Even in a season of bad years, it is a particularly very bad year for the Horn of Africa. War and hunger tearing at Somalia, revolutionary hope in Ethiopia turned into existential crisis, the coming end of Kenyatta’s reign over Kenya with a Kalenjin successor and ethnic tensions in the wings, and in Uganda, the recent suspicious death of an Archbishop amidst a military regime openly massacring the country’s citizens, bring the region to the very edge of catastrophe.
As always happens for the region, it all starts with failed rains, most likely somewhere between Ethiopia and Somalia, although because the way in which it works is complex, few pause to consider that stopping hunger deaths in the Ogaden could create a more stable East Africa. But the rains have failed for more than three years now, and in time, the impact will be felt as coups and massacres as far afield as Kampala and the Congolese border.
In the meantime, as superpower rivalry swoops in, a looming election cycle is setting unease. The elections come. They are stolen. Civil war breaks out in Uganda. In Kenya, tensions between Luo, Kikuyu and Kalenjin politicians push the country to the brink of civil war; in no time, there will be an attempted coup in Nairobi.
But for the more alert readers, if the above scenario sounds more like a description of 1977, rather than of 2022, then there is a good reason for it; it is 1977. There have been many turning points in our post-independence history, but if I were pressed hard to pick the one that unites us in our common fate, I would settle for 1977.
And then, I would back up a little to 1972. For this was the year in which a general, global drought hit East Africa in a serious way. An indictment of public media discourse in the region is the degree of ignorance it engenders not just in its audience, but also in its reporters and editors, and so it was not until 2012 that, travelling to Kaabong from Kotido in Karamoja, I first heard the words “Loreng Lega”, from a pastoralist-turned farmer, Faustino Odir. He was explaining why he, a Jie man, started farming, saying that his family fled Loreng Lega in Karamoja in 1973 and lived in Masindi in Western Uganda for 36 years.
When I inquired further, I was told that Loreng Lega means Red Jewels, in Ateker. At the time, before plastic and glass spread across the pastoralists’ lands as beads, women wore loops of iron wire as neckpieces and kept them fresh with cow butter. In 1973, the cows died. There was no butter. The neckpieces turned rusty and the ever-poetic Ateker found a name for the famine. I might have left it there but there were others. I was told of Lopiar and Loreng Arup, all describing famines — Lopiar in 1980 and Loreng Arup in 1986.
The 1972 famine — also named the Dimbleby Famine by the international media after the British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby who brought it to Western attention — caused what I came to see as the most important political event in all of Eastern Africa for 50 years. Without that event, it is arguable that Eritrea may never have split from Ethiopia, Somalia might still be stable, Museveni would not be president and the Rwanda genocide of 1994 would not have happened.
The fall of Emperor Haile Selassie undid settled but fragile political ties that had kept Somalia, north-eastern Uganda, northern Kenya, parts of South Sudan and all of Ethiopia manageably stable for centuries. The immense legitimacy that comes from a political system widely seen as both righteous and lawful is not a cheap one, and with the great 19th century opening of all the world’s corners to communication and commerce, Ethiopians learnt that the feudal system they had so naturally accepted was in fact a very bad system. Attempts at reforms did not go far enough, and the fact that by 1974 Ethiopia still had actual, rather than metaphoric peasants, who gave up a part of their harvest to the landlord, meant that the country was really asking for it.
The fall of Selassie, heart-rending and ruinous as it was, was a foregone conclusion, which is not to say the successor system was deserved nor that those who carried out the coup de grace to an ossified system were angels. The tragedy of Ethiopia has always been that the rules of political dialectics that describe a move to a better system, don’t usually apply.
We have been paying the price for Selassie’s fall ever since.
With the fall of Selassie, subject ethnic groups on the empire’s periphery began to question their status — questions unthinkable whilst Menelik’s progeny sat on the throne. For a measure of how recent this is, Somali writer Nurrudin Farrah once told me that he met the Emperor as a child when he came on a tour of the territories and was picked to read a poem to him.
