up on their resources, which are violently extracted leaving behind absolute poverty and suffering). In that viral clip doing the rounds across the globe, Meloni concludes that the solution to stop Africans from moving from their country to Europe is to leave them alone and have them receive the full benefit of their God-given resources:

So, the solution is not to take Africans and bring them to Europe, the solution is to free Africa from certain Europeans [especially France] who exploit it and allow these people to live off what they have.

While this message seemed directed at the French, the spread of (both violent and structural) capitalism across the African continent is real and threatening. With the collapse of the African economies about 30 years ago (via structural adjustment programmes), where foreign-owned companies returned under the neoliberal order and took over Africa’s major resources or the pillars upon which these economies stood—mineral resources (gold, oil, coffee, diamonds), banking, telecommunications, selling of agricultural products which used to be a function of cooperatives and direct government help—the continent has been left in a clear condition of morbidity. The bold choice, which I argue should be seen as revolutionary, is to move to the centre and demand the benefits of the resources that have been endlessly stolen from the continent, violently and through disguised extractivist structures.

***

Being a Congolese from Goma, Tshibumba Matulu must have witnessed the scramble for Congolese resources by the rich and mighty of the western world very up-close and personal—Dan Gertler International (DGI), Glencore Plc. and Alain Goetz, all of whom have a strong foothold in the country’s mining sector. These multinational companies own almost all the mining sites in the DRC, and have been implicated in the unending violence in the country, which is connected to the ways in which resources are mined. Take South Sudan as the other example where Glencore has a strong foothold in South Sudanese oil. In early November 2022, Glencore Plc. executives were found guilty of bribing the South Sudanese leadership—starting just four weeks after the country’s independence—as “they sought to profit from political turmoil . . . they inserted themselves into government-to-government deals that had been negotiated at preferential rates”.  The Africa Progress Panel estimated that in a period of two years (2010-2012), DRC lost US$1.3 billion in asset sales to DGI. A 2021 study showed that DRC risked losing US$3.71 billion to controversial Israeli businessman Dan Gertler. This is a lot of money—which ends up in Israel where Gertler is one of the richest men and has been controversially implicated in a thousand scandals in Congo. To understand the fact that modern extraction follows a colonial model, one has to appreciate the fact that colonialism’s extraction was and is always outsourced to corporations. King Leopold operated in his individual capacity as a businessman, using his loot to build estates, infrastructures and palaces in Belgium (and not on the African continent). That an independent businessman, Dan Gertler, would promise guns to a government and actually deliver on his promise exposes the ways in which governments in the west outsource businessmen to colonise Africa on their behalf.

These multinational companies own almost all the mining sites in the DRC, and have been implicated in the unending violence in the country.

Dependency theory so succinctly exposed the roots and execution of underdevelopment in Black Africa, which is, in brief, resources being extracted on the cheap from the periphery (Africa), to be moved and generate more value in the metropole. If these resources ever come back to the continent (Latin America or Africa), they return more expensively. In this periphery-metropole dichotomy, endless capitalist exploitation (which mostly thrives on violence) not only depletes resources and opportunities at the periphery, but also makes life unliveable and unbearable. It then enacts tougher controls to keep the peoples of the periphery at the periphery so that they do not move to the metropole and overwhelm its amenities. This is why African journeys to the metropole are not only dangerous, but are also defined by more drama that tends to generate an incredible amount of grim news broadcasts. Dependency theory does not explicitly follow up on the revolutionary journeys where the exploited—like Tshibumba Matulu—painstakingly seek the benefits of their resources in the metropole. This is perhaps because it pursued another route out of this colonial conundrum, which was to de-link the metropole from the periphery.

