Across the Sahel, young people are restless. So are soldiers. The region is in the grip of an unprecedented wave of coups d’état that have followed each other within a short period of time: within a year or so, five coups d’état have successively rocked Mali, Chad, Guinea, and Burkina Faso in widespread unrest that risks destabilizing the entire region again.
Since the mid-1990s, coups had become exceptional events that occurred mainly during moments of perceived chaos, with the aim to disrupt the normal constitutional dispensation in order to restore order. Increasingly however, they occur as a form of political intervention designed to correct regular politics that has fallen into a permanent state of crisis and repression.
This moment is a historical shift but also a harbinger of an uncharted future. Not only are the recent coups not contested, but they are also seen as an opening into a new politics of liberation. They could signal a return to a long period of tumult, equally they could also be an opening for a different kind of politics.
The ongoing instability lays bare the accumulated effects of decades of aggressive neoliberal reforms that have eroded the social fabric, the growing significance of a politicized, young generation of Africans that do not share the same political culture as their elders, and the massive failure of the war against terror in the Sahel that has produced neither security nor stability. It also points to some of the ways in which fierce geopolitical battles are likely to wreak havoc in the African continent as Western hegemonic influences declines in the region.
In this long-read for roape.net, I want to argue that the present dilemma has to be seen as an inflection point in both the democratization and decolonization process in West Africa and Africa more generally.
A democratic impasse
One cannot fully make sense of the recent coups d’état in Africa without a full understanding of concomitant popular uprisings that have been occurring on a regular albeit sporadic manner in different parts of the continent. The common impulse, from Mali to Sudan, from Guinea to Burkina Faso is a desire for change, meaningful change.
The much celebrated constitutional order has been discredited in a context where constitutions are routinely violated, regulating mechanisms are often neutralized, and incumbent presidents consistently violate term-limits. For instance, Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara and Guinea’s Alpha Condé both violated constitutionally locked term-limits to run for presidential elections. As the Nigerian writer Jibrin Ibrahim demonstrates, under the current nominal democracy, elected Presidents have also perpetrated coups of an electoral or constitutional nature. In Tunisia, the government of President Kaïs Saïed has taken a de facto authoritarian turn in July 2021. Through rule by decree, Saïed has tempered the constitutional and judicial structure and therefore neutralized any meaningful checks and balance.
In the 1990s, the demand for democratic opening was externally driven by development aid partners and Bretton Woods and other multilateral agencies. The democratic norm was being push through as African states were also being pressured to cut public expenditure in education, health and other social services. Yet the ongoing demand for democracy is internal in kind, it is a popular demand for a different kind of politics and a different kind of democratic participation and not a ‘performance’ on the basis of the Mo Ibrahim index or similar instruments.
Yet, overwhelming media attention of the military government’s standoff with the ‘international community’ muddies an understanding of very urgent crises that will not be resolved by another round of elections. As long as fundamental problems of economic sovereignty, of the state’s capacity to raise financial resources internally, to provide security and social services to its population are unresolved, rushing to elections will merely enable a change of guards to run the same derelict institutions. The democratic struggle is first and foremost a struggle for a political model that is responsive to people’s demands for basic public goods.
Popular uprisings are also an indictment of the failure of formal civil societies organizations that have either become too institutionalized if they are not entirely coopted by governments. Their ability to fully perform their responsibility as safeguards of people’s rights against state excesses has been hampered by an attachment to the orthodoxy of electoral liberalism. A major shortcoming has been its inability to harness into a cogent political project strident current popular demands for an alternative political order. The greatest insecurity that plagues Sahelian communities is linked to food security, and to limited human development.
It is clear to many careful observers of West African politics that something fundamentally different has been simmering over the past few years. The disconnect between governments and people has become more pronounced in the prolonged context of insecurity since 2012. The coronavirus pandemic has furthermore eroded public trust in governments’ ability to deliver public goods or foster greater democratic opening.
There is a question that lingers in everybody’s mind: has the specter of coups and countercoups returned to African politics? More specifically, is West Africa about to fall back into a vicious pattern of coups and countercoups without any seeming logic or order? The fear of a domino effect is real, and one cannot rule out the possibility of another elected government falling under another coup.
Linking coups and popular protests
The five most recent coups in Africa have been directly or indirectly prompted by popular protests of insurgent magnitude. This is significant.
Between April-August 2020, massive crowds gathered in Bamako and in major Malian cities to denounce endemic misrule, a series of corruption scandals involving specifically the purchase of military equipment amid insecurity across the country. The government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had also been marred by the accusation of massive fraud in the legislative elections of March 2020. Mali’s security situation had deteriorated drastically since 2015. The country fell into a state of chronic instability with burgeoning violence coming not only from jihadist forces, but also from government-backed militias and self-defense groups. Following months-long popular mobilization led by the M5 RFP coalition – the 5 June Mouvement and the Rally of Patriotic Forces – crowds literally escorted the military to the presidential palace. These are the circumstances that saw the takeover of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) military council.