The loss of Ethiopia’s sacerdotal myth (aspects of it still exist in what is described as Solomonite society in origin) combined with the ascendency of the Derg to convince the empire’s provinces that the time to leave had come. The most important departure was Eritrea. But in 1977, it looked as if Somalia might be the first.
The tragedy of Ethiopia has always been that the rules of political dialectics that describe a move to a better system, don’t usually apply.
The Ogaden war that broke out in July 1977 was a tragic event that should have been avoided, if only for the fact that it produced none of the intended goals. When Siad Barre launched his Greater Somalia wars, the irredentist suit for the unification of ethnic Somalia, he may not have foreseen an even greater shrinkage of Somalia. But it was an explicit threat to territorial Kenya as it was to Ethiopia, both countries more important to world powers than Somalia.
That Siad Barre chose to launch a revanchist campaign in the deep winter of the Cold War only ratcheted up the stakes. It ensured that his war was very quickly hijacked to become a USSR-USA affair. It is here that one of the most cynical manoeuvres of the Cold War era took place.
Since the 1930s, Imperial Ethiopia had aligned with capitalist powers after Haile Selassie petitioned the League of Nations to stop Italian aggression against what was then better known as Abyssinia. American patronage of Ethiopia continued even after the Derg was entrenched, but the openly Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam could no longer be accommodated. Down in Mogadishu, Siad Barre was in bed with the Soviets. The march down to the Ogaden war happened with cold abject calculations. The Soviets helped Mogadishu draw up a battle plan against Ethiopia. The popular version of the story, as told to me by the late Kenyan cameraman, Mohinder Dhillon who covered the fighting, is that at the 11th hour, the Soviets, doubtless with the battle plans in their breast pockets, switched sides and supported the Ethiopians while the Americans fled Addis Ababa to take sides with Siad Barre. Beyond all belief, the Somalis marched into battle with the same Soviet battle plan. The result was a complete rout of Somali forces, the centre of battle converging at Jijiga. But there are more subtle ways in which it happened, which is beyond the scope of this piece.
That Siad Barre chose to launch a revanchist campaign in the deep winter of the Cold War only ratcheted up the stakes.
The result was that Mengistu got allies he was comfortable with, and the Americans, the port of Barbera and the Eastern Africa Indian Ocean. Which was cold comfort for both the USSR and the USA; scholarly journals make the argument that, by so openly going to war against the Soviets in Africa, Jimmy Carter and his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, may have precipitated the end of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty — the detente with the Soviet Union — meaning they threw away something bigger for a regional conflict.
It was a short war, lasting from June 1977 to May 1978. But it put an end to short regional wars for it put in the hands of non-state actors the means to wage guerrilla warfare. Before that, guns and ammunition had been the preserve of state actors. Both the Americans and the Soviets decanted ship and plane loads of arms into the conflict. They inaugurated a regional small arms market that is nigh impossible to shut down. And this is where the tragedy begins.
The first groups to acquire those guns were the pastoralists that straddle the Horn. The testing ground for the destructive power of guns easy to acquire, hide and maintain were the cattle rustlings which had for centuries been little more than sporting, manhood-proving raids. Supercharged with the AK47, they became lethal.
The Turkana had hitherto ruled the pastoralist roost, acquiring their first guns from Menelik in 1911, and lording it over the Samburu, Karamojong, Didinga, Tepeth, Pokot, Toposa, and Nyangatom. Now, all these groups had guns. The region’s descent into hell had begun; these gun trails were to feed Joseph Kony’s war, and all still feed conflicts in the region.
As it was, the timing could not have been worse. The pastoralists had not fully recovered from the famine of 1972, but the famine was not a singular factor. The fate of pastoralists is one that those living in the capital cities — who are nearly all from agricultural communities — don’t fully appreciate nor care about. What had happened was that colonialism had closed up lands and created administrative units corresponding to ethnicity, in effect, inventing tribes. This did not suit nomadic pastoralism, which not only required open lands, but also did not want national borders.
