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Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia

13 min read.

Since November last year, Ethiopia has been fighting a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front. Hibist Kassa argues that the scale of misinformation on the war, lack of context and attempts to impose false narratives is deeply troubling and pervasive. Kassa calls for a nuanced and historically grounded approach to properly analyse the course of events.

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Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia
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Since 4 November last year Ethiopia has been caught in a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) which has been marked by escalating genocidal attacks on ethnic minorities in Ethiopia. The scale of misinformation and disinformation on the war, brazen lack of context, shameless and downright dangerous attempts to not only impose false narratives, but also impose a narrow human rights agenda skewed to ignore abuses by Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies is deeply troubling and pervasive.

At the moment, a dangerously simplistic and false narrative labelling the federal government as having an agenda for centralisation, as opposed to the TPLF which is pushing for federalism, is being spread in mainstream media outlets and through scholarly networks. This is drawing on a further over-simplification of the history of empire building and contestation, and the nature of cultural and language identities and their relationship to class stratification.

This year marked the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa in 1896, a historic defeat of a European imperialist power by Africans, with the unification of divided peoples. Lords, serfs and slaves, women and men, mobilised an army of about 100,000 to defeat Italian troops in a matter of hours. The aftermath of the victory also laid the basis for further empire consolidation and forging of the modern state, a contested historical process that has been foregrounded in the current conflict. A nuanced and historically grounded approach is needed to analyse the ways the centre-periphery tensions shaped autonomy in Tigray, recognise the wide spectrum of debates within the TPLF and how elites have deployed this in the current conflict (I examine this in some detail in the Agrarian South Bulletin here).

While the need to get the analysis right on the crisis is important to inform interventions, we also need to understand the nature of the accumulation strategies of elites, the contradictions in these strategies and where this leaves the working class and the advancement of a progressive alternative from below.

What are the competing narratives?

At the moment, mediation is being proposed as was recently advocated in a statement by African intellectuals, that eerily followed the line of the United States and TPLF on the crisis. A robust response by the Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink have highlighted the problematic nature of the statement, and the need for an understanding of what is really at stake in the volatile Horn of Africa region, where a realignment of geopolitical relations between Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia, with South Sudanese solidarity, is potentially decentring US domination in the region, and sealing the decline of TPLF. Understanding the tricky and complicated context of the changes underway, demands also for careful attention to what is left out of the dominant narrative of the crisis.

For instance, it was shocking to hear pro-TPLF commentator, Martin Plaut, and now visiting researcher at Kings College Department of War Studies, declared boldly on 5 February this year, that even though a massacre in Mai-Kadra in Western Tigray was terrible, ‘I don’t care who carried them out’ (see 30:00-31:21). This was a genocide of about 1000 men, the elderly and children who were identified as ethnic Amhara by TPLF youth groups. As the men were being slaughtered, women overheard them say they would come for them next. Zelalem Tessema, Co-Chair Ethiopian Association in the UK, who was on the same panel as Plaut said that this was the ‘Srebrenica massacre’ of Ethiopia. Accountability which was so important for Plaut when examining Amhara militias, Ethiopian federal troops and Eritrea’s involvement, was suspended in the case where TPLF militia and its youth members, who later escaped to join refugees on the Sudanese border. The TPLF has continued to commit atrocities in its vicious expansion into Afar and Amhara regions displacing up to 4 million people.

Meanwhile, a coherent campaign sympathetic to TPLF by the US, EU and UN, including the IMF and World Bank, have focused on aspects of the Tigray crisis pressuring the Ethiopian Federal government to revert to mediations with the TPLF. Even when a unilateral ceasefire was declared by the government, the TPLF has continued to encroach upon other provinces in Amhara and Afar provinces, temporarily occupying Lalibela, and slaughtering civilians, destroying historic Churches in Gondar, there was still no universal condemnation of the TPLF except for the instance where the USAID Director in Ethiopia cited widespread TPLF looting of aid goods.

There has also been complete disinterest in the killings of ethnic minorities elsewhere which have been linked to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), openly allied to TPLF. In principle, violations by any state and non-state actor in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia should be investigated, victims provided care and culprits held to account. But the geopolitical power struggle that is ongoing has no interest in this kind of accountability agenda. Instead, human rights violations, whether they be genocide, widespread rape, recruitment of children as combatants and violations against Eritrean refugees, have been ignored when TPLF forces have been identified culprits. Talk of accountability and human rights is just a game in a bigger geopolitical battlefield.

Getting the facts right is key!

To make sense of what is an intensely complex crisis, it is important to focus on the following key facts:

  1. On 4 November, after the Federal Government of Ethiopia had transferred US$281 million to the Tigray provincial government, a ‘lightning strike’ so described by TPLFs’ spokesperson, was unleashed on federal troops who were undertaking joint operations with the Tigray provincial forces. Unarmed soldiers and generals were slaughtered in their pyjamas and their bodies left to rot, while other troops were taken as prisoners. Soldiers with specialised training were later summarily executed, ran over with trucks, and women soldiers were raped. When the news of this shocking attack trickled in, it horrified the general public and ended all attempts to mediate tensions between the Federal government and the TPLF.
  2. Prior to the above attack, tensions had been building between the Federal government based in Addis Ababa and the TPLF. The loss of TPLFs almost three-decade dominance of power in the federal government had aggrieved the committee members. To recall, TPLF itself was a political party, with its own hierarchies and membership drawing from various constituencies within Tigray province.
  3. Normalisation of relations with Eritrea was an extremely significant change introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. This significant change in foreign policy of Ethiopia was made possible under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition with new leadership under Abiy Ahmed as a member of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). It was a decisive break from TPLF foreign policy which had treated the Eritrean government as a lethal enemy. The latter which has acted as a bulwark against the expansion of the United States’ AFRICOM in the Horn of Africa, and retained some semblance of sovereignty over its national policy space. These former allies who waged war against the Derg (the military regime that ruled Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1974 to 1987), soon turned into foes over the TPLFs ethnonationalist agenda entrenched in the Ethiopian federalist system, redrawing provinces and the entire governance system on the basis of ethnicity. Each province formed standing armies of their own and entrenched the right to secede in the constitution.
  4. Tigray province is in the northern most part of Ethiopia and shares a border with Eritrea, over which war was waged from 1998-2000, when Abiy was then on the frontline as a solider. A peace treaty was only signed in 2018 once the OPDO under Abiy was in power after a wave of popular protests against TPLF. According to Iqbal Jhazbay (former South Africa ambassador to Eritrea) since the Peace Treaty was signed, this provided Eritrea, ‘a previously isolated regime which has stubbornly resisted being turned into a pawn by foreign powers’ a bridge with which to expand its foreign policy influence in the volatile Horn of Africa. Asmara has resisted a regime change agenda, a challenge now facing Ethiopia, under the new Progress Party (PP) under Abiy, which has now had to resist pressure from foreign powers to dictate its relations with Eritrea.
