In recent years, it has become relatively common for public entities and politicians in Kenya to disavow certain content shared through social media, claiming it to be false. This year alone, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has had to issue two statements dismissing election-related content as fabricated. In July 2021, it was reported through mainstream media that the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) had arrested an individual involved in online fraud. According to the report, the police suspected that the individual hacked into the IEBC’s database and accessed personal details relating to 61,617 registered voters. Shortly after the news broke, the IEBC claimed it was false. Even more recently, in September, the IEBC had to issue a public statement clarifying that a call for applications for jobs in their voter education programme was fake.
These instances have not taken place in isolation; there is a broader discernible upward trend in false or inaccurate content in Kenya. In a 2018 survey of 2,000 Kenyans by Portland Communications, 90 per cent believed they had interacted with false information relating to the 2017 Kenyan elections, while 87 per cent believed that such content was deliberately false. The issue of deliberately spreading false information was the subject of Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo’s research for the Mozilla Foundation. In their report, they highlighted the extent to which the spread of disinformation in Kenya through Twitter was coordinated and well -organized.
These local developments also occur against a backdrop of global trends with striking similarities. Several governments—including Kenya’s—have attempted to rein in the spread of false or inaccurate information through regulation. For example, in 2018 Kenya enacted the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (CMCA) which criminalizes sharing false information. Noting that some of these countries have directly linked their regulatory objectives to the safeguarding of their democracy, it is worth exploring the ways in which false or inaccurate content compromises democracies, and in particular, electoral integrity.
To a post-truth world
Undoubtedly, the ability to agree on basic facts is a core tenet of democracy. To optimally make a collective decision, voters ought to have access to the same accurate information. While arriving at a single “objective truth” is not always possible due to mediation in communication, it is important for the citizenry to at least have access to, and acknowledge the basic facts that underpin the political processes they are participating in. The increasing spread of false or inaccurate content in recent years points to the solidifying of a “post truth” age where political rhetoric often appeals to emotion and sentiment with little regard to factual rebuttals.
This post-truth concept is not entirely novel. For example, climate change denial and anti-vaxxer sentiments have long persisted despite widespread availability of evidence to refute them. But in recent years, it has gained significant popularity perhaps due to the increasingly populist nature of political campaigning in the digital age. On the same year Donald Trump won the US elections, Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was “post-truth”. In his campaign, Trump made it a habit of dismissing mainstream news reporting as “fake news” when it contradicted his narrative and even went ahead to later falsely claim he coined the term. Likely emboldened by these trends, other populist leaders around the world began dismissing news reporting as fabricated when it did not suit their narratives – Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines have both accused journalists of spreading “fake news”.
Rather dangerously, some leaders who sound the alarm over false or inaccurate content are often either linked to the deliberate spread of such content or have benefited from it. Trump’s campaign was boosted by a group of Macedonian teenagers who, driven by advertising revenue on Facebook, generated several seemingly genuine news articles that either directly supported Trump or discredited his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The combination of these leaders casting aspersions as to the integrity of traditional media and the spread of “alternative facts” on social media results in a political environment where voters are highly distrustful of each other and of core institutions such as the media. The danger is exacerbated by the nature of social media and how third parties—often with the aid of social media platforms—are able to curate the type of content users are exposed to in a subtle manner as we discussed in our previous article.
Rather dangerously, some leaders who sound the alarm over false or inaccurate content are often either linked to the deliberate spread of such content or have benefited from it.
Distrusting institutions is not the only risk to democracies. In some cases, false content results in violence. In 2016, following claims that Hillary Clinton was running a ring which that was exploiting children sexually in the basement of a pizza restaurant, a man armed with a gun broke into the restaurant to find out if the claim was true – it was not. More recently, a large-scale attack on the US Capitol took place following the outgoing president’s false claims through social media that the election was stolen. In this case, it was reported that Facebook was aware of the potential for violence arising from the false claims but failed to limit their spread. With real dangers like this in mind, the desire to “regulate truth” is understandable. However, attempts to do so have raised a novel set of challenges. For one, it is extremely difficult to define truth let alone purport to regulate it.
Getting the terminology right
The terms “fake news”, “disinformation”, and “misinformation”’ have featured prominently in discourse on the spread of false content. While these terms are generally used to assert that something is untrue, they are sometimes wrongly conflated. This conflation then impairs any attempts at regulation. The term “fake news” does not necessarily refer to one specific type of content. Clair Wardle of FirstDraft has rightly noted that it is an entire eco-system that includes both misinformation and disinformation. Elsewhere, one of us has categorized the nature of this content into two conceptions for purposes of understanding how to regulate it: the deliberate action and the culture around it.
