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 Twitter “offer 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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Southern Cameroon: War and No Peace
The longue duree of the conflict in the Southern Cameroons, the rise of the current Ambazonian movement, as well as the dismal prospects for conflict resolution.
In power since 1982, Cameroon President Paul Biya has ruled autocratically for more than four decades. While Cameroon is officially bilingual, one manifestation of such authoritarian governance is the persistent marginalization of the minority English-speaking population in the Northwest and Southwest regions, the former British Southern Cameroons. Since 2016, in the face of state violence, peaceful protests by Anglophone groups have morphed into armed conflict in which separatist groups are fighting for an independent Republic of Ambazonia. In its sixth year, this hidden and neglected war has killed thousands and forcibly displaced more than one million people. Biya’s autocratic regime remains intent on a military solution to a political problem, uninterested in peace negotiations, and with little or no external pressure.
The colonial and post-colonial roots of this contemporary conflict are well-known to English-speaking Cameroonians. Originally a German colony (1884-1916) called Kamerun, after World War I, it was divided between France (80 percent) and Britain (20 percent), under League of Nations and then United Nations mandates. Britain subdivided its territory into Northern and Southern Cameroons and governed them as part of Nigeria. A botched reunification process occurred at independence in 1960 and 1961. French Cameroun and Nigeria gained their independence in January and October 1960 respectively. In February 1961, an UN-organized plebiscite was held to decide the future of Northern and Southern Cameroons, with the choice of joining either independent French Cameroun or Nigeria, but not independence as a separate state. Northern Cameroons voted to join Nigeria, while Southern Cameroons voted to join Cameroon. The terms of reunification between Southern Cameroons and French Cameroun were then agreed upon at the Foumban constitutional conference in July 1961, resulting in the Federal Republic of Cameroon, consisting of two federated states: West Cameroon (former Southern Cameroons) and East Cameroon (former French Cameroun).
The Federal Constitution came into effect in October 1961, with the federal system perceived to uphold the bi-cultural and bi-lingual nature of Cameroon within which the state of West Cameroon retained some autonomy, inclusive of separate governance structures and distinctive legal and educational institutions. However, federalism was short-lived, despite article 47 of the Constitution stating it to be “indissoluble.” In May 1972, President Ahmadou Ahidjo held a controversial national referendum that led to the abolition of the federal constitution and the creation of a unitary state called the United Republic of Cameroon. The 1972 referendum removed West Cameroon’s autonomous governance structures, most notably the West Cameroon House of Assembly.
In 1984 President Biya re-named the country, in French, as La Republique du Cameroun, returning to the name before reunification with Southern Cameroons. Writing in 1985, the barrister Fon Gorji Dinka described the 1972 referendum as a “constitutional coup” and the 1984 decree as an “act of secession” of La Republique du Cameroun from the 1961 union with Southern Cameroons. Current Anglophone separatist groups call themselves “restorationists,” fighting for the “restoration” of the state of Southern Cameroons or Ambazonia, and perceive this as an anti-colonial struggle given that British colonization was replaced by colonization by La Republique du Cameroun in 1961.
Although the current violence in Southern Cameroons is unprecedented, today’s conflict is a consequence of longstanding Anglophone grievances coupled with a strategy of “denial and repression” by the Francophone-dominated state towards Cameroon’s so-called Anglophone problem. Being Anglophone in Cameroon goes beyond language to encompass a cultural identity that has a history linked to Britain and a set of distinctive institutions. For decades, many Anglophones have felt that the Francophone-dominated state’s policy of assimilation has attempted to erode that identity, and feel treated as second-class citizens within Cameroon, with marginalization experienced in the socio-cultural, political, economic, and linguistic fields.
Anglophone opposition has risen at different times. In the early 1990s, political liberalization enabled Anglophone-specific trade unions, interest groups as well as political groups to emerge, advocating for Southern Cameroonian interests, notably the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). Of particular note were the All-Anglophone Conferences (AACI and AACII) held in 1993 and 1994 and attended by more than 5,000 delegates from Anglophone organizations and associations. AACI’s Buea Declaration I called for a return to two-state federalism, but total disregard of such demands by Biya’s regime led to secession being placed on the agenda in the declaration from AACII. The aim was stated as “the restoration of the autonomy of the former Southern Cameroons which has been annexed by La République du Cameroun.” SCNC in particular advocated for secession, but notably by non-violent means through the “force of argument rather than the argument of force.”