Capitalism’s violence, revolutionary journeys

Transiting through airports in Dubai or Doha, one will encounter East African languages, especially Kiswahili and Luganda. Manning a counter in twos or threes, staff tend to speak to each other in their languages. While duty stations may not be allocated depending on the mutual native linguistic intelligibility between workers, since all speak English, somehow, workers from the same Great Lakes linguistic community find themselves together. That the numbers of labour migrants moving to the Middle East have soared over the past years is not just testament to the availability of job opportunities in the Middle East, but also to the dire conditions in which they live in their countries—conditions made difficult by the capitalist neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, and in some cases by conflict (especially in Northern Uganda, Karamoja, Turkana areas, South Sudan and Somalia). Middle Eastern salaries are not the greatest attraction as they range between US$600 and US$900 depending on seniority (far much less for domestic work). But that the same amounts cannot be earned back home speaks more to the dire conditions at home.

Data from the Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development published in the Daily Monitor, indicates that for the last six years (2016-2022), an average of 24,086 Ugandans left the country annually in search of employment, especially in the Middle East. What makes conditions so hostile in the Great Lakes Region?  Besides Somalia and Central African Republic—where there is outright violence—why is the scale of movement of young people in particular so high in the Great Lakes region? It is the ravages of both internal capitalism (by the petty bourgeoisies) and foreign capital moving from South Africa northwards, but also coming from Europe and North America—and China exploiting the neoliberal environment. This is evident in cases of land grabbing, forced evictions, refugee crises caused by resource wars, especially in DRC and South Sudan, and the terrible business environment in the region.

Dependency theory does not explicitly follow up on the revolutionary journeys where the exploited painstakingly seek the benefits of their resources in the metropole.

Theoretically and practically, without the violence of the state and other related state actors, it is difficult for capitalism to reproduce itself.  States do not only set the conditions under which extraction occurs (such as banking regimes, neoliberal regimes), but they are also ready to commit violence on the exploited. In Uganda, cases of land grabbing by local capitalists have made land ownership and agriculture difficult. In other cases, collusion between the state and foreign capitalists to evict peasants off their lands is causing first, rural urban-migration, and then journeys abroad. Among the most memorable cases is that of the 2001 evictions in Mubende where the German coffee company Neumann Gruppe used outright violence (with the help of the state), including shooting, burning houses and animals, and maiming people to create way for a coffee plantation. Over 2,000 families remain destitute and are yet to find justice. Faced with mass unemployment, extortionist banking regimes with high interest rates that have stymied creativity and made business difficult across East Africa, many young people struggle to start thriving businesses.

Violent evictions have also taken place in Kenya and Tanzania to create way for capitalist expansion or capitalist ostentation (Franz Fanon warned that political elites would turn the continent into an entertainment centre for foreign capitalists). This is the story in Samburu where evictions have taken place to create way for American charities. It is the story of the green colonialism that led to the Ogiek and Maasai evictions from the Mau Forest in the name of conservation. Guillaume Blanc’s recently published book, The Invention of Green Colonialism, demonstrates how the rhetoric of conservation (by colonially founded organisations including UNESCO, WWF, IUCN) perpetuates a colonial model of conservation that privileges animals and plants over humans. While capitalists in Europe and North America—consuming endlessly—have destroyed nature, they have maintained a mythical, fictionalised Eden in Africa, insisting that peasants, who have developed ways of coexisting with nature, who eat very little meat, have neither cars, nor computers nor smartphones, are a danger to the environment. They are evicted from huge swathes of land that are then reserved for white people to hunt and gaze at wild animals.

Away from the forests and the plains, the poor are also being “cleansed” from the capital cities. The 2021 Mukuru Kwa Njega eviction in Nairobi that left 40,000 people homeless is etched in the memories of Kenyans. In what Mwaura Mwangi aptly termed “Demolition Colonialism”, thousands of poor Nairobians have had their houses demolished so that the rich can enjoy easy transit. This is not anti-development position, but rather a reading that seeks to recognise the rights of the poor, and make visible the history of slums in major cities across Africa.

Theoretically and practically, without the violence of the state and other related state actors, it is difficult for capitalism to reproduce itself.

