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Will Digital Media Change the Narratives About Northern Kenya?

8 min read.

In the face of an indifferent traditional media, citizens from the marginalised communities of northern Kenya have taken to social media to highlight the challenges they face at the hands of government security agencies.

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Will Digital Media Change the Narratives About Northern Kenya?
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In early September 2021, Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Horn of Africa security expert, was abducted by unidentified men in Nairobi’s Central Business District. The academic was forced into a vehicle that took him to an undisclosed location where he was held hostage for close to two weeks. His abduction was allegedly triggered by his critical comments online on regional politics. Immediately after the incident, Kenyans took to social media to report his disappearance. #FreeAbdiwahab and other hashtags were created, and a week-long discursive discourse erupted online, consistently calling for his immediate release.

While Kenyans from different communities joined this discourse, Somalis from northern Kenya, where Abdiwahab hails from, dominated this wave of digital protests. The Tweets were explicit that the communities from north-eastern Kenya are victims of abductions that are normalized and justified under the guise of countering terrorism. The Tweets also pointed fingers at the Kenyan government’s reluctance or failure to investigate, and its covert involvement in some of the kidnappings.

Going through my social media timelines, I realized how the online discourse not only resulted from the absence of critical coverage by the Kenyan media regarding the lack of investigations of these kidnappings but also how digital media is employed by this marginalized community to highlight the unique challenges they face.

In short, the reaction following Abdiwahab’s abduction reflected how the absence of accountability institutions cemented the normalization of kidnappings that often end in extrajudicial killings. Moreover, the critical online discourse that followed this incident serves as an ideal case study of how Twitter and other digital media platforms enable marginalized communities to set the agenda for the media and the public.

Twitter as a public sphere  

Counter-narratives constructed on Twitter by citizens from northern Kenya allow them to not only claim power but to also “broadcast these ideas to a wide audience to court support for these ideas, and to form networks with like-minded individuals.”

There has been a rise in abductions and subsequent extrajudicial killings targeting the Muslim community following the al-Shabaab attacks of the last decade. In counties along the coast and in northern Kenya, national security agencies have been accused of being behind the deaths of young Muslim men suspected of having ties with the terror group in Somalia.

The abduction of Abdiwahab in broad daylight was not the first and, judging by the government’s tight-lipped response, it will not be the last. Following the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) 2011 invasion of Somalia to “fight al-Shabaab”, numerous terror attacks have been carried out across the country, prompting a response from the political and security elites to counter the violence perpetrated by the Somali-based terror group. The group has taken advantage of unemployed and traditionally marginalized youths in counties like Mombasa, Isiolo, Garissa, and even Kiambu, by brainwashing them and promising them economic and religious benefits if they join the militants.

The normalization of these illegal counter-terror tactics has been brought about by the precedents set by Western countries led by the US in their efforts to curb terror attacks in cities like New York, Paris, and London. Since 9/11, Western military elites have justified the illegal capture and killings of Muslim men from the Middle East suspected of working with groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State.

For instance, the existence of Guantanamo Bay, a detention camp that holds hundreds of terrorism suspects from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, serves as a reminder of how governments operate in a lawless universe when dealing with “terror suspects”. These Western tactics have informed how terror-afflicted countries like Kenya deal with citizens accused of being terrorist sympathizers.

In 2012, the controversial cleric Abud Rogo was shot dead in Mombasa County. Rogo was accused of spearheading the recruitment of youth from the coast to join the terror group in Somalia. Rogo was not the only Muslim cleric gunned down by the Kenyan security agencies. Between 2012 and 2014, Haki Africa, a Mombasa-based human rights group, documented the killing of 21 Islamic clerics across coastal Kenya. The Kenyan government has continuously denied any involvement in the kidnappings and killings. The lack of investigations and the covert support for these acts explains why fingers have been pointed at the government.

Western military elites have justified the illegal capture and killings of Muslim men from the Middle East suspected of working with groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

The global advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), revealed that between 2013 and 2015 “at least 34 people, including two women, were taken into custody by security forces during counterterrorism operations in north-eastern Kenya . . . whose whereabouts remain unknown.”