These long-standing grievances re-emerged in late 2016 with peaceful protests by lawyers and teachers against the francophonization of the legal and educational systems in the English-speaking regions. Lawyers were unhappy about the appointment of French-speaking magistrates educated in civil law and unfamiliar with common law, as practiced in the Anglophone regions, while teachers were concerned about the influx of French-speaking teachers. Separately, they undertook strike action and demonstrated in October and November 2016 respectively. These peaceful protests were violently dispersed by the security forces using tear gas and bullets, with some fatalities and many arrests. Following this violence, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) was established, advocating a return to pre-1972 two-state federalism. CACSC initiated “Operation Ghost Towns Resistance,” with closures of schools and businesses in the Northwest and Southwest regions on selected days as a tactic of non-violent resistance. The government’s response in January 2017 was to ban the Consortium, along with SCNC, and arrest their leaders on treason and terrorism charges, as well as a three-month internet blackout. Writing in April 2017, sociologist Piet Konings and anthropologist Francis Nyamnjoh likened the Francophone-dominated state’s approach to Anglophone grievances to that “of a workman whose only tool is a hammer and to whom every problem is a nail.” One consequence was that separatist voices became stronger.
State repression of, first, legitimate expression of grievances and, second, peaceful advocacy of federalism, led to increasing calls for secession of Southern Cameroons. Following the banning orders, existing separatist organizations, largely active in the diaspora, came together to form the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front (SCACUF), with Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, previously involved in CACSC, appointed as chairperson. While advocating secession, his strategy remained non-violent, echoing SCNC’s position in the 1990s. Divisions shortly became apparent, however, with Ayaba Cho Lucas, leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC), one of SCACUF’s constituent organizations, advocating armed struggle.
While SCACUF’s leadership remained largely outside of Cameroon, notably in Nigeria, civil disobedience continued in the Northwest and Southwest during 2017 with widespread support for the weekly “Ghost Town” days. The state’s response was military occupation, with arbitrary arrests and detention of young men on the pretext of supporting secessionism. In response, the AGC announced the deployment of their armed wing, the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF), with the first attack on September 9, 2017 in which three soldiers were killed. On October 1, 2017, the anniversary of Southern Cameroons’ independence from Britain, the independent Republic of Ambazonia was declared by SCACUF, alongside mass demonstrations in which 17 people were killed by state security forces. The SCACUF transformed itself into the Interim Government of Ambazonia (IG) on October 31, with Ayuk Tabe as President. The state intensified its militarization of the Anglophone regions, and on November 30, 2017 President Biya declared war on the secessionists, described as “terrorists.” Armed conflict continues to date.
War causes misery. Over five years later, the impact on the four million population has been severe. While figures are approximate and underestimated, at least 6,000 people have been killed and hundreds of villages razed, with 1.1 million people displaced by 2020, including 70,000 registered refugees in Nigeria, and 2.2 million in need of humanitarian assistance. School closures have caused education disruption to hundreds of thousands of children for years. Gross human rights violations committed by both warring parties have been widely documented, including by the Cameroon-based Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. The military is accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, unlawful imprisonment, torture, as well as the burning and destruction of homes, schools, and health centers. Armed separatist groups are accused of kidnappings and extortion of civilians, killings of alleged informants (so-called “blacklegs”), and beatings of teachers and students for non-compliance with the school boycott. Evidence indicates that the security forces are responsible for a greater proportion of the various atrocities, with the World Bank stating that government forces have caused 10 times as many civilian deaths as separatist armed groups. Rape and other forms of sexual violence have increased dramatically, described as “pervasive” and “rampant” in a UN report, and perpetuated with impunity by the military and non-state armed groups. As in other conflicts, rape has been used as a weapon of war, terrorizing local communities into submission and grossly violating women and girls.