The region’s descent into hell had begun; these gun trails were to feed Joseph Kony’s war, and all still feed conflicts in the region.
The worst affected pastoralist groups were those of south-western Uganda and Rwanda, who suddenly found themselves stateless for their forage lands were split between Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo.
Deep into independence in 1977, pastoralists started to realise that the post-colonial state had left them out and would continue to leave them out. The race to pick up guns was a belated reaction to the knowledge that unless they fought, their way of life was doomed.
The death of animals and humans from the 1972 famine broke pastoralism. But now, unbeknownst to all, an even bigger event — Lopiar — was coming in 1980 to effectively bury it. Before that, another fateful event occurred. The fall of Idi Amin in 1979 left tens of thousands of guns floating in Uganda. Just think of what it means that, when the Ugandan army under Amin fled in 1979, all of Uganda government’s guns fell into private hands. A lot of the suddenly unemployed Ugandan soldiers found that the Ogaden war had already created a market for the guns in their hands. In Moroto, the story is still told of how people carried guns like so many bunches of firewood on their heads.
Hence, when 1980 came, pastoralists were armed to the teeth. The famine of that year is hard to outdo. It is estimated that up 21 per cent of pastoralist lives were lost in that year, first to the drought and the loss of animals, but the bulk of it to the cholera outbreak that followed. They called it Lopiar, The Sweep, in Ateker languages. (On a minor note, this was the event that gave birth to Kakuma Camp, for the relief agencies that arrived found the Turkana assembled in this high, cooler and moist valley. Henceforth, arriving refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Uganda would go there, because it was a feeding centre.)
But the biggest impact was still in the future. In Uganda, 1980 is thought of narrowly as the year that Museveni launched a bush war in response to a lost election. What is rarely thought of is that Museveni, himself a pastoralist, was merely doing what pastoralists all over The Horn of Africa were doing. He was playing the part of kraal boss, and like all kraal bosses, he was leading a group of young pastoralists to fight to keep their way of life viable, for it falls upon young men in pastoralist societies to go out and fight for animals when the herd is either dead or rustled. This time, they were going to rustle the entire Uganda.
Museveni not only led Ugandan pastoralists to battle, but combined those with pastoralist refugees from Rwanda as well. The mass of guns floating all over the region found eager takers.
Overall, the decision could not have been worse. The gun turned against pastoralists, and for the next two decades, hundreds of thousands would perish in ensuing conflicts. The shadow of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 obscures the fact that the 1990s was the worst decade for pastoralism. The drawing up of colonial borders had kettled in nomadic lifestyles. The attack on Rwanda in 1990 by Paul Kagame and the late Fred Rwigyema was not too different from the Somali attack on Ethiopia in 1977; the aim was the same, to pry loose the 1884 Berlin conference borders and let the herds roam free. It was not too different from the armed gunfights by the Turkana, Pokot, and Karamojong against the Kenyan and Ugandan armies. The Toposa of Southern Sudan were caught in a much more complex battle, for they were caught between the Khartoum forces and the SPLA, who both supplied them with guns, and although they were better off with the SPLA, whom they chose in the end, they were still part of the “Karamoja” cluster, their fate still impacted by the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie.
The shadow of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 obscures the fact that the 1990s was the worst decade for pastoralism.
Grimly, the killings in Rwanda in 1994 were not too distant in form from the gun deaths that happened with such casual repetitiveness between Ugandan, Kenyan, Ethiopian and Sudanese pastoralists at the same time that they were rarely reported. But hundreds of thousands perished in the decades between 1977 and 2006.