These are just the numbers documented by rights groups. Because of fear and the sensitivity surrounding the issue of terrorism and al-Shabaab, numerous cases go unreported. The few known ones remain unresolved since, as HRW puts it, “police have not meaningfully investigated these deaths.” Nonetheless, it is important to point out that while such cases have skyrocketed since 2011 when terror events surged in Kenya, communities in north-eastern Kenya have faced these challenges since Kenya’s independence in 1963.

In 1980, thousands of residents in Garissa County were rounded up and many died in what came to be known as the Bula Karatasi Massacre. The Kenyan security agencies were responding to an incident where civil servants were gunned down in a bar in the Bula Karatasi neighborhoodneighbourhood. Farah Maalim, a prominent Kenyan politician, notes that “Many people were killed,” because of the Kenyan government’s response to this incident. “Soldiers shot anything in sight.”

In Wajir County, it is believed that over 5,000 men were killed in 1984 by the Kenyan army when it went in to disarm Somalis in the county following ethnic conflicts. These are just a few examples that demonstrate how Kenyan elites have been dealing with generations of Somalis from north-eastern counties.

The role of the media 

The Kenyan mass media’s systematic lack of critical coverage of these acts means that the government has not been held to account. As I have argued before, Kenyan journalists based in Nairobi have cemented the culture of portraying northern Kenya as a region engulfed by conflict, with the result that no substantive or thematic coverage is undertaken.

With few journalists from this region working for the mainstream news media, and in the absence of correspondents on the ground to cover these acts of violence, the community has been left out of the national conversation. There were no avenues that could have been used to create awareness about the unique challenges faced by Kenyan citizens in the north. This explains why the Somali community in the region is embracing social media platforms to not only push back against misrepresentations of their issues but also to prominently place their narratives in the national agenda.

The Digital Media 

The historical and contemporary injustices faced by communities in north-eastern Kenya have led them to embrace digital media. But it is also essential to note that a majority of Kenyans are unable to own smartphones or access the internet in order to be active participants in on-going debates on platforms like Twitter.

Only 17 per cent of Kenyans use social media and as a result of this digital divide, most Kenyans access news through traditional media like radios and newspapers. These traditional, mainstream mediums have failed to adequately advocate for the critical coverage of issues like the systematic abductions and killings of citizens in northern Kenya.

There is a growing body of literature on how marginalized communities like African Americans in the US and Muslims in Europe use digital media to counter the predominant narratives constructed by the mainstream media. These studies show that digital platforms like Twitteroffer citizens most invisible in mainstream politics radical new potentials for identity negotiation, visibility, and influence.”

It is believed that over 5,000 men were killed by the Kenyan army in 1984 when it went in to disarm Somalis in the county following ethnic conflicts.

A classic example of the power arising from the intersection of marginalized publics and digital media is the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement. This group, which was created and organized by youthful online activists highlighting racial injustice in the US, remains impactful and has been successful in setting the agenda in the US and elsewhere. The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020 that ignited an explosion of protests from Minneapolis to Accra, demonstrates how digital media has the power to set the agenda for national and global discourses.

In Nigeria, the lack of critical coverage of campaigns such as the #EndSARS movement prompted protesters and community leaders to take to social media platforms. Protesters in the West African country called for the abolition of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that has terrorized Nigerians for years. South Africa’s #FeesMustFall was also successful in fighting plans to increase fees in higher education, advocating instead for increased funding to universities. These examples are testaments to the importance of social media for excluded citizens such as Kenyan Somalis.

Human rights lawyer Abdinassir Adan was among the Twitter users who tirelessly advocated for the release of Abdiwahab. He affirms that social media remains an important tool “because it is an easy way to get attention from the state [and] it is a quick way of making it trend. Our main aim is to create awareness and stand up against enforced disappearances and injustice [that are] contrary to the rule of law.”

Adan shares the frustrations of many, pointing out that the limited and uncritical coverage of these abductions by the Kenyan mass media forces them to raise this awareness online. “It is very unfortunate that the mainstream media over the years has been ignoring challenges faced by the Somali community in Kenya. Social media has rendered the hollow and the gibberish media useless. In a nutshell, we felt that digital media is more effective, and it easily helped us to achieve our goals.”

Are social media platforms the solution? 

Judging by the reaction to the abduction of Abdiwahab, it is evident that marginalized communities in northern Kenya are systematically using social media to change the culture of news media production in Kenya. The result is that, as a primary agenda-setter, the Kenyan press has been forced to adopt the social media agenda created by the public and make it part of the national agenda.

While this is a good opportunity for minority communities across Kenya, it is important to address the question of whether this is good in the long run. Most of the citizens in these northern counties still receive their news through traditional media, particularly community radios. While young people like Adan, who mostly reside in urban areas, can afford smartphones and have internet access to push back against government discrimination and media bias, a large proportion of the population of these counties is left out.

Moreover, by their very nature, these platforms have helped advance free speech, prompting some African governments to try to curb the freedom of expression among citizens by introducing high taxes on digital activity and passing restrictive legislation.

Further, online platforms have also been infiltrated by users who spread propaganda on behalf of the state. Social media influencers are paid as little as US$15 to spread disinformation, creating negative perceptions for institutions like the judiciary. This can have a negative impact on marginalized communities that depend on these platforms to share their challenges.

As a primary agenda-setter, the Kenya press has been forced to adopt the social media agenda created by the public and make it part of the national agenda.

The mainstream media should not remain passive, waiting for social media to highlight cases of human rights abuses against the people of northern Kenya. The demonstrated systematic pattern of targeting this group by government security agencies is enough to warrant a comprehensive, critical coverage of this important issue.

The Twitter conversations are also a reminder to Kenyan security agencies that, unlike the past, neglected citizens like those from north-eastern Kenya are now armed with digital platforms to counter-narratives constructed by the political and media elites.

In an age where information is shared within seconds, it is time the Kenyan government drops its abusive counter-terrorism tactics and systematically investigates cases like that of Abdiwahab. The Kenyan government and mass media need to treat Kenyans equally and to apply the law equally to citizens accused of any crimes. When communities in northern Kenya are accorded the same treatment as others across the country, then perhaps people like Adan will not be forced to use Western-owned digital media tools to highlight the challenges faced by Kenyans like him.

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Osman Osman (@osmanberet) is a PhD student in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. His work has been published by Al-Jazeera English, CNN, Quartz, among others.

Politics

Who Won Kenya’s “Nominations”?

Being nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine grass-roots legitimacy but it is hard not to suspect that some of the losers in the nominations process might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn.

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Who won Kenya’s “nominations”, the tense and often unpredictable political process through which parties select which candidates they want to represent them in the general election scheduled for 9 August? That may sound like a silly question. Social media is full of photographs of smiling candidate clutching their certificates of nomination—surely we need to look no further for the winners?

But maybe we do. Beyond the individual candidates in the contests for nominations, there are other winners. One may be obvious: it seems the general feeling is that Deputy President William Ruto came out better from the nominations than did his principal rival in the presidential race, former opposition leader Raila Odinga—about which more below. However, for some, coming out on top in the nominations may prove a poisoned chalice. Where nominations are seen to have been illegitimate, candidates are likely to find that losing rivals who stand as independents may be locally popular and may gain sympathy votes, making it harder for party candidates to win the general election. This means that there are often some less obvious winners and losers.

One reason for this is that nominations shape how voters think about the parties and who they want to give their vote to, come the general election. Research that we conducted in 2017, including a nationally representative survey of public opinion on these issues, found that citizens who felt that their party’s nomination process had not been legitimate were less likely to say that they would vote in the general election. In other words, disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out. In 2017, this appeared to disadvantage Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), whose nomination process was generally seen to have been more problematic—although whether this is because they were, or rather because this is how they were depicted by the media, is hard to say.

In the context of a tight election in 2022, popular perceptions of how the nominations were managed may therefore be as significant for who “wins” and “loses” as the question of which individuals secured the party ticket.

Why do parties dread nominations?

The major parties dreaded the nominations process—dreaded it so much, in fact, that despite all their bold words early on about democracy and the popular choice (and despite investments in digital technology and polling staff), most of the parties tried pretty hard to avoid primary elections as a way of deciding on their candidates. In some cases that avoidance was complete: the Jubilee party gave direct nominations to all those who will stand in its name. Other parties held some primaries—Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) seems to have managed most—but in many cases they turned to other methods.

That is because of a complicated thing about parties and elections in Kenya. It is widely assumed—and a recent opinion poll commissioned by South Consulting confirms this—that when it comes to 9 August most voters will decide how to cast their ballot on the basis of individual candidates and not which party they are standing for. Political parties in Kenya are often ephemeral, and people readily move from one to another. But that does not mean that political parties are irrelevant. They are symbolic markers with emotive associations – sometimes to particular ideas, sometimes to a particular regional base. ODM, for example, has been linked both with a commitment to constitutional reform and with the Luo community, most notably in Nyanza. So the local politician who wants to be a member of a county assembly will be relying mostly on their personal influence and popularity—but they know that if they get a nomination for a party which has that kind of emotive association, it will smoothen their path.

Disputed and controversial nomination processes can encourage voters to stay away from the general election, making it harder for leaders to get their vote out.

This means that multiple candidates vie for each possible nomination slot. In the past, that competition has always been expensive, as rival aspirants wooed voters with gifts. It occasionally turned violent, and often involved cheating. Primary elections in 2013 and 2017 were messy and chaotic, and were not certain to result in the selection of the candidate most likely to win the general election. From the point of view of the presidential candidates, there are real risks to the primary elections their parties or coalitions oversee: the reputational damage due to chaos and the awareness that local support might be lost if a disgruntled aspirant turns against the party.

This helps to explain why in 2022 many parties made use of direct nominations—variously dressed up as the operation of consensus or the result of mysterious “opinion polls” to identify the strongest candidate. What that really meant was an intensive process of promise-making and/or pressure to persuade some candidates to stand down. Where that did not work, and primaries still took place, the promise-making and bullying came afterwards—to stop disappointed aspirants from turning against the party and standing as independents. The consequence of all that top-down management was that the nominations saw much less open violence than in previous years.

So who won, and who lost, at the national level?

Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates. That brings us to the big national winners and losers of the process. Odinga—and his ODM party—have come out rather bruised. They have been accused of nepotism, bribery and of ignoring local wishes. This is a particularly dangerous accusation for Odinga, as it plays into popular concerns that, following his “handshake” with President Kenyatta and his adoption as the candidate of the “establishment”, he is a “project” of wealthy and powerful individuals who wish to retain power through the backdoor after Kenyatta stands down having served two-terms in office. In the face of well-publicised claims that Odinga would be a “remote controlled president” doing the bidding of the Kenyatta family and their allies, the impression that the nominations were stage-managed from on high in an undemocratic process was the last thing Azimio needed.

Moreover, perhaps because Odinga seems to have been less active than his rival in personally intervening to mollify aggrieved local politicians, the ODM nominations process seems to have left more of a mess. That was compounded by complications in the Azimio la Umoja/One Kenya Alliance Coalition Party (we’ll call it Azimio from now on, for convenience). Where Azimio “zoned”—that is, agreed on a single candidate from all its constituent parties—disappointed aspirants complained. Where it did not zone, and agreed to let each party nominate its own candidate for governor, MP and so on, then smaller parties in the coalition complained that they would face unfair competition come the general election. That is why the leaders of some of these smaller groups such as Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua made dramatic (or theatrical, depending on your view) announcements of their decision to leave Azimio and support Ruto.

Despite all the back-room deal-making, top-down political management was not especially successful in soothing the feelings of those who did not come out holding certificates.