  5. The successful completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been resisted not only by Egypt and Sudan, but also with backing from the US and Israel. Although GERD was conceptualised and initiated by former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, its successful implementation did not have full backing of his heirs in the TPLF. The Metal and Engineering Corporation, a mega-parastatal, which was charged with manufacturing parts of GERD, manufactured them below expected standards. This delayed the project and has been suspected as an act of subversion instead of incompetence on the part of the parastatal. The combination of Egypt and Sudan, and the realignment of interests with internal actors, like the TPLF (and now OLF), has created another deadly alliance that threatens stability in the Horn of Africa.
  6. Ethiopia is on the brink of national self-sufficiency in wheat production within two years. The Abiy government has also been setting up bread factories to ensure affordability for the urban poor and working people (especially in a time when food prices continue to skyrocket). In addition to the GERD and its potential to provide renewable energy resource to the Horn of Africa and beyond, these developments should be seen as efforts to strengthen productive capacity in the region and hopefully also address energy poverty that falls on the back of women. It is also a case that the infrastructure investments and Industrial Parks especially in the garments industry, have had keen interest from global brands, but also significantly drawn upon domestic resource mobilisation. All these are signs that concrete gains are being made in the country.
  7. Nonetheless, in spite of the Ethiopian governments commitment to liberalisation, this has not enamoured the regime to donors and the Bretton Wood Institutions. Sanctions have been imposed on government officials to travel to the US. Conditionalities for loans are being attached to ensure mediation with TPLF. The interest of the IMF, primarily influenced by the US, in this conflict is noteworthy.
  8. Bretton Woods Institutions, especially the IMF, have been attaching conditionalities to assistance obliging the government to make concessions to the TPLF. This hard-line towards the PP government is puzzling given that it has declared the country open for business, liberalising one of Africa’s last heavily regulated economies and allowing competition with State-Owed Enterprises, electricity and the telecommunications. The Abiy government has also been a very consistent partner in the War on Terror, especially as it relates to operations against Al-Shabab in Somalia.
  9. This indicates that there are higher stakes in Ethiopia’s forging of alliances with Eritrea and Somalia and the broader goal to stabilise the Horn of Africa in a manner that has not centred Washington and its ‘War on Terror’. Lawrence Freeman, on a panel on Ethiopia Television, “Addis Dialogue”, argues that a global political oligarchic faction that maintains neo-colonial control of African countries in particular, sees any actor operating outside US control as threatening their dominance and needing to be dealt with as a threat. Deacon Yoseph Tafari, Chairman of the Ethiopian American Civic Council, concurs and emphasises that the US had initially misread the Abiy government in the beginning of its tenure, and had to confront the reality of its more autonomous approach to foreign policy and its persistence with state led developmental initiatives such as the GERD. It is this aspect that has informed a regime change agenda.
  10. The TPLF which was the dominant force in the previous coalition government had been able to control the security and governance arms of the state and considerable investments in SOEs. It is an open secret that the TPLF had amassed offshore accounts of US$30 billion. At its height, foreign aid reached US$3.5 billion a year. Two to three billion dollars were lost annually through under and over invoicing of imports. Parastatals had become effective vehicles for accumulation of wealth by the top tier of the regime, with varied forms of patrimonial relations with less powerful actors within the party machinery. Proximity to power had its benefits, but none compared with the accumulation of wealth and deepening inequality that was apparent over the last three decades.

Q & A between Munyaradzi Gwisai and Hibist  Kassa which reflects on the state of the working class in Ethiopia today.

MG: The emergent Ethiopian working class was a key player in the 1974 revolution that eventually ousted Emperor Haile Selassie. The wave of strikes helped inspire the popular protests of students, peasants and the junior soldiers. The later eventually wrested power led by the [Marixst Leninist] Derg, provoking a nearly two-decade period of Civil War and instability.

What happened to the Ethiopian working class in this period, in the struggles that ensued… Was class militancy and organisation crushed by repression and war?

HK: As the parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC)  case highlights, trade unions have struggled, and continued to struggle to organise in Ethiopia. IndustriALL Federation has been making important interventions especially in industrial parks. Important analytical work has been done  on the super exploitation of women workers has drawn attention to how the accumulation strategy of the state that relies on cheap wage labour and the creation of an enabling environment for foreign direct investment, demands the repression of organised labour.

In response to high turnover of the workforce and a wave of wildcat strikes, there have been some moderate reforms to create a means for workers to raise concerns through the Labour Department inspectors and the provision of district offices. In spite of this, trade unions still need to be able to organise workers on the shopfloor. Resistance to this persist.

Moreover, the tension between the focus on large scale foreign direct investments as a means of enabling industrialisation places this strategy in tension with the dynamic and diversified economic activities by smallholder producers in agriculture, cottage industries and the retail sector. Ethiopia has a history of cooperative associations traced to the Derg regime, but these were demobilised by the TPLF dominated EPRDF regime.

MG: Ethiopia is amongst the top five performing economies in Africa in the last decade with annual growth rates of over 10%. A new, younger and expanded working class must therefore have emerged. If the working class retreated in this period leaving the petite bourgeoisie in charge, was there not a significant growth and re-emergence of the working class in the period after 1995? Quantitatively and qualitatively especially after 2000?

What is the degree of organisation, class consciousness, and militancy of this new expanded class? How does it compare to the leading role played by other working classes in the region recently, in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya for example and does it provide a counter to the petite bourgeoisie and their ethnicity – region based politics and mobilization?

HK: A new, younger and expanded working class has emerged, and its face is that of women migrants. The new subjects arising out of the industrialisation process is that of women workers, who are being superexploited as part of the country’s development strategy. Rural-urban migration, and now with covid-19, urban-rural migration, has become significant.

I think if we are to consider the primarily informal character of the labouring classes or working people (as Issa Shivji says) we needs to use different approaches to analyse the forms of resistance to capital and the state, and the ways in which people are building autonomy from below through their livelihoods and even survival strategies. This expanded approach to resistance and understanding of class helps us better draw the connections between the urban poor and dispossessed masses, and rural communities who in carrying the burden of social reproduction even as a gendered cheap wage labour strategy is imposed from above become a basis for drawing  organic linkages with ‘wage workers’ in the formal sector. I think this is an opportunity to think in an interlinked manner and develop a more holistic understanding of what organising interventions can be made by trade unions working in alliance with women’s groups, farmers associations, artisanal miners and casual workers.

Elite wealth accumulation and the gendered working class

It is crucial to also reflect on the nature of corruption facilitated via illicit financial flows and how this has fed into the wealth accumulation strategies of elites in the TPLF dominated ethnic coalition government prior to its removal in 2018. A prime example of this is the mega parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC).

With about seventy SOEs, seven military hardware manufacturing entities, about 12,500 employees, MetEC is a significant force in the Ethiopian economy. Under the TPLF, it successfully disbanded trade union organising on the shopfloor. In 2014, labour unions confronted the then CEO Knife Dangew and they were dismissed for being focused on rights bargaining and of being wedded to the legacy of the previous ‘Marxist Leninist’ military dictatorship. Instead, the trade union federation was expected to focus on the objective of attaining middle income status. In 2018, a parliamentary review revealed extensive graft, with overpricing of domestic and international procurement of up to US$2 billion, in some cases 400% higher than market prices. He was arrested in November 2018, and charged over the procurement of two shipping vessels, two hotels and a plastics factory.

The description below by Tim Hall of an industrial park, in Hawassa, now in the newly established Sidama province, gives us a glimpse of the pre-Covid situation:

Over 17,000 young women from predominately rural areas and a variety of ethnicities have, from 2017, migrated to work at the Hawassa Industrial Park (HIP), employing around 120,000 mainly women workers at potential full capacity. They face long shifts, low salaries given living costs between 800 to 2000 BIRR a month (US$27–68) and new challenges in an unfamiliar urban context, which are exacerbated by their status and dislocation from familial networks.

The brief description Hall offers above is that of women who form self-help groups on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

While there is a case for understanding ethnicity (or kinship as Archie Mafeje argues) in terms of how it can be an organising element in the labour process, the rigid and impervious colonial conceptions of ethnicity institutionalised by the TPLF cannot be underestimated. As relevant as this is to understand the reproduction of inequalities, in the Ethiopia case, it is also important to weigh how these have been entrenched as an organising principle of society.

The ability to render some groups as vulnerable as in the case of the non-Sidamo women migrant workers in Hawaasa or the migrant farmworkers massacred in Mai-Kadra also needs to be treated with caution. TPLF as a dominant force in the EPRDF coalition had almost three decades with an effective machinery to entrench this in the everyday forms of social, political and economic spheres of society, from ethnic development banks to redrawing provincial borders as in Raya to subsume areas where Amhara ethnic minorities can be disenfranchised.

Beyond this, there is also a dangerous oversimplification of vast periods of history and the association of repressed classes with specific language and cultural groups has fed a dangerous and divisive propaganda. This labels certain language groups as exploiters and oppressors and others victims of dispossession and oppression without a grounded understanding of complex and fluid categories, alongside complex economic and historical processes. These claims have also justified horrific violence by the OLF against the Amharic speaking people such as the disembowelment of pregnant women, the slicing off of the breasts of women and rape.

Progressive scholars, the working class and Ethiopia

Progressive scholars have to build bridges to engage with the intelligentsia in Ethiopia who have persevered through military dictatorship under the Derg in the 1970s and 1980s, and through 27 years of TPLF-dominated rule. Ethiopian scholars have been speaking out, as in this speech in 1994 by Mammo Muhcie in London that is an eerily precise analysis of TPLF as it is today.

In the midst of this conflict, Ethiopian scholars have been repeatedly trying to get their voices heard by the Ethiopian government and the international community. The statement widely shared by African intellectuals (including on roape.net) that presumed Ethiopian scholars cannot speak for themselves therefore came across as deeply condescending. If there is genuine interest in supporting Ethiopian scholars to get their perspectives and analysis on the crisis, and build bridges for meaningful interventions, the first step has to be through a serious and deliberate process of engagement.

There is also a need to pay attention to the accumulation strategies of elites and the manner they fit (or do not fit) within imperialism. Within this, an expanded understanding of a gendered working class is needed, recognising the strategically important role of women’s labour as a source of cheap wage labour. In addition, it is still important to not lose sight of how a liberal government like the PP, in pursuing its own ambitions to assert sovereignty over foreign policy and natural resources, has fallen from grace and is facing the age-old colonial/imperialist strategy of ‘divide and rule’ tactics both at the national level and regional levels through the TPLF, OLF and external actors such as Sudan and Egypt.

This also gives us insight into the accumulation strategy of the EPRDF, which still operates under a constitution and governance system setup by the TPLF dominated government. This draws out a broader lesson to the challenges arising out of an ambitious developmentalist elite in Africa. Although, the TPLF has been subjected to accountability processes after their removal from control of the federal government, there is still a broader lesson here for development in Africa, and this demands further interrogation.

Some on the left have admired the capacity of the ruling class in Ethiopia to pursue developmentalist ambitions with industrial parks as a strategy, for instance. But the limits of this strategy also need to be highlighted, as this also has relied on cheap wage labour and migrant women workers who have been rigidly constrained from organising in trade unions. Wildcat strikes and high turnover of labour has meant this is not a stable accumulation strategy, even on their own terms. It begs a broader question, what is the nature of a viable developmental strategy?

In addition, the pressures arising out of a gendered understanding of working class dynamics lays a basis to consider what developmental alternatives can be fought for. Such an alternative also demands a rupture from the existing imperialist architecture of power to assert control over resources which destabilises the global financial and geopolitical arrangements that the emerging Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia relations pose. Failure to recognise this is akin to enabling the catastrophic outcome of interventions in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the reason why there has been a robust and vociferous rejection of any possible intervention by the likes of Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink.

Progressives have a responsibility to centre an understanding of imperialism and the national question, as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros pull together in Reclaiming the Nation, to navigate this terrain and build bridges with the radical intelligentsia and popular formations in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa who want to construct a transformative agenda themselves. A first step has to be rejecting the ethnonationalist, genocidal agenda of TPLF, OLF and their allies.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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Hibist Kassa is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for African Alternatives in Cape Town, South Africa. She is also a Research Associate at the Centre for African Studies and Chair in Land and Democracy in South Africa.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections
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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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