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Missionaries or Mercenaries: Is the World Bank the Private Investment Broker of the Global South?

8 min read.

Despite cosmetic rebranding, the World Bank continues its decades-long work of pushing power into the hands of private capital. Sean Taylor explains how the Covid-19 response is being used to further the Bank’s role of acting as a private investment broker in the Global South.



Missionaries or Mercenaries: Is the World Bank the Private Investment Broker of the Global South?
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For decades, it has been documented that World Bank operations have advanced capitalist restructuring in the Global South, and that it is institutionally wedded to the language and ideology of neoliberalism: deregulation, privatisation, marketisation, and commercialisation. This institutional fixation with neoliberal ideology remains almost unchanged in the face of rapidly changing global economic and political circumstances.

The 2010s were set against the backdrop of the 2007/8 financial crisis, which posed a severe threat to neoliberalism. This decade also saw the coming-of-age of alternative economic models, in the form of the ‘developmental state,’ or ‘retro-liberalism,’ offered by the likes of China and Brazil. This has furthered the ideological challenge to neoliberalism. Yet, the Bank – rather than updating its economic doctrine for the 21st century – spent the 2010s transferring power into the hands of private capital, as it has always done. For example, its Maximising Finance for Development (MFD) scheme, one of its flagship policies of the decade, is presented as an innovative new way of financing sustainable development in the Global South. Though presented as part of the Bank’s rebranding as a ‘solutions Bank,’ ostensibly void of ideology, in practice it operates according to the same neoliberal logic long promoted by the institution.

This tunnel vision is guiding the Bank’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the potential for global economic transformation. That this commitment to neoliberal orthodoxy should remain steadfast, in the face of such challenges, suggests that the Bank enters the 2020s doing the same fundamental job it has done since the 1980s: transferring power to private capital.

The World Bank and Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism has not, of course, been the sole preserve of the World Bank. Since the 1970s the global economy has undertaken a process of capitalist restructuring, in which the fundamental tenets of a capitalist economy have been expanded: free markets, private property, exchange relations across society, and power shifts in favour of capital over labour (I understand neoliberalism to be essentially a project of capitalist restructuring, and that it should be understood in this context). This has been an almost universal phenomenon, yet the Bank has been crucial in advancing this programme in the Global South.

Since the late 1970s the Global South has become dependent on capital in the form of loans, contingent on neoliberal reforms such as tax cuts, lower regulations, lower financial costs, and privatisation of public services. Societies in the Global South have been profoundly reorganised as a result. I appreciate that this is not new territory for readers of, and it should be noted that much of ROAPE’s coverage of the continent in the 1980s examined in detail the consequences for African societies and economies of World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programmes (see the archive for back issues of the review). There has been no lack of critique of this neoliberal model, but dependence on Western capital, and lack of credible alternative economic models (since 1989 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall) has meant near ideological hegemony in international development. Without challenge, it is of little surprise that the Bank continued to vigorously promote neoliberal reforms in the developing world.

The landscape has, however, changed rapidly since 2008. Alternative economic models are being offered in countries such as China and Brazil. Neoliberal logic assumes the state, its regulatory powers, and ownership of industries, are impediments to free market efficiency. By contrast actors such as China and Brazil see the state as an imperative actor for directing capital towards appropriate projects. The ‘developmental state’, as this model is often known, is an active participant in development, not a bureaucratic frustration whose frontiers are to be rolled back. This model is sometimes also referred to as ‘retro-liberalism,’ for its similarities with Western models of the 1950s. As well as offering a viable alternatives to neoliberalism, more Southern actors – China, Brazil, India, Venezuela and South Africa, for example – are acting as development lenders and investors, reducing dependency on Western capital, and thus the associated contingencies.

This threat to neoliberalism’s ideological and geostrategic dominance rapidly accelerated following the global financial crash of 2007/8 – largely blamed on deregulation of global finance. The countries which had most embraced neoliberalism in the decades prior – such as the UK, where this blogpost is being written – entered a recession followed by a decade of austerity. By contrast, developing countries offering alternative, ‘retro-liberal’ models came out of the crash in a position of relative strength, having maintained high, if decelerated, growth rates.