The one pastoralist struggle that made good was the ascension of Museveni to power. He has said it many times — and makes propaganda use of herding his animals for the cameras — but what perhaps explains the seeming paradox of his reformist rhetoric which clashes with his dictatorial practice, is that he was driven to pick the liberation lingua of his time to gain support beyond his clannist instinct, whilst fighting for something closer to his heart. If Museveni does not seem that presidential, it is because his psychological make-up is that of a kraal leader. You have to meet many of them throughout the pastoralist lands in the north to meet his kind: tyrannical, brash, hard-driving, imperative, brooking no argument, but above all uber-clannist. The massive land grabs in the latter days of his presidency have a central pattern — to benefit pastoralists as unreported conflicts in many, many parts Uganda between farmers and pastoralists protected by the army attest. The colonial and postcolonial abuse of pastoralists made its mark. They are called “backward”, which is derogatory, considering that pastoralists today remain the true custodians of African cultures abandoned by agricultural communities, and that many in agricultural communities are only a generation removed from pastoralism. But conflict is conflict, and Museveni used to state that he would not leave power while his people remained backward. He has since turned every government institution into an ethnically monolithic stronghold.
If Museveni does not seem that presidential, it is because his psychological make-up is that of a kraal leader.
The biggest coming conflict of Museveni’s life, and one which will survive him for the coming decades, will be a rebalancing of the power stakes between pastoralists and agrarians, for in the long term, agriculture always wins, even if by absorbing pastoralists. This means that this coming conflict will once more pit Museveni’s pastoralists against the agricultural communities of southern and south-western Uganda. The break with Buganda and Busoga, hitherto Museveni’s biggest supporters, is only the opening salvo of this coming conflict. Bobi Wine may be the spearhead of this struggle, but it will outlive him and reshape Uganda for generations to come.
It is Museveni’s terrible, bad luck that Cold War II is returning when his government has lost all legitimacy, meaning that in the event of another armed rebellion, he will no longer be the good guy. He lost that tag forever when he ordered his goons to shoot to death dozens on 18 November 2020. Even worse, he is now the de facto Haile Selassie of Eastern Africa, meddling in Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya and Somalia. By positioning his son to succeed him, and now openly saying that Ugandan public offices will be ring-fenced to those with money (effectively his bush war pastoralist compadres), he is creating a feudal monarchy out of Uganda, like Ethiopia in reverse. He is making Selassie’s mistakes. But he is also giving a bad name to pastoralists who are otherwise noble people.
That is because, as in 1977, the factors to turn conflicting interests into ruinous warfare are in place, almost comically so in how much the players of 1977 are back in place. In Kenya, another Kenyatta is about to exit office. His vice president happens to be a Kalenjin. In the wings, vying for succession, is another Odinga. You cannot make this stuff up. But unlike 1977, and unlike Moi, Ruto is Museveni’s protégé. The ethnic configurations of Kenya are such that should Ruto become president, he will find himself forced to govern like Moi, albeit a Moi who can count on another Idi Amin in Uganda as his ally. This will mean that the coming political instability in Uganda will also become political instability in Kenya. Ruto is opening the gates for Uganda’s political incompetence to be imported into Kenya. We just hope that among his intimate exchanges with Museveni, military rule in Kenya did not crop up.
Like in 1977, Ethiopia is at war. It might be a matter of time before dreams of Greater Somalia are revived, as Mogadishu once more watches Addis Ababa’s discomfiture. Somalia’s options are not that many. After all, the state disintegrated after Siad Barre was beaten on the plains of the Ogaden. It is a matter of time before someone in Mogadishu sees a foreign military adventure as a way to unite the country’s clans. Should this happen, the Ogaden could well be the playing field. But this will not be too much news to Kenya whose biggest threats have so far come from Somalis.
Almost beyond belief, Russia, in the place of the Soviet Union, could very well join China and the USA in messing up the politics of the region, which mess is already in high gear. In 2022, there could well be more AK47s poured in, but there might be other weapons as well.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The East African Community (EAC), whose goal is to achieve economic and political federation, brings together three former British colonies – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – and newer members Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Somalia first applied to join the EAC in 2012 but with fighting still ongoing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, joining the bloc was impossible at the time. Eleven years later, joining the bloc would consolidate the significant progress in governance and security and, therefore, Somalia should be admitted into the EAC without undue delay. This is for several reasons.