The deliberate action essentially refers to disinformation. Spreading disinformation is the act of intentionally and knowingly sharing false or inaccurate content. For example, the teens in Macedonia spinning fake articles for advertising revenue were involved in a disinformation campaign. In Kenya, Madung and Obilo identified groups of bloggers who were paid to push trends with false content that maligned certain political actors such as those who filed a petition to oppose the Building Bridges Initiative. These disinformation campaigns are often well coordinated and targeted at a particular outcome. Due to the potency of such campaigns in electoral contexts, they have previously been referred to as “distributed-denial-of-democracy attacks”.
These disinformation campaigns are often successful because of the second categorization – the culture of misinformation. In other words, the increasing likelihood of individuals to share false or inaccurate content unintentionally or inadvertently. Misinformation can range from misleading or alarmist headlines to demonstrably false claims passed on by people who had a good faith belief in the accuracy of those claims. For example, a few years ago, the Kenya Bureau of Standards had to issue a statement denying the existence of “plastic rice” in Kenya following the circulation of a video on WhatsApp implying there was. WhatsApp is a particularly notorious avenue through which misinformation is shared locally. Even mainstream media is sometimes susceptible to sharing misinformation as was seen most recently when several newsrooms reported that a Kenyan Senator dialled into a parliamentary debate session from a bar due to a poorly edited clip that was circulating on social media. They later had to recant upon discovering it was an altered clip.
Even mainstream media is sometimes susceptible to sharing misinformation.
Unlike coordinated disinformation campaigns, which may often be linked to a central source, misinformation entails the public playing an active role in both creating and amplifying narratives. As a result, Renée DiResta has referred to misinformation as ampliganda – amplified propaganda. This culture of misinformation has been enabled by several things. First, the use of social media as a source of news content has led to a decline in gatekeeping or fact-checking of content. Second, the nature of social media is such that it amplifies one’s biases and exposes them to content which often confirms their worldview. This in turn results in their likelihood to consume false or inaccurate content unthinkingly. Lastly, the existence of disinformation campaigns, and the discrediting of claims as false by politicians further muddies the waters, making people unsure of what is “objectively true”. This has made addressing the problem of fake news difficult.
Conceivably due to a focus on disinformation, regulation seeking to rein in false or inaccurate content has often been quick to criminalize the spread of fake news. As it was noted in the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age (KACEDDA) report, there is insufficient data regarding the individuals, motives and means behind the spread of fake news, possibly hampering regulatory efforts. Across the world, governments seeking to rein in fake news have either targeted the individuals involved in spreading such content with penal sanctions, or the platforms hosting the content with financial liability. Both approaches are wanting for various reasons. For one, they both purely ignore the broader conception of fake news as a culture enabled by several factors. Second, they also pose a threat to the freedom of expression which, in relation to political speech, is vital.
Take for example Kenya’s CMCA, mentioned above. It criminalizes disinformation, identified in the Act as the intentional publication of false, misleading, or fictitious information which that is disguised as authentic. Those found guilty of committing this offence would be subjected to either a fine not exceeding KSh5 million (approximately US$45,000) or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years, or to both. More severely, the CMCA also makes it an offence to knowingly publish false information through any media in a manner calculated to cause disorder or to harm the reputation of a person. While the fine for this offence remains the same as the previous one, the potential prison sentence is a term not exceeding ten years. In no way should the intentional spread of false information be condoned. However, such laws may be the subject of abuse by governments seeking to suppress political activism and allowable expression. For example, Mutemi Kiama was arrested over claims that he violated the CMCA when he shared a poster with President Kenyatta’s image, identification number and a statement ostensibly from Kenyans to the rest of the world renouncing him as Kenya’s representative for purposes of seeking financial loans. This occurred in the context of a broader discourse on Kenya’s debt burden and a section of Kenyans’ displeasure with the economic trajectory of the country.
This abuse is also discernible from the fact that evidence suggests the law is selectively applied. In 2020, a Member of Parliament, John Kiarie, posted a Twitter thread where he raised alarm at the number of people the government had in quarantine following the first confirmed COVID case in the country. His posts directly contradicted the Ministry of Health’s official position, indicating that the situation could be much worse than was officially reported. He was neither arrested nor charged, and the Twitter thread is still available online. The existence of a law that limits the freedom of expression in a subjective manner with the risk of stiff financial and penal sanctions, let alone its abuse, is likely to stifle free expression. More so with respect to political discourse which is crucial in campaigns and elections.
Aside from targeting individuals, some governments have sought to shift the burden of regulating fake news to platforms such as social media by imposing liability on them for their users’ behaviour in certain instances. Arguably the most notable example of this is Singapore’s anti-fake news law which that would enable the government to order platforms to take down false statements which that are against the public interest. Where platforms are at risk of incurring liability for user conduct, they are more likely to pre-emptively censor content they deem problematic. The net effect of fake news laws aimed at platforms would therefore be the suppression of protected speech in an unprocedural manner by private entities. At the same time, the core issue of fake news would not be addressed.
These attempts at regulation which focus primarily on disinformation campaigns, while well–intentioned, seem to have missed the mark. Jeff Kosseff, an Assistant Professor at the US Naval Academy recently remarked that the discourse around fake news has not sufficiently focused on the reason behind people’s susceptibility to such content. Instead, attempts at regulating fake news seem to focus on the individuals and platforms involved, and the mechanics through which it is spread. However, to address both the disinformation and the broader culture of misinformation that enables it, one must go beyond such regulation.
A layered approach
Outlawing disinformation alone will not address the spread of fake news; it may in fact cause more harm than good. This does not mean that it should be tolerated in the name of respecting the freedom of expression, particularly in any context that is likely to lead to widespread violence due to long-standing tensions (e.g., deep running economic or ethnic tensions). Any attempts to outlaw certain speech ought to be contextual, measured, and proportionate to the ends sought. However, beyond this, they ought to be supplemented by policy interventions aimed at reforming the culture which that enables disinformation to take root.
Most of these policy interventions would involve education of one form or another. Crucially, governments should engage in both civic education and media literacy campaigns. Empowering the citizenry to both identify accurate sources of information and understand the role of different institutions in a democracy would contribute significantly to stemming the inadvertent spread or consumption of misinformation. This, coupled with collaborative fact-checking initiatives between the government and mainstream media, would enable voters to discern fact from falsehood.
To address both the disinformation and the broader culture of misinformation that enables it, one must go beyond such regulation.
Considering the centrality of social media to everyday news consumption, it would also be prudent to engage these platforms in such fact-checking initiatives. For example in Mexico, the National Electoral Institute (INE) collaborated with social media companies in support of Verificado 2018, a fact-checking initiative that saw the Mexican presidential debates livestreamed on social media from INE headquarters. The collaboration also supported the development of Certeza 2018, a fact-checking system used online which—through a combination of human and machine review—monitored online activity, assessed instances of misinformation, and took action by disseminating the relevant notices. In recognition that fact-checking may occur late after false information is shared, it is also worth mainstream media exploring pre-bunking initiatives. These would involve identifying the common tropes around false narratives and priming audiences to receive them critically. Such efforts have been proposed as solutions to the current spread of misinformation around COVID vaccines. Sander van der Linden likens pre-bunking efforts to inoculation against disinformation and misinformation.
Even where pre-bunking efforts are not adopted, entities involved in the fact-checking initiatives proposed above may collaboratively engage in a debunking campaign by developing counter-messaging once misinformation is disseminated. For this, Indonesia’s example is instructive as noted in the KAF Commission’s report. In Indonesia, the electoral bodies collaborated with civil society and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to monitor social media activity and to spread counter-messaging in instances of misinformation, among other things.
While it is indeed necessary to curb the spread of false or inaccurate content, attempting to do so may pose several risks. Governments, social media platforms, and mainstream media ought to collaborate and make use of a few legal and policy-based initiatives to stem the culture of misinformation. The IEBC fortunately has several examples to draw from on how, as an electoral body, it can coordinate efforts around addressing the culture of misinformation around elections. In all, when seeking to curb the spread of fake news (both deliberate and inadvertent), it is important for governments to consider why their citizens are susceptible to false information as opposed to how and by whom that information is spread.
This is the third of a five-part op-ed series that seeks to explore the use of personal data in campaigns, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, social media censorship, and incitement to violence and hate speech, and the practical measures various stakeholders can adopt to safeguard Kenya’s electoral integrity in the digital age ahead of the 2022 elections. This op-ed series is in partnership with Kofi Annan Foundation and is made possible through the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund.
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Who Won Kenya’s “Nominations”?
Being nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine grass-roots legitimacy but it is hard not to suspect that some of the losers in the nominations process might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn.
Who won Kenya’s “nominations”, the tense and often unpredictable political process through which parties select which candidates they want to represent them in the general election scheduled for 9 August? That may sound like a silly question. Social media is full of photographs of smiling candidate clutching their certificates of nomination—surely we need to look no further for the winners?
But maybe we do. Beyond the individual candidates in the contests for nominations, there are other winners. One may be obvious: it seems the general feeling is that Deputy President William Ruto came out better from the nominations than did his principal rival in the presidential race, former opposition leader Raila Odinga—about which more below. However, for some, coming out on top in the nominations may prove a poisoned chalice. Where nominations are seen to have been illegitimate, candidates are likely to find that losing rivals who stand as independents may be locally popular and may gain sympathy votes, making it harder for party candidates to win the general election. This means that there are often some less obvious winners and losers.
One reason for this is that nominations shape how voters think about the parties and who they want to give their vote to, come the general election. Research that we conducted in 2017, including a nationally representative survey of public opinion on these issues, found that citizens who felt that their party’s nomination process had not been legitimate were less likely to say that they would vote in the general election. In other words, disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out. In 2017, this appeared to disadvantage Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), whose nomination process was generally seen to have been more problematic—although whether this is because they were, or rather because this is how they were depicted by the media, is hard to say.
In the context of a tight election in 2022, popular perceptions of how the nominations were managed may therefore be as significant for who “wins” and “loses” as the question of which individuals secured the party ticket.
Why do parties dread nominations?
The major parties dreaded the nominations process—dreaded it so much, in fact, that despite all their bold words early on about democracy and the popular choice (and despite investments in digital technology and polling staff), most of the parties tried pretty hard to avoid primary elections as a way of deciding on their candidates. In some cases that avoidance was complete: the Jubilee party gave direct nominations to all those who will stand in its name. Other parties held some primaries—Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) seems to have managed most—but in many cases they turned to other methods.
That is because of a complicated thing about parties and elections in Kenya. It is widely assumed—and a recent opinion poll commissioned by South Consulting confirms this—that when it comes to 9 August most voters will decide how to cast their ballot on the basis of individual candidates and not which party they are standing for. Political parties in Kenya are often ephemeral, and people readily move from one to another. But that does not mean that political parties are irrelevant. They are symbolic markers with emotive associations – sometimes to particular ideas, sometimes to a particular regional base. ODM, for example, has been linked both with a commitment to constitutional reform and with the Luo community, most notably in Nyanza. So the local politician who wants to be a member of a county assembly will be relying mostly on their personal influence and popularity—but they know that if they get a nomination for a party which has that kind of emotive association, it will smoothen their path.
Disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out.
This means that multiple candidates vie for each possible nomination slot. In the past, that competition has always been expensive, as rival aspirants wooed voters with gifts. It occasionally turned violent, and often involved cheating. Primary elections in 2013 and 2017 were messy and chaotic, and were not certain to result in the selection of the candidate most likely to win the general election. From the point of view of the presidential candidates, there are real risks to the primary elections their parties or coalitions oversee: the reputational damage due to chaos and the awareness that local support might be lost if a disgruntled aspirant turns against the party.
This helps to explain why in 2022 many parties made use of direct nominations—variously dressed up as the operation of consensus or the result of mysterious “opinion polls” to identify the strongest candidate. What that really meant was an intensive process of promise-making and/or pressure to persuade some candidates to stand down. Where that did not work, and primaries still took place, the promise-making and bullying came afterwards—to stop disappointed aspirants from turning against the party and standing as independents. The consequence of all that top-down management was that the nominations saw much less open violence than in previous years.
So who won, and who lost, at the national level?
Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates. That brings us to the big national winners and losers of the process. Odinga—and his ODM party—have come out rather bruised. They have been accused of nepotism, bribery and of ignoring local wishes. This is a particularly dangerous accusation for Odinga, as it plays into popular concerns that, following his “handshake” with President Kenyatta and his adoption as the candidate of the “establishment”, he is a “project” of wealthy and powerful individuals who wish to retain power through the backdoor after Kenyatta stands down having served two-terms in office. In the face of well-publicised claims that Odinga would be a “remote controlled president” doing the bidding of the Kenyatta family and their allies, the impression that the nominations were stage-managed from on high in an undemocratic process was the last thing Azimio needed.
Moreover, perhaps because Odinga seems to have been less active than his rival in personally intervening to mollify aggrieved local politicians, the ODM nominations process seems to have left more of a mess. That was compounded by complications in the Azimio la Umoja/One Kenya Alliance Coalition Party (we’ll call it Azimio from now on, for convenience). Where Azimio “zoned”—that is, agreed on a single candidate from all its constituent parties—disappointed aspirants complained. Where it did not zone, and agreed to let each party nominate its own candidate for governor, MP and so on, then smaller parties in the coalition complained that they would face unfair competition come the general election. That is why the leaders of some of these smaller groups such as Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua made dramatic (or theatrical, depending on your view) announcements of their decision to leave Azimio and support Ruto.
Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates.
So Ruto looks like a nomination winner. But his success comes with a big price tag. His interventions to placate disgruntled aspirants involved more than soothing words. A new government will have lots of goodies to distribute to supporters—positions in the civil service and parastatals, diplomatic roles, not to mention business opportunities of many kinds. But the bag of goodies is not bottomless, and it seems likely that a lot of promises have been made. Ruto’s undoubted talents as an organizer and deal-maker have been useful to him through the nominations—but those deals may prove expensive for him, and for Kenya, if he wins the presidential poll.
Money, politics, and the cost of campaigns
Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword. In the short term, many of them will have saved considerable money: depending on exactly when the deal was done, they will have been spared some days of campaign expenses—no need to fuel cars, buy airtime for bloggers, pay for t-shirts and posters, and hand out cash. But that will be a brief respite. The disappointed rivals who have gone independent will make the campaigns harder for them—and likely more expensive. The belief that they were favoured by the party machinery may mean that voter expectations are higher when it comes to handouts and donations on the campaign trail. And the fact they were nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine their grass-roots legitimacy.
Others may experience a similar delayed effect. Among the short-term losers of the nominations will have been some of the “goons” who have played a prominent physical role in previous nominations: their muscular services were largely not required (although there were exceptions). The printers of posters and t-shirts will similarly have seen a disappointing nominations period (although surely they will have received enough early orders to keep them happy, especially where uncertainty over the nomination was very prolonged). The providers of billboard advertising may have seen a little less demand than they had hoped for, although they too seem to have done quite well from selling space to aspirants who—willingly or not—did not make it to the primaries. But where the general election will be fiercely contested, entrepreneurs will likely make up any lost ground as the campaigns get going. In these cases, competition has been postponed, not avoided.
Those in less competitive wards, constituencies or counties—the kind in which one party tends to dominate in the general election—are unlikely to be able to make up for lost time. These “one-party” areas may be in shorter supply in 2022 than in the past, due to the way that the control of specific leaders and alliances over the country’s former provinces has fragmented, but there will still be some races in which it is obvious who will win, and so the campaigns will be less heated.
Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword.
More definite losers are the parties themselves. In some ways, we could say they did well as institutions, because they were spared the embarrassment of violent primaries. But the settling of many nominations without primaries meant not collecting nomination fees from aspirants in some cases, and refunding them in others. That will have cost parties a chunk of money, which they won’t get back. That may not affect the campaigns much—the money for campaigns flows in opaque and complex ways that may not touch the parties themselves. But it will affect the finances of the parties as organizations, which are often more than a little fragile.
Are the losers actually the biggest winners?
Some losers, however, are really big winners. Think about those candidates who would not have won competitive primaries but were strong enough to be able to credibly complain that they had been hard done by due to the decision to select a rival in a direct process. In many cases, these individuals were able to extract considerable concessions in return for the promise not to contest as independents, and so disrupt their coalition’s best laid plans. This means that many of the losers—who may well have been defeated anyway—walked away with the promise of a post-election reward without the expense and bother of having to campaign up until the polls.
It is hard not to suspect that some of them might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn. In fact, some of them may have been aiming at this all along. For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome. Instead of spending the next three months in an exhausting round of funerals, fund-raisers and rallies, constantly worrying about whether they have enough fifty (or larger) shilling notes to hand out and avoiding answering their phones, they can sit back and wait for their parastatal appointment, ambassadorship, or business opportunity.
For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome.
For these individuals, the biggest worry now is not their popularity or campaign, but simply the risk that their coalition might not win the presidential election, rendering the promises they have received worthless. Those whose wishes come true will be considerably more fortunate—and financially better off—than their colleagues who made it through the nominations but fall at the final hurdle of the general election.
Separating the winners of the nominations process from the losers may therefore be harder than it seems.
Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.
The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.
Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.
According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.
A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.
The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?
A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.
What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.
Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.
Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.
Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.
As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.
While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.
Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.
“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.
Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.
Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.
Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.
The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.
Labour migration as climate mitigation
you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed
Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.
It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.
Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.
The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.
Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.
Reparations include No Borders
“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman
Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”
Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debt, unfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheid, labour exploitation, and border securitisation.
It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.
Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.
The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.
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