Together this posed an existential crisis for neoliberalism. The model’s failures had been exposed in the West where it wreaked economic havoc and was subsequently rebuked from all sides; both right-wing and left-wing politicians attacked what was commonly labelled neoliberal globalisation. In some parts of the Global South alternative models were providing high growth rates and appeared to offer a preferable route for smaller developing countries. The capital dependency upon which the West had relied on in order to strong-arm neoliberal reforms on to the Global South was being weakened.

Sham reforms

In terms of the game, it would have made sense at this point for the World Bank to have adapted to remain relevant. Even the IMF appeared to recognise its limitations, in admitting that elements of the neoliberal project “have not delivered as expected.” Yet, the Bank’s adaptations to this new world in which neoliberalism was losing the ideational battle have been merely cosmetic thus far.

As early as 2012 there was talk of a “new strategic identity,” growing into a “solutions bank.” Arguably, one implication of becoming a ‘solutions bank’ is an admission that the Bank was previously not focused on perfecting solutions, but ideology. Was the Bank tacitly suggesting it would be repositioning itself at a further distance from neoliberalism?

If so, the Bank’s rhetoric did not match its actions. The flagship announcement of the 2010s, the MFD scheme, ultimately follows the same logic as its previous work in the Global South. MFD is described by the Bank as an opportunity to bridge the US$2.6 trillion per year gap between development aid and what is necessary to end global poverty. The Bank sees developing countries as a US$12 trillion ‘market opportunity,’ into which it seeks to attract private capital investment using subsidies and guarantees, and legal, policy, and regulatory changes. This sets up securitisation markets in the financial sector, and proliferates the use of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP).

In practice, this equates to the deregulation of domestic finance sectors, in order to incorporate global financial institutions and shadow banking institutions in the economy. Foreign investment is enticed through further deregulation of labour, land, environmental, and social laws. In other words, a wholesale reconfiguration of the economy in order to access private debt.

For example, in Indonesia where the MFD scheme is being used for geothermal exploration, the Bank seeks to use US$150m from the government, US$175m in concessional climate finance, and US$325m in Bank loans to unlock US$4bn in private capital investment to put towards geothermal exploration. The Bank itself provides “advice on how to structure the facility to align with the needs of the private sector.” Rather than Bank or state-led investment adapting to the needs of Indonesia’s energy sector, the Bank explicitly states that Indonesia must make adaptations to the needs of private sector investors. There are plenty of similar instances in Kenya and Nepal where MFD is underway, and the Bank states that “MFD is about prioritizing private sector solutions and optimizing the use of scarce public resources.”

Development is reduced, then, to being dependent on neoliberal reforms which expand the private sector and weaken the power of the state over its domestic economy. This is ‘development’ as a power-grab by global finance. The Bank’s reinvention of itself amounts to little more than becoming a private investment broker in developing economies.

Covid and the Bank

Today the world faces a fresh challenge to the neoliberal model, with the Covid-19 pandemic graphically illuminating its deficiencies. In particular, the reduction in state-planning capacity left countries ill-equipped for the logistical challenges the pandemic posed, with the so-called efficiencies of the market found wanting.

This has been particularly exposed in the distinction between the failure of the neoliberal West’s test, trace and isolate systems – which were often contracted out to the private sector – compared to those of Asian countries. Just-in-time supply chains and large supranational free trade areas and political bodies begin to look outdated in a world where borders are being closed and the nation-state confirmed as a real political and sovereign entity.

Public-private-partnerships have been a hallmark of neoliberalism, often supplying public services. These have been long-criticised, but the collapse in demand for some of these services during periods of lockdown has left some states with huge bills being paid to private companies just so they can maintain profit margins. The World Bank’s failure to produce data on exactly how much is being spent only serves to make it look like a shady racketeering scheme. Profit margins remain too sacred to be touched, whilst states will no doubt be forced to make cuts to public services in order to pay for them.