Then come the wars in the DRC, Somalia, CAR, and South Sudan—a product of business dealings by multinationals including Glencore and CNOOC, among others— that have led to an increase in refugees numbers, now reaching 2.3 million people according to UNHCR. In his book Saviours and Survivors, Mahmood Mamdani implicates CNOOC and ExxonMobil in protecting oil wells using different rebel groups in the Sudan-South Sudan conflict. The end product of these clandestine oil dealings are the over 1.5 million refugees hosted in Uganda, making it the country with the largest number of refugees in the world. The influx of people escaping resource-related conflicts has overwhelmed resources in the Great Lakes region.  And while many of the refugees will stay in the region, many others are making the journey to the Middle East, to Europe and to North America.

With all this aggressive capitalist expansion manifesting in different forms, the African in the Great Lakes (and other places on the continent) is left with no choice but to make the journey to Europe and to North America. I want to read these journeys not just as migration, but as revolution. They might seem puny, unorganised and migrating out of desperate need, but Africans are moving to the centre to benefit from the resources that continue to be extracted from their continent. This is how the extractors perceive these journeys—not as migration, but as revolution—which explains why there are so many roadblocks along the way.

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Politics

The Campaign that Remembered Nothing and Forgot Nothing

Once a master of coalition building, Raila Odinga killed his own party and brand, handed over his backyard to William Ruto, threw in his lot with Uhuru Kenyatta, ended up being branded a “state project”, and lost.

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The Original sin

A seasoned Nairobi politician, Timothy Wanyonyi had cut a niche for himself in the Nairobi governor’s race that was filled with a dozen candidates who had up to that point not quite captured the imagination of Nairobians. Some candidates were facing questions over their academic qualifications while others were without a well-defined public profile. In that field Wanyonyi, an experienced Nairobi politician, stood out. On 19th April, the Westlands MP’s campaign team was canvasing for him in Kawangware. They had sent pictures and videos to news teams seeking coverage. But that evening their candidate would receive a phone call to attend a meeting at State House Nairobi that would put an end to his campaign. Before Tim made his way to State House, insiders around President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters that Wanyonyi was out of the Nairobi governor’s race.

Wanyonyi’s rallying call “Si Mimi, ni Sisi”—a spin on US Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Not me. Us” 2020 presidential campaign slogan—distinguished him as a candidate who understood the anxieties of Nairobians. “They were looking for someone who would see the city as a home first, before seeing it as a business centre,” one of his political consultants told me. But the Azimio coalition to which Wanyonyi’s ODM party belonged was very broad, with several centres of power that didn’t take into account—or maybe didn’t care about— Nairobi’s political landscape. Wanyonyi’s candidacy was hastily sacrificed at the altar of the coalition’s politics. Former President Uhuru Kenyatta, the coalition’s chairman, had prevailed on Raila Odinga, its presidential candidate, to essentially leave Nairobi to Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party in exchange for ODM picking the presidential candidate.

That was the only consideration on the table.

However, it was a miscalculation by the coalition. Azimio failed to appreciate the complex matrix that is a presidential election in Kenya. While the top ticket affects the races downstream, it can be argued that the reverse is also true. It is ironic that Raila Odinga, a power broker and a master of coalition building who was running for presidency for the fifth time, was choosing to ignore these principles. His own ascension in politics had been based on building a machine—ODM—that he used carefully during every election cycle. Yet in this election he was killing his own party and brand. The Azimio La Umoja coalition party was built as a party of parties that would be the vehicle Raila would use to contest the presidency. However, the constituent parties were free to sponsor parliamentary candidates. It sounded like a good idea on paper but it created friction as the parties found themselves in competition everywhere. To keep Azimio from fracturing both itself and its votes, the idea of “zoning”—having weaker candidates step down for stronger ones, essentially carving out exclusive zones for parties—gained traction, and would itself lead to major fall-outs, even after it was adopted as official Azimio policy in June.

However, beyond the zoning controversy, Wanyonyi’s candidacy served as a marker for a key block of Odinga voters—the Luhya—assuring them of their place within the Azimio coalition. Luhya voters have been Odinga’s insurance policy during his last three presidential runs. With Nyanza and the four western Kenya counties of Kakamega, Bungoma, Vihiga and Busia in his back pocket, he would be free to pick up other regions. Odinga claimed 71 per cent of the Luhya bloc in 2017 but this time, western voters were feeling jittery about the new political arrangements.