So Ruto looks like a nomination winner. But his success comes with a big price tag. His interventions to placate disgruntled aspirants involved more than soothing words. A new government will have lots of goodies to distribute to supporters—positions in the civil service and parastatals, diplomatic roles, not to mention business opportunities of many kinds. But the bag of goodies is not bottomless, and it seems likely that a lot of promises have been made. Ruto’s undoubted talents as an organizer and deal-maker have been useful to him through the nominations—but those deals may prove expensive for him, and for Kenya, if he wins the presidential poll.

Money, politics, and the cost of campaigns

Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword. In the short term, many of them will have saved considerable money: depending on exactly when the deal was done, they will have been spared some days of campaign expenses—no need to fuel cars, buy airtime for bloggers, pay for t-shirts and posters, and hand out cash. But that will be a brief respite. The disappointed rivals who have gone independent will make the campaigns harder for them—and likely more expensive. The belief that they were favoured by the party machinery may mean that voter expectations are higher when it comes to handouts and donations on the campaign trail. And the fact they were nominated rather than selected by party members may undermine their grass-roots legitimacy.

Others may experience a similar delayed effect. Among the short-term losers of the nominations will have been some of the “goons” who have played a prominent physical role in previous nominations: their muscular services were largely not required (although there were exceptions). The printers of posters and t-shirts will similarly have seen a disappointing nominations period (although surely they will have received enough early orders to keep them happy, especially where uncertainty over the nomination was very prolonged). The providers of billboard advertising may have seen a little less demand than they had hoped for, although they too seem to have done quite well from selling space to aspirants who—willingly or not—did not make it to the primaries. But where the general election will be fiercely contested, entrepreneurs will likely make up any lost ground as the campaigns get going. In these cases, competition has been postponed, not avoided.

Those in less competitive wards, constituencies or counties—the kind in which one party tends to dominate in the general election—are unlikely to be able to make up for lost time. These “one-party” areas may be in shorter supply in 2022 than in the past, due to the way that the control of specific leaders and alliances over the country’s former provinces has fragmented, but there will still be some races in which it is obvious who will win, and so the campaigns will be less heated.

Those who “won” by being directly nominated to their desired positions may also come to see this process as something of a double-edged sword.

More definite losers are the parties themselves. In some ways, we could say they did well as institutions, because they were spared the embarrassment of violent primaries. But the settling of many nominations without primaries meant not collecting nomination fees from aspirants in some cases, and refunding them in others. That will have cost parties a chunk of money, which they won’t get back. That may not affect the campaigns much—the money for campaigns flows in opaque and complex ways that may not touch the parties themselves. But it will affect the finances of the parties as organizations, which are often more than a little fragile.

Are the losers actually the biggest winners?

Some losers, however, are really big winners. Think about those candidates who would not have won competitive primaries but were strong enough to be able to credibly complain that they had been hard done by due to the decision to select a rival in a direct process. In many cases, these individuals were able to extract considerable concessions in return for the promise not to contest as independents, and so disrupt their coalition’s best laid plans. This means that many of the losers—who may well have been defeated anyway—walked away with the promise of a post-election reward without the expense and bother of having to campaign up until the polls.

It is hard not to suspect that some of them might feel a little bit relieved at this out-turn. In fact, some of them may have been aiming at this all along. For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome. Instead of spending the next three months in an exhausting round of funerals, fund-raisers and rallies, constantly worrying about whether they have enough fifty (or larger) shilling notes to hand out and avoiding answering their phones, they can sit back and wait for their parastatal appointment, ambassadorship, or business opportunity.

For those with limited resources and uncertain prospects at the ballot, the opportunity to stand down in favour of another candidate may have been pretty welcome.

For these individuals, the biggest worry now is not their popularity or campaign, but simply the risk that their coalition might not win the presidential election, rendering the promises they have received worthless. Those whose wishes come true will be considerably more fortunate—and financially better off—than their colleagues who made it through the nominations but fall at the final hurdle of the general election.

Separating the winners of the nominations process from the losers may therefore be harder than it seems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labour migration as climate mitigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reparations include No Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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