The Cameroon government’s approach to the war was described recently as one of “hammer and lies,” in other words, military force alongside a disinformation campaign. The government continues to fight a counter-insurgency war, while simultaneously denying that a conflict exists, preferring to refer to a “security crisis” in the English-speaking regions, one which is largely resolved with a Presidential Plan of Reconstruction and Development in place from 2020. The lie to this is evident by Biya’s deployment of a new military commander and special elite forces to the two regions in September 2022. Essentially Biya seeks a military victory by crushing the separatists. But how strong is the Ambazonian movement and what threat does it entail to the Cameroonian state?
Like similar movements, the Ambazonian movement has political and military wings. Leaders of the political wing are mainly based in the diaspora or imprisoned in Cameroon, with significant divisions between them. The military forces, known locally as the “Amba Boys,” comprise up to 30 armed groups across the two regions. Initially, the main political split was between the Interim Government (IG) led by Ayuk Tabe and the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGC) led by Cho Lucas. However, in January 2018 Ayuk Tabe and nine other IG leaders were arrested in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon. They were detained without trial, then all sentenced to life imprisonment by a military tribunal in August 2019. With Ayuk Tabe detained, US-based Samuel Ikome Sako was elected as interim IG president. However, infighting ensued with a split in early 2019 between “IG Sisiku” and “IG Sako.” Despite its initial rivalry with the Interim Government, the AGC supported the IG Sisiku faction and formalized cooperation ties in August 2019. In 2021, the AGC also formed an alliance with Biafran separatists in Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra. Cho Lucas has also encouraged Francophone Cameroonian groups to take up arms against Biya’s regime.
Militarily, while the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) remains the largest group, there is a proliferation of smaller armed groups, for instance, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF), Ambazonia Restoration Forces, Red Dragons, Tigers of Ambazonia, and Vipers, comprising around 4,000 fighters in total. Allegiance with the political factions varies, with Red Dragons and SOCADEF believed to be aligned with IG Sako, for instance, while other armed groups operate quite independently. Initially, equipment was rudimentary, including hunting rifles and machetes. But the armed groups’ combat strength has increased through the acquisition of more sophisticated weaponry, including improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket launchers, with a greater intensity of operations. Precise figures are unknown, but both sides have lost considerable numbers of combatants.
The fragmentation of political leadership has led to disagreements and multiple policy directions. In response to the Swiss peace initiative, IG Sako formed the Ambazonia Coalition Team (ACT) in September 2019 to present a joint platform for negotiation. However, IG Sisiku refused to participate. Opposing policies over “lockdowns” (or “Ghost Towns”) and the so-called “liberation war tax” on civilians also indicate a lack of unity. The multiplicity of voices over policy directions is symptomatic of the disconnect between the diasporic leadership and their militias in Cameroon, with the absence of political authority on the ground.
While the war is unremitting and the government was forced to deploy special elite forces in September 2022 to bolster its counterinsurgency efforts, fragmentation and division amongst Ambazonian groups have weakened the movement.
As recently stated, the international response to the Cameroon Anglophone conflict has been “feeble.” with little or no pressure from Western governments and no political intervention from the AU or UN. Why is this? The Cameroon government’s “lies and disinformation” strategy has been relatively successful in hiding the reality of the war, and Western governments have prioritized economic and geo-strategic interests that require friendly relations with Biya’s regime. For the UK, for example, this included an off-shore natural gas deal in June 2018, and a UK-Cameroon Economic Partnership Agreement in April 2021. For France, its longstanding Françafrique policy prohibited criticism of the Cameroon government, evident in July 2022 when President Emmanuel Macron’s visit made no public reference to the Anglophone conflict. Stronger statements have come from the US Congress. House of Representatives’ Resolution 358 (July 2019) and Senate Resolution 684 (January 2021) which called for both warring parties to end all violence and pursue broad-based dialogue to resolve the conflict. However, neither congressional resolution has led to any significant action by the US government.
The African Union’s lack of response contrasts with the AU-led peace process in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, for instance. Cameroon’s membership of the AU’s Peace and Security Council has ensured its internal conflict has not been discussed. Similarly, successful lobbying by Cameroon’s diplomats has kept the conflict off the agenda of the UN Security Council.