There is also another consideration. The Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi is also significant, and Odinga had carried the capital in his previous three presidential runs. The Nairobi electoral map is largely organized around five big groups: the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kisii. For the ODM party, having a combination of a Luo-Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi has enabled Odinga to take the city and to be a force to reckon with.

However, it appeared that all these factors were of no importance in 2022. So, Tim Wanyonyi was forced out of the race. He protested. Or attempted to. Western Kenya voters were furious, but who cared?

Miscalculation

The morning after the State House meeting, a group calling themselves Luhya professionals had strong words for both Odinga and Azimio.

“We refuse to be used as a ladder for other political expediencies whenever there is an election,” Philip Kisia, who was the chairman of this loose “professional group” said during a press conference that paraded the faces of political players from the Luhya community. The community had “irreducible minimum” and would not allow itself to “to be used again this time.” Other speakers at that press conference—including ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna—laid claim to what they called the place of the Luhya community in Nairobi. The political relationship between Luhyas and Luos has not been without tensions; in the aftermath of the opposition’s unravelling in the 90s, Michael Kijana Wamalwa and Raila Odinga fought for supremacy within the Ford Kenya party. Wamalwa believed the throne left by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was his for the taking. However, Odinga’s son, Raila, mounted a challenge for the control of the party, eventually leaving Ford Kenya to build his own party, the National Development Party (NDP). The Luhya-Luo relationship was broken. Luhya sentiment was that, having been faithful to Odinga’s father, it was time for Wamalwa to lead the opposition.

These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet. This time, however, he was different. He didn’t seem to care about those fragile egos. After the press conference, a strategist in Odinga’s camp wondered aloud, “Who will they [Luhyas] vote for?”

The next 21 days were to be pivotal for Kenya’s presidential election. Azimio moved on and introduced Polycarp Igathe as their candidate for Nairobi. A former deputy governor in Nairobi who had quit just months after taking office, Igathe is well known for his C-suite jobs and intimate links to the Kenyan political elite. His selection, though, played perfectly into the rival Kenya Kwanza coalition’s “hustlers vs dynasties” narrative which sought to frame the 2022 elections as a contest between the political families that have dominated Kenya’s politics and economy since independence. The sons of a former vice president and president respectively, Odinga and Uhuru were branded as dynasties while the then deputy president claimed for himself the title of “hustler”.

These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet.

But, William Ruto’s side also saw something else in that moment—an opportunity to get a chunk of the important Luhya vote. Ruto first entered into a coalition with Musalia Mudavadi, selling their alliance as a “partnership of equals”, and then followed that up with the offer of a Luhya gubernatorial candidate to Nairobians in the name of Senator Johnson Koskei Sakaja.

Meanwhile, Wanyonyi’s half-brother, the current Speaker of the National Assembly, Moses Wetangula, was a principle in Ruto’s camp. Up to this point, Wetangula had struggled to find a coherent message to sell Ruto’s candidacy to the Luhya nation. But, with his brother being shafted by Azimio, Wetangula saw a political opening; he quickly called a press conference and complained bitterly about the “unfair Odinga” whom he said the Luhya community would not support for “denying their son a ticket to run for the seat of the governor of Nairobi”. His press conference went almost unnoticed and it is not even clear if Azimio took notice of the political significance of Wetangula’s protestations.

Azimio had offered their opponents an inroad into western Kenya politics and Ruto wasted little time trying turn a key Odinga voting bloc. With Sakaja confirmed as the Kenya Kwanza candidate for the Nairobi governor’s race, Wetangula and Kenya Kwanza made Western Kenya a centrepiece of their path to presidency. Tim Wanyonyi was presented as a martyr. The Ford Kenya leader took to all the radio stations, taking calls or sending emissaries, to declare Odinga’s betrayal. In the days and weeks that followed, William Ruto would make a dozen more visits to Luhyaland than his rival, assuring the voters that there would be a central place reserved for them in his administration. In contrast, on a visit to western Kenya, Raila Odinga expressed anger that an opinion poll had shown him trailing Ruto in Bungoma. “He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!” he told the crowd. He would eventually lose Bungoma and Trans Nzoia to William Ruto.