In Burkina Faso, days of uninterrupted public protest preceded the putsch last year. On 14 November, 2021, the country experienced the most brutal attack on security forces. Fifty-three gendarmes were killed in Inata. The public later learned with dismay that the exhausted gendarmes had been without food and supplies for days and could not withstand the ambush. Inata eventually sealed the fate of the president Roch Kaboré. This wasn’t the first recent coup in Burkina Faso. In 2014, months-long street protests culminated into the resignation of 27 year-reigning Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré fled to Cote d’Ivoire where the Ouattara government offered a safe haven against demands for his extradition to Burkina Faso to face justice in the trial on the murder of Thomas Sankara. The military transition that ensued enabled the organization of relatively free elections for the first time in post-independence Burkina Faso.
Although every coup is different and responds to specific circumstances, the same causes can be said to have produced similar effects in both Burkina and Mali. Further, there are embedded historical inequities within armies themselves that mirror existing and widespread social inequities. Coups today may no longer be anchored in revolutionary nationalist or Pan-Africanist politics but some of them, like in Burkina Faso, articulate certain popular demands for social justice and democratic renewal. In the speeches of Paul-Henri Damiba – the interim president and coup leader – Sankara stands as an avatar of an aborted military-driven radical experiment. Army cadets are also politicized in a way that engraves the role of the military in ongoing struggles to reimagine social contracts across Africa. The fact that officers are fighting an internal battle that is also about repositioning a professional military hints at an enduring backdrop to recurrent coups.
It is important to note that public ‘demand’ for the disciplining authority of the military has often been a trojan horse that allows the military to ‘rise up to their responsibility’ as a now familiar, almost scripted ritual announcement that every new coup makes it a point to deliver.
In both Burkina Faso and Mali, transition military governments have initiated country-wide consultations (‘assises nationales’) to collect a wide-range of views from political formations and civil society on constitutional reform. To what extent the military’s move to act democratic-like is likely to lead to substantive change is a different question altogether. If the strategy is quite unprecedented for a military government, the reason for the shift is to be found in the growing importance of struggle on the ground – from popular forces from below.
In toppling civilian governments and ‘installing’ the military, protestors often aim to trigger a speedy change outside of the ballot box. Needless to say, this also heralds an uncertain future that gives no guarantee of success. Military coups are rarely transformative. Further, the military itself is a institution in its own terms that has its own logic of power accumulation. Obviously, if the military was the solution, neither Burkina Faso nor Mali would have gone through multiple coups. Mali has experienced five coups since independence while Burkina holds a record of seven coups with a total of 47-years ruled under various military governments. At any rate, the gains of popular movements hang on a fragile thread that is constantly threated by the encroaching logic of external internal intervention especially in countries whose natural resources are highly coveted.
In 2019, Algerian and Sudanese decades-long regimes fell through popular pressure. Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir were deposed by public pressure. In contrast to Mali and Burkina Faso, Sudan has a robust, deep-rooted tradition of political activism led by well-organized leftist movements, especially student movements. Not only have the Sudanese “resistance committees” been able to force concessions from the military, they proactively forged ahead with a political charter for transition presented on 27 February, 2022. The Charter for the Establishment of the People’s Authority seeks to reverse decades-long military-led governance and restricted civic participation.
Two dilemmas are apparent in the trends mentioned above. On the one hand, it is nearly impossible to assess the extent to which popular protests express representative, legitimate, and uncoerced grievances. On another, to read military coups from a liberal institutional framework which demarcates the ‘civilian’ and the ‘military’ as distinct spheres of action has time and again proven reductive. Such thinking does not allow us to consider solutions outside of injunctions to restore the normal ‘constitutional order’. Neither does it take into account the specificity of the formation of African military systems within a colonial context and their development in postcolonial states.
Contested regional leadership
The default reaction of the West African bloc ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) to the recent coups has been to distribute sanctions on account of ‘norms’ uncritically enforced in a bureaucratic and uncreative approach. The coup policy of both the African Union’s Lomé Declaration of 1999 and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ADC) is systematic sanctions against unconstitutional changes of government even when these are the outcome of compelling popular protests. However, the continental body has neither been consistent nor impartial in its approach. In Chad for instance, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) determined that the country was under threat of destabilization from Libya and did not therefore enforce sanctions against the Transitional Military Council. Although the dislocation of Libya has had tremendous consequences in the subsequent destabilization of the Sahel, more specifically Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the AU security assessment is all the more surprising as Chad has been relatively unaffected by the Libyan civil war. However, Chad remains France and the West’s staunchest ally in the Sahel in the fight against terrorism. For many observers, the AU buried its legitimacy in Chad by endorsing both a military coup and a dynastic takeover.