First, Somalia’s admission would be built on an existing foundation of goodwill that the current leadership of Somalia and EAC partner states have enjoyed in the recent past. It is on the basis of this friendship that EAC states continue to play host to Somali nationals who have been forced to leave their country due to the insecurity resulting from the prolonged conflict. In addition, not only does Somalia share a border with Kenya, but it also has strong historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural links with all the other EAC partner states in one way or another.
Dr Hassan Khannenje of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies said: ”Somalia is a natural member of the EAC and should have been part of it long ago.”
A scrutiny of all the EAC member states will show that there is a thriving entrepreneurial Somali diaspora population in all their economies. If indeed the EAC is keen to realise its idea of the bloc being a people-centred community as opposed to being a club of elites, then a look at the spread of Somali diaspora investment in the region would be a start. With an immense entrepreneurial diaspora, Somalia’s admission will increase trading opportunities in the region.
Second, Somalia’s 3,000 km of coastline (the longest in Africa) will give the partner states access to the Indian Ocean corridor to the Gulf of Aden. The governments of the EAC partner states consider the Indian Ocean to be a key strategic and economic theatre for their regional economic interests. Therefore, a secure and stable Somali coastline is central to the region’s maritime trade opportunities.
Despite possessing such a vast maritime resource, the continued insecurity in Somalia has limited the benefits that could accrue from it. The problem of piracy is one example that shows that continued lawlessness along the Somali coast presents a huge risk for all the states that rely on it in the region.
The importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean has seen Kenya and Somalia square it out at the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute.
Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group said that ”Somalia joining the EAC then might present an opportunity to discuss deeper cooperation frameworks within the bloc, including around the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute. The environment was not as conducive to collaboration before, and perhaps it explains why the ICJ came in. Integrating into the EAC potentially offers an opportunity to de-escalate any remaining tensions and in turn, focus on developing mechanisms that can be beneficial for the region.”
Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist in the region, said: “The East African states along the East African coast are looking for opportunities to play a greater role in the maritime security to the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Somalia joining the EAC bloc will allow them to have a greater say.”
Third, Somalia’s membership of the Arab League means that there is a strong geopolitical interest from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, Somalia stands to gain more in the long-term by joining the EAC rather than being under the control of the Gulf states and, to a large extent, Turkey. This is because, historically, competing interests among the Gulf states have contributed to the further balkanisation of Somalia by some members supporting breakaway regions.
On the other hand, the EAC offers a safer option that will respect Somalia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, EAC partner states have stood in solidarity with Somalia during the difficult times of the civil conflict, unlike the Gulf states. The majority of the troop-contributing countries for the African Union Mission to Somalia came from the EAC partner states of Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. Despite having a strategic interest in Somalia, none of the Gulf states contributed troops to the mission. Therefore, with the expected drawdown of the ATMIS force in Somalia, the burden could fall on the EAC to fill in the vacuum. Building on the experience of deploying in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is highly likely that it could be called upon to do the same in Somalia when ATMIS exits by 2024.
The presence of the Al Shabaab group in Somalia is an albatross around its neck such that the country cannot be admitted into the EAC without factoring in the risks posed by the group.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the government of Somalia must move to consolidate these gains – especially in central Somalia – as it continues with its offensive in other regions. However, Somalia may not prevail over the Al Shabaab on its own; it may require a regional effort and perhaps this is the rationale some policymakers within the EAC have envisioned. If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
Somalia’s admission comes with risks too. Kenya and Uganda have in the past experienced attacks perpetrated by Al Shabaab and, therefore, opening up their borders to Somalia is seen as a huge risk for these countries. The spillover effect of the group’s activities creates a lot of discomfort among EAC citizens, in particular those who believe that the region remains vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks.