More than forty years of autocratic and centralized rule under Paul Biya means that the Francophone-dominated state is intent on maintaining its control over Southern Cameroons, with little or no concession to Anglophone grievances, and currently unwavering from pursuing a military solution to a political problem, whatever the cost to the English-speaking population. The lack of international pressure has contributed to enabling the regime’s hard-line stance. However, the outlook of the Anglophone population would seem to have changed irrevocably. The unprecedented military occupation, repression, and violence from the Francophone-dominated state have given rise to a shift in consciousness. Although the desire for peace is profound, the political status quo is no longer tolerable. Any peace settlement will necessitate that the Anglophone population determines its future, for instance by means of an internationally-supervised referendum on constitutional arrangements, with options including federalism and independence.
If the decolonization process of the Southern Cameroons in 1960 and 1961 was botched and contravened the original UN Trusteeship Agreement, then decision-making on Southern Cameroons constitutional future has to be fully democratic some 60-plus years later.
Worked to Death: Lack of a Policy Framework Fails Kenyan Migrants in the Gulf
The government’s failure to adopt a labour migration policy has left Kenyan migrant workers in the Gulf region open to abuse, torture and even death.
Reports by various institutions including Parliament, the Ombudsman and NGOs have established that the Kenyan government’s failure to develop a comprehensive policy and legal framework continues to put at risk thousands of Kenyan migrant workers in the Middle East and especially in the Gulf.
There could be anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Kenyan migrants in the Gulf countries. No one knows for sure as the Kenyan government doesn’t keep accurate records, though its estimates are at the lower end of the spectrum. Most are unskilled laborers, in sectors such as construction, hospitality and domestic work, and their numbers are expected to keep growing given the Gulf’s high demand for inexpensive foreign labour. Labour abuses in the region are widespread, systemic and deadly. And while the government has developed policies enabling Kenyans to seek employment abroad, it has been much slower to act to protect them once they are there, seemingly more interested in the remittances they send home rather than in their safety.
Concerns over the safety of workers, and especially the safety of domestic workers, in the Gulf and the Middle East in general are not new. In 2014, following the deaths of Kenyan workers and accusation of widespread abuses, the Kenya government suspended the export of workers to the region, revoking the licenses of 930 recruitment agencies involved in the trade. The ban was only rescinded in 2017 following the signing of bilateral labour agreements with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, the issues that had precipitated the ban, and the government inaction that had preceded it soon resurfaced.
At least 93 Kenyans died while working in the Middle East between 2019 and 2021, many of them in Saudi Arabia, the third largest source of remittances with Kenyans in that nation sending back KSh22.65 billion in the first eight months of 2022 alone. A study by the University of Chicago released in December 2021, whose findings reflect the experiences of Kenyans who had returned from the Gulf, found that “practically everyone heading to [Gulf Cooperation Council member states, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates]… would become a victim of forced labour at some point”. Over 98 percent of respondents claimed to have experienced some form of workplace abuse, or had been unable to leave an abusive employment situation. The abuses included physical violence, threats, restrictions on movement and communications, being forced to do something they did not want to do, denial of food and shelter, unfair and unsafe work environments, and deceptive contracts.
Parliament and other constitutional bodies have noted the absence of laws and regulations to secure the welfare of Kenyan labour migrants, and even recommended as recently as November last year, that labour migration to the Gulf be temporarily stopped until these are addressed. However, much of the focus has been on streamlining the system for recruitment and processing of migrants heading to the Gulf, rather than on fixing the conditions they face when they get there. For example, whilst the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Labour and Social Welfare, which visited the Middle East in April 2021, noted Kenya’s lack of a policy and a law to govern the migration process, its main thrust appears to be about reforms Kenya can make to make it easier for migrants to secure jobs. In its account of meetings with Saudi labour officials and employment agents, there is no mention of the deaths of Kenyans nor of the tribulations of those desperate to leave the Kingdom.
Still the committee recommended the immediate suspension of migration of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia until the Executive established the status of all domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and undertook a census of all Kenyans in Saudi prisons and detention centres with a view to their repatriation to Kenya. It also demanded the re-establishment of labour offices and safe houses in Jeddah and Riyadh, recognition of welfare associations in Saudi Arabia, and a review of the regulation of private employment agencies, including a minimum deposit to ensure swift repatriation of any domestic worker in distress.
Here there seems an implicit acceptance that Kenyans going to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf will be subjected to abuse and, rather than demand action from the governments in the region to stop it, the focus seems to be on mitigation. The aim seems to be enabling Kenyans navigate an abusive system rather than pressuring the Gulf states to end the abuses. Thus the report pushes for finalization of a labour migration policy and a Labour Migration Management Bill mooted in 2021, and notes that “labour migration to key labour destinations has been happening in the absence of formal agreement or MoUs. And where they exist, the agreements fall short of taking care of the interests of workers”. It stresses need to better regulate recruitment processes and recruitment agencies in Kenya, and to streamline pre-departure training for migrating workers as well as systems for their identification and registration on arrival. It also recommends improved linkages between relevant ministries in Kenya and those in destination countries. A September 2022 Report on Systemic Investigation into the Plight of Kenyan Migrant Domestic Workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Commission on Administrative Justice (the Ombudsman) came to similar conclusions.
The Kenya and Saudi Arabia Bilateral Labour Agreement on the recruitment of domestic workers was adopted in January 2016 and was meant to secure the interests of both domestic workers and employers. While Kenya was tasked with ensuring proper documentation and screening of departing workers, Saudi Arabia was to take measures to ensure that the welfare and rights of employers and domestic workers employed in Saudi Arabia are promoted and protected in accordance with the applicable laws, rules and regulations.
The Saudi government was also to ensure implementation of the employment contract, provide 24-hour assistance to the domestic worker; endeavour to facilitate the expeditious settlement of any contractual dispute arising and ensure that workers are permitted to remit savings derived from their wages.
However, going by the number of abuses and deaths, Kenyan domestic workers have not benefited from the agreement, despite the Ministries of Labour of both countries being designated as the implementing agencies.
In its analysis of the level of implementation of the Bilateral Labour Agreement, the Ombudsman found that the two governments have not implemented many of the provisions. For instance, nearly 7 years after the adoption of the Agreement, the Joint Technical Committee has yet to be constituted and as a result, the required annual meetings have not taken place. Moreover, although the Commissioner of Labour told the Ombudsman that a review had been initiated, it has not been completed as required by law.
Within government, ministries have been passing the buck and it is unclear who between the Foreign Affairs and Labour ministries bears overall responsibility for the mess. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told Parliament that it had in July 2021 written to the Ministry of Labour recommending a temporary ban on the recruitment and export of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia and describing the situation as “dire”. However, the Labour Ministry rejected the advisory, with then Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui saying the local job market could not absorb all new workers. Chelugui’s comments appeared to prioritise the remittances from the Middle East, which at the time stood at KSh120 billion, at the expense of Kenyans’ safety and welfare in the Gulf states. ‘
“We will address the mistreatment of our people because from the statistics we have, about three to four per cent of Kenyans working in those countries are affected. Over 104,000 Kenyans are working in those countries who are doing their jobs happily,” Chelugui said, adding that there are “many social-economic benefits we gather from this migration”.
On the other hand, the advisory from the Foreign Affairs Ministry is an admission of the failure to implement the Diaspora Policy launched in 2014 which recognizes the constitutional imperative for government to protect citizens abroad, and requires it to develop a registry of Kenyans outside the country as well as review the 2007 Labour Institutions Act and gazette rules regulating operations of private employment agencies.
And while the Commissioner of Labour claims to have begun be reviewing the bilateral labour agreements, the senate in November was scheduled to debate a motion demanding the Foreign Ministry conduct the review.
The new Cabinet Secretaries for Labour and Foreign Affairs have committed to ending the problem once and for all. Dr Alfred Mutua chose Saudi Arabia as his first overseas trip as Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, but again suggested the problems facing Kenyan migrants start back home in Kenya. Following meetings with victims, agents, and Kenyan and Saudi officials, he blamed “massive corruption in the way Kenyans are prepared before they leave to be domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and follow up of Kenyans when they arrive”. According to him, the behaviour of Kenyan “cartels” and agencies was a major concern to everyone, “including the Government of Saudi Arabia”. There was no mention of the seeming lack of prosecutions of Saudi employers who have abused and murdered dozens of Kenyan workers, or compensation for their families. Instead he promised the yet-to-be-formed Joint Technical Committee would start its work on November 17 to fast-track “labour issues”.
The Ombudsman highlighted the creation of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration by an amendment of the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 in a bid to improve the standard of protection and promotion of the welfare of migrant workers, their families and overseas Filipinos in distress. This is not to say that Filipinos do not face challenges in the Middle East; they do and in fact, in January 2018, former President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to ban labour migration to the Middle East.
However, the Filipino government has taken steps to engage directly with the governments in the Gulf region to protect its nationals. In May this year, Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr lauded the labour reforms in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that protect Filipinos and encouraged other countries to follow suit. According to Philippines News Agency, the country collaborated with Bahrain in 2018 to provide flexible pathways to migration, leading to the issuance of flexible visas that regularized more than a thousand undocumented Filipinos. The government also invested some US$1.5 million to purchase flexi-visas for over a thousand Filipino migrant workers.
The Sri Lankan government has, for its part, developed a framework for labour migration that is enshrined in the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment Act, 1985. This was done through the creation of the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare to articulate State Policy regarding Sri Lankan citizens employed in other countries.
However, any engagement with the Saudi and other Gulf governments must recognize that the abuse, rape and killing of Kenyan migrant workers is happening within their jurisdiction and largely with their acquiescence. Reforms to systems within Kenya that does nothing to address their failure to provide justice and redress, including domestic reforms to hold perpetrators to account, will not protect Kenyans travelling there. Especially given the desperation of Kenyans to secure jobs, and the legendary corruption of the state, it is likely that there will continue to be incentives for people to circumvent bans and sidestep regulations. Ultimately the problem is not in Kenya but in the Gulf where most of the abuse is allowed to take place within families and behind closed doors.
The impotence of the government was highlighted by former Labour CS Chelugui during his vetting to become Cooperatives minister: “It is an issue that has not satisfied us as a country. We’ve been told some of the victims were (. . .) in breach of the laws of that country, but we cannot confirm these explanations since I have no jurisdiction there,” he told the vetting committee after Deputy House Speaker Gladys Boss questioned why many migrant workers end up dead in Saudi Arabia. Appearing before the Labour Committee in November, his successor, Florence Bore, blamed “insufficient budget, lack of enabling legislation and inadequate labour personnel” for the failure to protect Kenyans working in the Middle East.
For his part, PS Kamau has termed Saudi traditions around housework “very ancient” and suggested that the problem was actually the Kenyan victims’ lack of subservience! The sentiment encapsulates the Kenya government’s reluctance to take on their Saudi counterparts. And Kenyans will continue to pay the price.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
New Wine in Old Bottles: EAC Deploys Regional Force to the DRC
For the first time since its reformation in 1999, the East African Community is sending a regional force to the DRC. But can it win where others have failed?
The M23 rebel group was formed in 2012 as an offspring of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The group’s reason to wage war against the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is to protect the Congolese Tutsi and other ethnic communities in North and South Kivu from persecution and discrimination. After 10 years of inactivity, the M23 has once again become a thorn in the flesh of the DRC government—especially in the province of North Kivu—by conquering territories and displacing populations in the process. According to the United Nations, over 200,000 Internally Displaced Persons have been forced to flee since March 2022 when the latest flare-up began. On June 21, the East African Community Heads of State agreed to send the East African Community Joint Regional Force to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help quell the fighting sparked by the re-emergence of the M23 rebel group. This was formalised through a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) signed on September 11 between DRC President Felix Tshisekedi and the EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki.
The decision to set up the regional force is the first military deployment the EAC has undertaken since its reformation in 1999. According to the International Crisis Group, the initial plan indicated that the regional force would be made up of between 6,500 and 12,000 soldiers with a mandate to “contain, defeat and eradicate negative forces’’ in the eastern DRC. In addition, Kenya was to take the command role, to be stationed in Goma, North Kivu’s capital. The force would cover the four provinces of Haut-Uélé, Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu and the mandate was to last for an initial six months.
After months of uncertainty over the deployment of the regional force, on November 2nd 2022, Kenya became the first country to send troops to the DRC. This was followed by the announcement by Uganda and Burundi that they would be sending contingents. As the EAC deploys the force, reports on what exactly is the mandate of the regional force have been inconsistent. This being the first deployment by the EAC, its success and exit will rely heavily on the handover of responsibilities to an effective Armed Forces for the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC). With incomplete security sector reforms, the FARDC remains as politicised, divided, and ineffective as ever. Considering this reality, an improvement seems unlikely in the short-term while the EAC regional force is in place. Therefore, there is a likelihood that the EAC force may end up extending its stay much longer than the initial guidelines provided. This will not be a surprise; AMISOM’s mandate in Somalia was an initial 6 months to 2 years before handover to the UN.
Historically, the AU and UN military intervention missions have been involved in cyclical internal conflicts; MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and missions in South Sudan, Central Africa Republic, Somalia, and Mali come to mind. No matter how precise and effective the interventions have been, they have never been the magic wand to resolve the underlying internal political challenges. They tend to prolong their stay, a perfect case being MONUSCO which was first deployed in 1999 and is still in the DRC.
There is a likelihood of the troops engaging in illegal smuggling to ‘’pay themselves’’, ending up becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.
As the EAC regional force continues to take shape, there are multiple underlying and interconnected challenges facing eastern DRC today. First, the M23 group is not the only armed group that is fighting in that region. According to the Kivu Security Tracker Report of 2021, more than 120 armed groups operate in the entire eastern DRC— in parts of North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika. Generally, the conflict in the eastern DRC has been characterised by fragmentation among the rebel groups. Many of the groups identified by the KST report, have either been in existence for a long period or are splinter groups of the major groups. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the goals each group aims to achieve. More importantly, these armed groups are all driven by the need for survival which relies on extracting the rich mineral resources in the region and protecting their territories. Recent history has shown that outside intervention has been unsuccessful in addressing the security challenges and, therefore, the EAC regional force already has its work cut out.
Second, President Felix Tshisekedi has not given much needed attention and priority to the conflict in the east since coming to power. President Tshisekedi’s election remains contested, with allegations that it did not pass the democracy threshold test. His opponents believe that he was unduly announced as the winner due to the influence of former President Kabila. This has greatly contributed to his legitimacy being challenged and his influence reduced. As a result, his initial focus was geared towards managing the fledgling coalition he entered into with former President Joseph Kabila which ended up taking up much of his time. This might have distracted him from the much needed security sector reform. According to a January 2022 report by the Governance in Conflict Network, President Tshisekedi’s government has not undertaken a full and comprehensive security sector reform to improve capacity and efficiency.
This slow process of transforming the security sector is perhaps informed by the history that African presidents have with armies. As has been the norm, many African presidents have shown little interest in developing effective armies as they are viewed as potential threats to their hold on power. For instance, the 2013 peace deal signed between M23 and the Congolese authorities involved giving amnesty to the group members and reintegrating some of them into the FARDC. But President Tshisekedi never acted on the deal and according to reports, calls for talks have been ignored by Kinshasa. Faced with a re-election in 2023, is his inaction part of his strategy to get re-elected? Some analysts believe the current push to regionalise the conflict fits into the argument that whipping up nationalist sentiment is aimed at scoring political goals to gain legitimacy across the country. Thus, his recent focus and interest in the eastern DRC conflict may stem from the realisation that the elections are near and he needs an agenda around which to centre a rallying call for his campaign.
Third, the biggest elephant in the room remains the key objective of the EAC regional force being deployed to the eastern DRC. What are the key objectives of the countries that are contributing troops to the regional force? And what will be different from their previous involvement in the DRC? Each EAC member state has in one way or another deployed troops in the DRC. In 2021, President Tshisekedi granted Uganda authority to deploy its troops in Ituri and North Kivu. According to Kampala, the main aim of this deployment was to pursue the Allied Democratic Forces which were responsible for the increased bombings in Uganda. Along the same lines, President Tshisekedi allowed Burundi troops to enter the DRC to fight the RED-Tabara rebel group that is opposed to the Bujumbura government. In 2022, Kenya deployed around 200 soldiers to join MONUSCO under the Quick Reaction Force. Tanzania has its troops under the Force Intervention Brigade which is also part of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force. And finally, Rwanda has long held that the remnants of the 1994 genocide perpetrators, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), still pose an existential threat to Kigali and thus the need to always intervene.
Recent history has shown that outside intervention has been unsuccessful in addressing the security challenges.
Dr Colin Robinson, a researcher on African militaries, argues that the foreign military interventions being witnessed in the DRC are more for the deeply entangled and vested interests of neighbouring countries than for the citizens of the DRC. Dr Robinson asks, “What do Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda want to achieve?” According to him, part of the agenda is not so much to make the eastern DRC peaceful but is an opportunity for the neighbouring countries to gain better access to the DRC’s rich resources. He contends that the deployment alone will not address the security situation in the eastern DRC unless the FARDC is transformed, saying that, as currently constituted, the FARDC often behaves just like any other splinter rebel group, exploiting the mineral resources and incapable of protecting the DRC’s territorial integrity. However, he also believes that transforming the FARDC to effectively function does not guarantee peace as this might force the neighbouring countries to support rebel groups in order to continue benefitting from exploiting the resources in the DRC.
The EAC member states contributing troops to the regional force will need to harmonise their various interests if they intend to achieve their goals. Otherwise, they will be fighting their separate wars for their interests under the EAC banner. Despite the agreement having Kenya assume the command, the country’s late entry into the DRC makes it difficult to see how Kampala, Bujumbura, Kigali and the FARDC will allow a newcomer to take over influence. Another challenge that has not been factored in is whether command of the force will rotate among the member states or whether it will be drawn from the country contributing the largest number of troops. There is need to address some of these teething problems if the regional force is to achieve its mandate.
Fourth, there have been debates about where the funding for the EAC regional force will come from. The EAC is not known for robust and timely contributions towards the running of its operations. In a recent address to the Kenya Parliament, Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale said that Kenya was to fund its contingent to the tune of KSh4.5 billion (approximately US$37 million) in the first six months. Kenya is the largest economy in the region and can to some extent afford to fund its adventure in the DRC. However, bearing in mind that it has another commitment of troops in Somalia, the country may need additional support from other partners like the EU and the US. There is a high possibility that some troop-contributing countries may struggle to fund their troops in the long run. The risk with this is that there is a likelihood of the troops engaging in illegal smuggling to ‘’pay themselves’’, ending up becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.
On a positive note, the M23 seems to have accepted the calls for a ceasefire from the heads of state mini-summit under the Luanda process. This was followed by the group requesting to speak to the EAC-appointed facilitator, former President Uhuru Kenyatta. This is a timely call that should not be ignored as it will avert the possibility of violent action in addressing the conflict.
The EAC is not known for robust and timely contributions towards the running of its operations.
Finally, the intervention of the regional force should not be an isolated act but should be accompanied by a political process. The continued isolation of the M23 from the peace talks negates the whole principle of inclusivity and if indeed the EAC wants to send a signal that it can justify why the DRC joining the EAC was the best idea, there is a need to be magnanimous and to involve all the belligerent forces in the conflict. The perception that the EAC is taking sides by selecting rebel groups to invite to the peace talks only contributes to the misinformation pervading the eastern DRC that it is simply a Trojan Horse for neighbouring states to exploit the country’s riches.
Overall, the EAC’s decision to set up a regional force to intervene in the eastern DRC is a positive sign that it is asserting its security role and slowly transforming itself from a purely economically-driven integration bloc. There is an emerging regional security complex in the East African region whereby an intractable conflict such as the one witnessed in the eastern DRC can engulf the entire region. However, to achieve the much needed stability, one hopes that the administration in Kinshasa is ready to first galvanise its authority by becoming ready to govern in partnership with different actors in DRC. Second, it must work together with the neighbouring states and other partners to address the proliferation of armed groups in the country. Renewed political agreement among these competing groups and Kinshasa’s willingness to work together with its neighbours could be the game changer.
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