To be sure, Odinga won western Kenya with 55 per cent of the vote, but William Ruto had 45 per cent, enough to light his path to the presidency. He would repeat the same feat in Nairobi and coast regions, traditionally Odinga strongholds where he would have expected to bag upwards of 60 per cent of the vote. Azimio modelling had put these regions in Raila’s column but Kenya Kwanza took advantage of the mistake-prone Odinga. And wherever Odinga blundered, Ruto mopped up. As Speaker, Wetangula is today the third most powerful man in in the country. Yet just four years ago, he was an Odinga ally who had been stripped off his duties as a minority leader in the Senate by Odinga’s ODM party. At the time he warned that the divorce “would be messy, it would be noisy, it would be unhelpful, it would not be easy, it would have casualties”. It was the first of many political blunders that Odinga would make.

Unforced errors

Looking back, Odinga’s 2022 run for the presidency had all the hallmarks of a campaign that didn’t know what it didn’t know; it was filled with assumptions, and sometimes made the wrong judgment calls. By handing over his backyard to Ruto and choosing to ally with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila ended up being branded a “state project”.

In 2005, Odinga had used the momentum generated by his successful campaign in a referendum against Mwai Kibaki’s attempt to foist on the country a bastardized version of the constitution negotiated in Bomas to launch early campaigns for his 2007 presidential run. However, this time, as the courts hamstrung his attempt to launch the BBI referendum, Ruto was already off to the races, having begun his presidential campaign three years early.

“He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!”

With the rejection of constitutional changes, which were found to be deeply unpopular among many Kenyans, Odinga was finally in a strange place, a politician now out of touch, defending an unpopular government, a stranger to his own political base. The failure of BBI as a political tool was really the consequence of Odinga’s and Kenyatta’s inability to understand the ever-changing Kenyan political landscape. Numerous times they just seemed to not know how to deal with the dynamism of William Ruto. He would shape-shift, change the national conversation, and nothing they threw at him seemed to stick, including, corruption allegations. For a politician who created the branding of opponents as his tool, Odinga had finally been branded and it stuck.

Bow out

In the final day of the campaigns, both camps chose Nairobi to make their final submissions. Azimio chose Kasarani stadium. It was, as expected, full of colour, with a Tanzanian celebrity musician, Diamond Platnumz, brought in to boot. Supporters were treated to rushed speeches by politicians who had somewhere else to be. Azimio concluded its final submission early and the speeches by Odinga and his running mate, Martha Karua, weren’t exactly a rallying call. It was as if they were happy to be put out of their pain as they quickly stepped off the stage and left the stadium. In contrast, Ruto’s final submission was filled with speeches of fury by politicians angered by “state capture” and the “failing economy”. Speaker after speaker roused the audience with their defiant messages. They ended the meeting an hour before the end of IEBC campaign deadline. A video soon appeared online of William Ruto sprinting across the Wilson airport runway to catch a chopper and make it to one final rally in central Kenya before the IEBC’s 6 p.m. campaign deadline.

Pictures of the deputy president on top of a car at dusk in markets in Kiambu were the last images of his campaign to be shared on social media. Ruto won because he wanted the presidency more than Odinga and was willing to work twice as hard as both Odinga and Kenyatta.

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Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven

From its beginnings as a fishing village, Lagos has grown into a large metropolis that attracts migrants seeking opportunity or Internally Displaced Persons fleeing violence.

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Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven
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Lagos, City of Migrants

From its origins as a fishing village in the 1600s, Lagos has urbanised stealthily into a vast metropolis, wielding extensive economic, political and cultural influence on Nigeria and beyond. Migration in search of opportunities has been the major factor responsible for the demographic and spatial growth of the city as Lagos has grown from 60,221 in 1872 to over 23 million people today. The expansion of the city also comes with tensions around indigene-settler dynamics, especially in accessing land, political influence and urban resources. There are also categories of migrants whose status determines if they can lay hold of the “urban advantage” that relocating to a large city offers.

A major impetus to the evolution of modern Lagos is the migration of diverse groups of people from Nigeria’s hinterland and beyond. By the 1800s, waves of migrants (freed slaves) from Brazil and Freetown had made their way to Lagos, while many from Nigeria’s hinterland including the Ekiti, Nupes, Egbas and Ijebus began to settle in ethnic enclaves across the city. In the 1900s, migrant enclaves were based on socio-economic and/or ethnicity status. Hausas (including returnees from the Burma war) settled in Obalende and Agege, while the Ijaw and Itsekiri settled in waterfront communities around Ajegunle and Ijora. International migrant communities include the Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaian, as well as large communities of Lebanese and Indian migrants. The names and socio-cultural mix in most Lagos communities derive from these historical migrant trajectories.

Permanent temporalities

A study on coordinated migrations found that, as a destination city, Lagos grew 18.6 per cent between 2000 and 2012, with about 96 per cent of the migrants coming from within Nigeria. While migration to Lagos has traditionally been in search of economic opportunities, new classes of migrants have emerged over the last few decades. These are itinerant migrants and internally displaced persons.

Itinerant migrants are those from other areas of Nigeria and West Africa who travel to work in Lagos while keeping their families back home. Mobility cycles can be weekly, monthly or seasonal. Such migrants have no address in Lagos as they often sleep at their work premises or in mosques, saving all their earned income for remittance. They include construction artisans from Benin and Togo who come to Lagos only when they have jobs, farmers from Nigeria’s northern states who come to Lagos to work as casual labourers in between farming seasons (see box), as well as junior staff in government and corporate offices whose income is simply too small to cover the high cost of living in Lagos.

While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly. This is mostly because of the economic challenges Nigeria is currently facing that have crashed the Naira-to-CFA exchange rates. As a result, young men from Togo, Ghana and Benin are finding cities like Dakar and Banjul more attractive than Lagos.

Photo. Taibat Lawanson

Photo. Taibat Lawanson

Aliu* aka Mr Bushman, from Sokoto, Age 28

Aliu came to Lagos in 2009 on the back of a cattle truck. His first job was in the market carrying goods for market patrons. He slept in the neighbourhood mosque with other young boys. Over the years, he has done a number of odd jobs including construction work. In 2014, he started to work as a commercial motorcyclist (okada) and later got the opportunity to learn how to repair them. He calls himself an engineer and for the past four years has earned his income exclusively from riding and repairing okada. Even though he can afford to rent a room, he currently lives in a shared shack with seven other migrants.

He makes between N5000 and N8000 weekly and sends most of it to his family through a local transport operator who goes to Sokoto weekly. His wife and three children are in the village, but he would rather send them money than bring them to Lagos. According to him, “The life in Lagos is too hard for women”.

Since he came to Lagos thirteen years ago, Aliu has never spent more than four months away from Sokoto at a time. He stays in Sokoto during the rainy season to farm rice, maize and guinea corn, and has travelled back home to vote every time since he came to Lagos.

 

The second category of migrants are those who have been displaced from their homesteads in Northern Nigeria by conflict, either Boko Haram insurgency or invasions by Fulani herdsmen. The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee. With many who initially settled in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) dissatisfied with camp conditions, the burden of protracted displacement is now spurring a new wave of IDP migration to urban areas. Even though empirical data on the exact number of displaced persons migrating out of camps to cities is difficult to ascertain, it is obvious that this category of migrants are negotiating their access to the city and its resources in circumstances quite different from those of other categories of migrants.

IDPs as the emerging migrant class in Lagos 

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, two of every three internally displaced persons globally are now living in cities. Evidence from Nigeria suggests that many IDPs are migrating to urban areas in search of relative safety and resettlement opportunities, with Lagos estimated to host the highest number of independent IDP migrants in the country. In moving to Lagos, IDPs are shaping the city in a number of ways including appropriating public spaces and accelerating the formation of new settlements.

There are three government-supported IDP camps in the city, with anecdotal evidence pointing to about eighteen informal IDP shack communities across the city’s peri-urban axis. This correlates with studies from other cities that highlight how this category of habitations (as initial shelter solutions for self-settled IDPs) accelerate the formation of new urban informal settlements and spatial agglomerations of poverty and vulnerability.