At the same time as the virus have ripped through communities and societies demand has increased for healthcare. In much of the developing world, public healthcare systems are underfunded and of poor quality, and much provision is private – again this is the legacy of structural adjustment programmes and reforms from the 1980s. The role of global finance, and its need for returns on investment, in funding private healthcare means that profit is often put before a universal quality of care. The result is grotesque health inequalities. Rather than a ‘great leveller,’ the pandemic shows that the greater role of private companies and global finance in healthcare systems results in higher death rates among those in a worse socioeconomic position.

Despite these fundamental flaws, inherent to the neoliberal model, the Bank has refused to change course. Of the World Bank’s initial US$14bn disbursement to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, US$8bn (57%) was channelled through the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the Bank, representing an increase on its historic average of 17%. Of the IFC funding, 68% went to financial institutions rather than ‘real sector’ businesses, such as agribusiness, healthcare, and tourism; 50% of funding to these sectors went to companies that are, or are owned by, international conglomerates. Therefore, the Bank’s Covid response was primarily an exercise in rescuing global finance.

Funding allocated by the IFC to the ‘real sector’ continues to support this notion. To take one example, the IFC and the International Development Association (another arm of the WB) are raising US$4m in blended concessional finance (private investment) to support a project by Ciel Healthcare, Uganda’s largest private healthcare provider. Given the health inequalities inherent to the financialisation of health systems, this is not an optimum project for protecting Ugandans, which would be to improve universal public healthcare systems, rather than brokering private investment.

This is part of a wider trend in the developing world. Spending on public health briefly increased when the pandemic first surged, but the focus quickly returned to private provision, with the IFC announcing a US$4bn Public Health Platform with the explicit purpose of “support[ing] the private sector’s ability and capacity to deliver healthcare products and services.”

Taking other examples, an emergency Bank loan to Ecuador in May, the Bank demonstrates a commitment to the wider principles of neoliberal economics to stimulate economic growth. The loan was conditional on removing certain sectoral minimum wages and increasing exemptions for taxes on financial transactions. A loan to Nigeria’s energy sector in June last year was completed with the explicit purpose of de-risking investment for the private sector. In these instances, the Bank is acting to hand power to private capital, effectively making the success of Ecuador and Nigeria’s domestic economies dependent on the rampant desire for profits motivating global financial institutions.

These are not isolated examples. The Bank declared in one blogpost last year that its Covid-19 response is part of their “integrated approach to help mobilize private sector financing.” It goes on to discuss the central role PPPs will play in their future economic plans, despite the way they have locked in profits for private investors.

This is the future offered by the Bank. It continues to advocate for neoliberal reforms in the Global South even as this model faces, what would appear to be, an existential challenge. There remains the possibility in the long run that the Bank could fade into irrelevance as other international players, primarily China, reshape the global economy. But what is certain is that the Bank has entered the Covid-19 world with the same mission as it had in the 1980s: advance capitalist restructuring and push power into the hands of private capital.

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Sean Taylor is a politics graduate from the University of Leeds, with particular interests in radical political thought and political economy.


Being Black in Argentina

What does Javier Milei’s presidential victory mean for Argentina’s black and indigenous minorities?



Being Black in Argentina
Photo: Argentinian President Elect Javier Milei. Image credit Mídia NINJA CC BY 4.0 Deed.
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On November 19, Javier Milei secured the presidency of the Republic of Argentina with 56% of the vote. However, his victory is expected to significantly impact a specific segment of the country.

During my six-month exchange in Argentina’s Venado Tuerto (pop. 75,000) in 2016, I encountered someone of shared Black ethnicity on the street only once. A person whom many locals incidentally mistook for me—along with a Cuban Black girl, the only black person like me in the whole high school. As insignificant as a census of this small city’s population may seem, it effectively illustrates a sobering reality: the presence of Black people in Argentina is sparse, and their numbers have dwindled over time.

Hay más por otros lados, acá no llegaron” (There are more of them elsewhere, they have not arrived here) is a rhetoric prevalent among many Argentines, but the reality is quite dissimilar. Contacts between Argentina and Black people, particularly of African descent, date back to the 16th century transatlantic slave trade, when West and Central Africa people were brought by Spanish and Portuguese settlers to the coastal city of Buenos Aires, only to be sold and moved mostly within the Río de la Plata, present-day Argentina and Uruguay. In “Hiding in Plain Sight, Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic,” Erika Denise Edwards reports that between 1587 and 1640 approximately 45,000 African slaves disembarked in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 18th century, one-third of Argentina’s population was Black.

What, then, became of the Black African population in Argentina? Some attribute their decline to historical factors such as their active involvement in conflicts including the War of Independence against Spanish colonists (1810-1819) and the war with Paraguay (1865-1870), in which Black men often found themselves on the front lines, enduring the brunt of the attacks, or even choosing to desert and flee the country. These factors intersect with a gradual process of miscegenation and interracial mixing, leading to a progressive whitening of the population—both in terms of physical attributes and ideology.

Adding to this complex mix, political rhetoric comes into play. Influential Argentine leaders, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the 19th century, idealized white Europe not only as a model for overcoming the country’s socio-economic challenges but also as a narrative that implied the absence of Black people in Argentina, thereby erasing an integral part of the nation’s history.

Doing so has shrewdly allowed a country to avoid reckoning with its past of slavery and navigate the complexities of its presence, using the escamotage that there are no race-related issues in the country because there are no Black people. This assertion is incorrect for several reasons beyond those mentioned above. First, despite being imperceptible to the naked eye, there is a small but existing population of Afro-descendants in Argentina. Nevertheless, in my second stay in Argentina, this time in Buenos Aires, it became more apparent to me how a certain nationalistic current, in the footsteps of Sarmiento, proudly makes itself of this consistent lack of Black heritage. Comparing itself favorably to neighboring countries, this current boasts a notion of white supremacy in Argentina, which celebrates the Italian immigration from the 19th and 20th centuries as the foundation of national identity, while largely overlooking the historical legacy of African bodies that predates it.

As a result, even in a cosmopolitan capital city such as Buenos Aires, a significant portion of the white Argentine population based its identity on my opposite—not knowing that as an Afro-Italian, my Italian citizenship actually made them closer to my blackness and African roots than they wanted. Asserting that there are no racial concerns in Argentina is misleading. It amounts to the invisibilization of racial discrimination in a country where those who deviate from the preferred prototype, including Indigenous communities such as Mapuche, Quechua, Wichi, and Guarani, experience limited access to education and social services, and are disproportionately prone to experience poverty than their white counterparts.

Even within everyday discourse in Argentina, the assertion is refuted: many are labeled Black despite not matching the physical appearance associated with the term. The expression “es un negro” might refer to everyone who has darker skin tones, grouping them into a specific social category. However, beyond a mere description of physical attributes, “es un negro” delineates a person situated at various margins and lower rungs of society, whether for economic or social reasons. The appellation is also ordinarily used in jest as a nickname for a person who, of “black phenotype,” has nothing. The label “morocho” seems to be the most appropriate appellation for dark-skinned people in the country.

Argentine white supremacist identity is often matched by a certain right-wing political ideology that is classist, macho and, to make no bones about it, xenophobic. In the 2023 elections, such a systemic structure takes on the face of Javier Milei. The Argentine’s Donald Trump claimed in 2022 at the presentation of his book that he did not want to apologize for “being a white, blonde [questionable element], blue-eyed man.” With false modesty, the demagogue took on the burden of what it means in the country to have his hallmarks: privilege, status, and power.