The AU is not the only discredited regional institution. ECOWAS has long been seen as a club of the malleable who speak with one tutored voice. Never before has ECOWAS been so disconnected from its populations. Having turned the other way over a series of constitutional coups which paved the way for military coups for instance in Guinea, ECOWAS has emerged as a discredited entity.
According to the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM), the West African bloc violated its own statutory rules in imposing sanctions that fall outside of its normative instruments, most specifically the 2001 ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. Besides, the region’s economies are already badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic and sanctions imposed on Mali have consequences for other ECOWAS members. For instance, Mali accounts for 20% of Senegal’s trade volume; most export goods destined to Mali transit through the port in Dakar.
Waning Western tutelage
One could almost speak of an anachronism between on the one hand the perception of post-colonial stagnation in which the Sahelian region is believed to be steeped and the way in which ‘partnership’ continues to be discussed as the framework of engagement that structures the Sahel’s relations with the former colonial power France. France specifically appears like a stubborn guest that stays on when the party is over.
At the request of the government of Mali fearful that Jihadists were advancing towards Bamako, France launched Operation Serval which led a swift ‘victory’ in early 2013. The succeeding Operation Barkhane – a 5000 strong force that constitutes the backbone of French counter-terrorist intervention in the Sahel, over the years fell into a predictable pattern. In other words, it became locked into its own narrow logic, merely responding to French understanding of its strategic security interests in the Sahel. Despite France announcing a drawdown of Barkhane, as a result of intense pressure in Mali itself, it categorically opposed Mali’s seeking support from other governments to help it restore stability across the country.
The government of Assimi Goïta – who has been serving as interim president since May last year – has always shown suspicion regarding French ambivalence towards Tuareg’s desire of autonomy. After all, the French army command enforced a de-facto partition of Mali by preventing the national army from access to the Tuareg rebellion stronghold in Kidal and used its hegemony as leverage against the Bamako government. There is another reason for the French to seek to institute a buffer zone in Northern Mali. Kidal is about 300 km from Arlit where French giant ORAN (former AREVA) exploits uranium yellowcake. There are also important uranium reserves to the south of Arlit in addition to strategic minerals, arable land and water. The maintenance of military forces in Northern Mali therefore becomes the condition for continuing to supply its nuclear plants.
Furthermore, the Taoudeni Basin – from Mauritania to Algeria and north Mali – is a much-coveted oil basin as the world moves towards a period of depletion of oil resources. Mali itself has large limestone, salt and gold deposits in addition to oil, iron ore and bauxite minerals that are largely unexploited. Given all this, France puts tremendous pressure on WAEMU (West African Economic and Monetary Union) leaders to apply sanctions on Mali. Further, taking advantage of the rotating presidency of the EU, the French President has been lobbying other EU members for support. On 19 January this year, at his inaugural speech as rotating President, Emmanuel Macron declared in no uncertain terms: “It is in Africa that global upheaval is partially being played out, and a part of the future of this [European] continent and its youth […] and our future”.
France is neither ready nor willing to deal with its former African colonies on equal footing. For a long time, it has relied upon clientelist relations to ensure sustained access to African minerals for an unfair price. The maintenance of compliant regimes was always the condition for unimpeded access and control.
The ongoing geopolitical struggle with Russia in fact comes down to this: the argument about delayed elections and democratic governance in reality masks strategic and security interests that France is keen to protect at any cost. Declining western hegemony in the region goes hand to hand with intensified competition for access and control over Africa’s mineral and natural resources. Whereas the security crisis is real across Mali and the Sahel, the crisis that emerged out of disagreement over the presence of French troops and so-called Russian mercenaries has been engineered. Despite much noise about famed Wagner Group, there is little factual information about its presence or operations in Mali. Even so, there is nothing unusual about states using mercenary units for ‘special operations’. One recalls that France itself developed the Foreign Legion – a traditional pathway for citizenship for individual adventurers hired to serve unorthodox French operations around the world, in Africa in particular.
The ongoing stand-off between the West and Russia over the occupation of Ukraine throws into stark relief the importance of Russia’s growing presence in Africa. Russia supplies weapons and military equipment to 30 African countries. Russia is said to be the largest supplier of weapons to Africa of the past few years.
It would be a mistake to see in the thousands of young Africans occupying the streets of Bamako, Kayes and Ouahigouya or blocking French military convoys anarchic crowds that are neither rooted in a solid political culture nor hold a clear vision of what they are yearning for. It would equally be a mistake to see in the popular protests against French military presence in the Sahel as some kind of reactionary resentment of the subaltern or a revanchist postcolonial fury. Underlying the protesters’ outburst is a widespread pursuit of a sovereignty most imagine to have been lacking in their countries since the time of independence. Young people’s demand for ‘meaningful sovereignty’ is explicitly framed against a postcolonial condition that maintains their countries under neocolonial control. Theirs is a struggle for a second independence.
A foundering war
The Sahel was poised to become the new cauldron of the war on terrorism following the France and NATO-led armed intervention in Libya in 2011 and the latter’s subsequent disintegration. The securitarian logic pursued by Sahelian states and intervention forces had two predictable consequences. Firstly, as armed groups and militias proliferated in response to perceived arbitrary injustice in relation to both the state and jihadist groups, the state could label any peripheral or dissenting group ‘terrorist’ and thus give itself license to kill legitimately. Secondly, the fabric of state-society relations has deteriorated in the process as the fight against terrorism came to trump all other economic and social objectives.
Counterterrorist policies have in the main reinforced the repressive capacities of Sahelian states. As many a report have shown, more civilians have died in the hands of Sahelian states and Operation Barkhane than they have under terrorist violence. Yet, the overwhelming majority of so-called militants in the various insurgent groups operating in the Sahel are Malians and Burkinabè nationals from villages and communities known to their neighbors. They need to be engaged through dialogue and concertation.
Dwindling resources under the accelerating effects of climate change have led to deteriorating standards of living and compounded conflicts amongst communities over access to scarce resources. The Sahel faces frequent droughts and food shortages. Embattled and impoverished populations are leaving villages and those that can afford it have fled further afield into neighboring countries if they are not risking their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Further, at a time when Sahelian states have also become the enforcers of EU border policies, some youth are treated like trespassers and criminals in their own states.
In their unqualified commitment to the fight against ‘terrorism’, it would seem that Sahelian countries have delivered more insecurity than they have delivered jobs and economic security for their populations. Ordinary people are having a hard time understanding why after almost 10 years of intervention, a 13000 soldiers strong UN mission, a 5000 strong Barkhane force, including French-led European Takuba Task Force, and G5Sahel, the security situation has deteriorated rather than it has improved. The G5Sahel is a 2017 French initiative to coordinate the fight against Jihadist among five Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. It has been a dismal failure. A UN report explains the joint operation’s slow progress and the absence of tangible security gains as the result of a narrow military outlook, divergent priorities amongst concerned countries and a fraught relation with civilians.
If Afghanistan is anything to go by, military intervention campaigns are rarely transformative enterprises.
Interventions have become ritualized forms of action in which external actors use the cover of ‘peace’ ‘security’ and ‘order’ to justify intervention by itself. It produces discursive tropes that validate militarization as a new-age normative crusade of human rights, democratization and liberation of economic activity. Since the 1990s, states have been reduced to enforcers of Bretton Woods injunctions to liberalize if they are not busy enforcing ‘partner countries’ security policies.
People may not understand the intricacy of decision-making processes that have led to the present fiasco, but they perceive the relative inefficiency of the billions of dollars that have been spent on the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Barkhane Operation – which cost around 1 billion euros per year – and other international forces while Sahelian armies remain underfunded, underequipped, lacking the technological resources to collect reliable intelligence. One recalls that the March 2012 coup and that of August 2020 were both prompted by widespread public dissatisfaction with the blatant inefficacy of the Malian army fighting the Tuareg rebels and Jihadists. The Malian army was then ill-equipped -and they still are – to fight the jihadists. The public perceives that something is fundamentally wrong. What is peacekeeping in a country that is in active conflict? Failing to impose peace, what is MINUSMA exactly doing in Mali?
A historical shift?
We may just be at the cusp of a revolution of a new kind, one that first and foremost opposes different generations whose experience of, and outlook over the postcolonial present barely overlap. The generational shift affects both the political and the military elites.
There is in fact more to the recent coups in Mali and Burkina Faso than meet the eye. It would be absurd to pose the problem in terms of a choice to be made between military regimes vs. liberal democracy. The coups themselves are not the ultimate objective. The military is called upon to break a deadlock, to upend the status quo as neutral arbiters. Some of the protestors in Burkina Faso made that much clear in stating their determination to occupy the streets again should the military government fail to deliver on promises. However, coups potentially provide an opening for a necessary debate on a serious social project, something that has not been a preoccupation of previous governments since the time of the revolutionary Thomas Sankara.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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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.
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