While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly.

IDPs in Lagos move around a lot. Adamu, who currently lives in Owode Mango—a shack community near the Lagos Free Trade zone—and has been a victim of forced eviction four times said, “As they [government or land owners] get ready to demolish this place and render us homeless again, we will move to another area and live there until they catch up with us.”

In the last ten years, there has been an increase in the number of homeless people on the streets of Lagos—either living under bridges, in public parks or incomplete buildings. Many of them are IDPs who are new migrants, and unable to access the support necessary to ease their entry into the city’s established slums or government IDP camps. Marcus, who came from Adamawa State in 2017 and has been living under the Obalende Bridge for five years, said, “I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.

Blending in or not: Urban integration strategies 

Urban integration can be a real challenge for IDP migrants. Whereas voluntary migrants are often perceived to be legal entrants to the city and so can lay claim to urban resources, the same cannot be said about IDPs. Despite being citizens, and despite Nigeria being a federation, IDPs do not have the same rights as other citizens in many Nigerian cities and constantly face stigmatisation and harassment, which reinforces their penchant for enclaving.

The lack of appropriate documentation and skillsets also denies migrants full entry into the socio-economic system. For example, Rebekah said: “I had my WAEC [Senior Secondary school leaving certificate] results and when Boko Haram burnt our village, our family lost everything including my certificates. But how can I continue my education when I have not been able to get it? I have to do handwork [informal labour] now”. IDP children make up a significant proportion of out-of-school children in Lagos as many are unable to get registered in school simply because of a lack of address.

Most IDPs survive by deploying social capital—especially ethnic and religious ties. IDP ethnic groupings are quite organized; most belong to an ethnic-affiliated group and consider this as particularly beneficial to their resettlement and sense of identity in Lagos. Adamu from Chibok said, “When I come to Lagos in 2017, I come straight to Eleko. My brother [kinsman] help me with house, and he buy food for my family. As I no get work, he teach me okada work wey he dey do.”

The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee.

Interestingly, migration to the city can also be good for women as many who were hitherto unemployed due to cultural barriers are now able to work. Mary who fled Benue with her family due to farmer-herder clashes explained, “When we were at home [in Benue], I was assisting my husband with farming, but here in Lagos, I have my own small shop where I sell food. Now I have my own money and my own work.”

Need for targeted interventions for vulnerable Lagosians

“Survival of the fittest” is an everyday maxim in the city of Lagos. For migrants, this is especially true as they are not entitled to any form of structured support from the government. Self-settlement is therefore daunting, especially in light of systemic limiting factors.

Migrants are attracted to big cities based on perceived economic opportunities, and with limited integration, their survival strategies are inevitably changing the spatial configurations of Lagos. While the city government is actively promoting urban renewal, IDP enclaving is creating new slums. Therefore, addressing the contextualised needs of urban migrant groups is a sine qua non for inclusive and sustainable urban development.

“I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.

There is an established protocol for supporting international refugees. However, the same cannot be said for IDPs who are Nigerian citizens. They do not enjoy structured support outside of camps, and we have seen that camps are not an effective long-term solution to displacement. There is a high rate of IDP mobility to cities like Lagos, which establishes the fact that cities are an integral part of the future of humanitarian crisis. Their current survival strategies are not necessarily harnessing the urban advantage, especially due to lack of official recognition and documentation. It is therefore imperative that humanitarian frameworks take into account the role of cities and also the peculiarities of IDP migrations to them.

Lagos remains a choice destination city and there is therefore need to pay more attention to understanding the patterns, processes and implications of migration into the city. The paucity of migration-related empirical data no doubt inhibits effective planning for economic and social development. Availability of disaggregated migration data will assist the state to develop targeted interventions for the various categories of vulnerable Lagosians.  Furthermore, targeted support for migrant groups must leverage existing social networks, especially the organised ethnic and religious groups that migrants lean on for entry into the city and for urban integration.

*All names used in this article are pseudonyms

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