Milei’s need for apologies should not revolve around his connotations but rather the proposals presented during his election campaign and outlined in his political program, which include the dollarization of pesos and the removal of government subsidies. Besides assessing if these actions would really benefit the vulnerable economy of the country, it’s worth questioning why it’s the middle-class, often white population that stands to suffer the least from such policies. They can afford to transact in dollars, weather an initial depreciation of their income, and provide for their children’s education without relying on government subsidies. In essence, they can do without the limited benefits offered by the Argentine state, given their already privileged positions.

The election of this politician not only adversely affects Black minorities, but also targets apparent minorities whom this divisive ideology seeks to erase, including Indigenous populations and the poorest segment of society—the current Argentinian “blacks”—who significantly enrich the Argentine populace. In such a scenario, one can only hope that the world will strive for a more consistent record of their existence.

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

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Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC

The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.



Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
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The East African Community (EAC), whose goal is to achieve economic and political federation, brings together three former British colonies – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – and newer members Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Somalia first applied to join the EAC in 2012 but with fighting still ongoing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, joining the bloc was impossible at the time. Eleven years later, joining the bloc would consolidate the significant progress in governance and security and, therefore, Somalia should be admitted into the EAC without undue delay. This is for several reasons.

First, Somalia’s admission would be built on an existing foundation of goodwill that the current leadership of Somalia and EAC partner states have enjoyed in the recent past. It is on the basis of this friendship that EAC states continue to play host to Somali nationals who have been forced to leave their country due to the insecurity resulting from the prolonged conflict. In addition, not only does Somalia share a border with Kenya, but it also has strong historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural links with all the other EAC partner states in one way or another.

Dr Hassan Khannenje of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies said: ”Somalia is a natural member of the EAC and should have been part of it long ago.”

A scrutiny of all the EAC member states will show that there is a thriving entrepreneurial Somali diaspora population in all their economies.  If indeed the EAC is keen to realise its idea of the bloc being a people-centred community as opposed to being a club of elites, then a look at the spread of Somali diaspora investment in the region would be a start. With an immense entrepreneurial diaspora, Somalia’s admission will increase trading opportunities in the region.

Second, Somalia’s 3,000 km of coastline (the longest in Africa) will give the partner states access to the Indian Ocean corridor to the Gulf of Aden. The governments of the EAC partner states consider the Indian Ocean to be a key strategic and economic theatre for their regional economic interests. Therefore, a secure and stable Somali coastline is central to the region’s maritime trade opportunities.

Despite possessing such a vast maritime resource, the continued insecurity in Somalia has limited the benefits that could accrue from it. The problem of piracy is one example that shows that continued lawlessness along the Somali coast presents a huge risk for all the states that rely on it in the region.

The importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean has seen Kenya and Somalia square it out at the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute.

Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group said that ”Somalia joining the EAC then might present an opportunity to discuss deeper cooperation frameworks within the bloc, including around the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute. The environment was not as conducive to collaboration before, and perhaps it explains why the ICJ came in. Integrating into the EAC potentially offers an opportunity to de-escalate any remaining tensions and in turn, focus on developing mechanisms that can be beneficial for the region.”

Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist in the region, said: “The East African states along the East African coast are looking for opportunities to play a greater role in the maritime security to the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Somalia joining the EAC bloc will allow them to have a greater say.”

Third, Somalia’s membership of the Arab League means that there is a strong geopolitical interest from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, Somalia stands to gain more in the long-term by joining the EAC rather than being under the control of the Gulf states and, to a large extent, Turkey. This is because, historically, competing interests among the Gulf states have contributed to the further balkanisation of Somalia by some members supporting breakaway regions.

On the other hand, the EAC offers a safer option that will respect Somalia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, EAC partner states have stood in solidarity with Somalia during the difficult times of the civil conflict, unlike the Gulf states. The majority of the troop-contributing countries for the African Union Mission to Somalia came from the EAC partner states of Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. Despite having a strategic interest in Somalia, none of the Gulf states contributed troops to the mission. Therefore, with the expected drawdown of the ATMIS force in Somalia, the burden could fall on the EAC to fill in the vacuum. Building on the experience of deploying in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is highly likely that it could be called upon to do the same in Somalia when ATMIS exits by 2024.

The presence of the Al Shabaab group in Somalia is an albatross around its neck such that the country cannot be admitted into the EAC without factoring in the risks posed by the group.

According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the government of Somalia must move to consolidate these gains – especially in central Somalia – as it continues with its offensive in other regions. However, Somalia may not prevail over the Al Shabaab on its own; it may require a regional effort and perhaps this is the rationale some policymakers within the EAC have envisioned. If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.

Somalia’s admission comes with risks too. Kenya and Uganda have in the past experienced attacks perpetrated by Al Shabaab and, therefore, opening up their borders to Somalia is seen as a huge risk for these countries. The spillover effect of the group’s activities creates a lot of discomfort among EAC citizens, in particular those who believe that the region remains vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks.

If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.

The EAC Treaty criteria under which a new member state may be admitted into the community include – but are not limited to – observance and practice of the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. Critics believe that Somalia fulfils only one key requirement to be admitted to the bloc – sharing a border with an EAC partner state, namely, Kenya. On paper, it seems to be the least prepared when it comes to fulfilling the other requirements. The security situation remains fragile and the economy cannot support the annual payment obligations to the community.

According to the Fragility State Index, Somalia is ranked as one of the poorest among the 179 countries assessed. Among the key pending issues is the continued insecurity situation caused by decades of civil war and violent extremism. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch ranks Somalia low on human rights and justice – a breakdown of government institutions has rendered them ineffective in upholding the human rights of its citizens.

Somalia’s citizens have faced various forms of discrimination due to activities beyond their control back in their country. This has led to increasingly negative and suspicious attitudes towards Somalis and social media reactions to the possibility of Somalia joining the EAC have seen a spike in hostility towards citizens of Somalia. The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.

Dr Nicodemus Minde, an academic on peace and security, agrees that indeed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes will shape their behaviour towards Somalia’s integration. He argues that ”the admission of Somalia is a rushed process because it does not address the continued suspicion and negative perception among the EAC citizens towards the Somali people. Many citizens cite the admission of fragile states like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a gateway of instability to an already unstable region”.

Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the EAC has been how to involve the citizens in their activities and agenda. To address this challenge, Dr Minde says that ’’the EAC needs to conduct a lot of sensitisation around the importance of integration because to a large extent many EAC citizens have no clue on what regional integration is all about”. The idea of the EAC being a people-centred organisation as envisioned in the Treaty has not been actualised. The integration process remains very elitist as it is the heads of state that determine and set the agenda.

The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.

Dr Khannenje offers a counter-narrative, arguing that public perception is not a major point of divergence since “as the economies integrate deeper, some of these issues will become easy to solve”. There are also those who believe that the reality within the EAC is that every member state has issues with one or the other partner state and, therefore, Somalia will be in perfect company.

A report by the Economic Policy Research Centre outlines the various avenues through which both the EAC and Somalia can benefit from the integration process and observes that there is therefore a need to fast-track the process because the benefits far outweigh the risks.

EAC integration is built around the spirit of good neighbourliness. It is against this backdrop that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has extended the goodwill to join the EAC and therefore, it should not be vilified and condemned, but rather embraced.  As Onyango Obbo has observed, Somalia is not joining the EAC – Somalia is already part of the EAC and does not need any formal welcoming.

Many critics have argued that the EAC has not learnt from the previous rush to admit conflict-plagued South Sudan and the DRC. However, the reality is that Somalia will not be in conflict forever; at some point, there will be tranquillity and peace. Furthermore, a keen look at the history of the EAC member states shows that a number of them have experienced cycles of conflict in the past.

Somalia is, therefore, not unique. Internal contradictions and conflict are some of the key features that Somalia shares with most of the EAC member states. The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should, therefore, be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.

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The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya

Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.



The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Photo: Image courtesy of Kenyans4Palestine © 2023.
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Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.

When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.

Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.

When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.

Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.

Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.

Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.

Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.

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

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