If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
The EAC Treaty criteria under which a new member state may be admitted into the community include – but are not limited to – observance and practice of the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. Critics believe that Somalia fulfils only one key requirement to be admitted to the bloc – sharing a border with an EAC partner state, namely, Kenya. On paper, it seems to be the least prepared when it comes to fulfilling the other requirements. The security situation remains fragile and the economy cannot support the annual payment obligations to the community.
According to the Fragility State Index, Somalia is ranked as one of the poorest among the 179 countries assessed. Among the key pending issues is the continued insecurity situation caused by decades of civil war and violent extremism. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch ranks Somalia low on human rights and justice – a breakdown of government institutions has rendered them ineffective in upholding the human rights of its citizens.
Somalia’s citizens have faced various forms of discrimination due to activities beyond their control back in their country. This has led to increasingly negative and suspicious attitudes towards Somalis and social media reactions to the possibility of Somalia joining the EAC have seen a spike in hostility towards citizens of Somalia. The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Nicodemus Minde, an academic on peace and security, agrees that indeed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes will shape their behaviour towards Somalia’s integration. He argues that ”the admission of Somalia is a rushed process because it does not address the continued suspicion and negative perception among the EAC citizens towards the Somali people. Many citizens cite the admission of fragile states like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a gateway of instability to an already unstable region”.
Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the EAC has been how to involve the citizens in their activities and agenda. To address this challenge, Dr Minde says that ’’the EAC needs to conduct a lot of sensitisation around the importance of integration because to a large extent many EAC citizens have no clue on what regional integration is all about”. The idea of the EAC being a people-centred organisation as envisioned in the Treaty has not been actualised. The integration process remains very elitist as it is the heads of state that determine and set the agenda.
The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Khannenje offers a counter-narrative, arguing that public perception is not a major point of divergence since “as the economies integrate deeper, some of these issues will become easy to solve”. There are also those who believe that the reality within the EAC is that every member state has issues with one or the other partner state and, therefore, Somalia will be in perfect company.
A report by the Economic Policy Research Centre outlines the various avenues through which both the EAC and Somalia can benefit from the integration process and observes that there is therefore a need to fast-track the process because the benefits far outweigh the risks.
EAC integration is built around the spirit of good neighbourliness. It is against this backdrop that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has extended the goodwill to join the EAC and therefore, it should not be vilified and condemned, but rather embraced. As Onyango Obbo has observed, Somalia is not joining the EAC – Somalia is already part of the EAC and does not need any formal welcoming.
Many critics have argued that the EAC has not learnt from the previous rush to admit conflict-plagued South Sudan and the DRC. However, the reality is that Somalia will not be in conflict forever; at some point, there will be tranquillity and peace. Furthermore, a keen look at the history of the EAC member states shows that a number of them have experienced cycles of conflict in the past.
Somalia is, therefore, not unique. Internal contradictions and conflict are some of the key features that Somalia shares with most of the EAC member states. The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should, therefore, be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.
Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.
When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.
Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.
When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.
Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.
Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.
Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.
Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.
24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.
“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.
Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.
Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.
If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.
One couple’s story
Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.
The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.
Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.
I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)
I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.
At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.
Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller. The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”
To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger. They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”
The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat. Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers. As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey. It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”
On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.
“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing. But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest. I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.
“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”
“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.
“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded. Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights. The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”
At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard. “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.) Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.
Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country. In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years. What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself. Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar. But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff. One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child. Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”
“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.
I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.
I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”
Making sense of the world
World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.
Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.
This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.
Politics2 weeks ago
Coffee Act 2023: Government Grip Over Sector a Perilous Policy Decision
Politics1 week ago
Solidarity Means More Than Words
Politics6 days ago
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
Op-Eds1 week ago
Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow
Videos2 weeks ago
Title Deals – Episode 5: Beyond the Deals
Politics3 days ago
The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Politics12 hours ago
Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC