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Why African Coups Have Nothing To Do With Democracy

11 min read.

Framing coups in juxtaposition with electoral democracies is not only simplistic but is also distractive in the sense that it reduces coups to just a mode of government, argues Yusuf Senrunkuma.



Why African Coups Have Nothing To Do With Democracy
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As coups reappear on the African continent, there is a growing body of commentary that has problematically sought to juxtapose them with electoral democracy.  So, the question is being asked whether coups do or do not signal an end to democracy—and thus a return of the scary opposite, authoritarianism. Most prominently, the BBC, which officially never publishes opinions, ran a curious opinion piece, “Coups in Africa: why they don’t spell an end to democracy” by Nic Cheeseman and Leonard Mbulle-Nziege. As indicated in the title, the piece aggressively connects coups to authoritarianism and discusses coups as a competitor or threat to democracy. The piece is meant to reassure readers that despite the cheers and celebration for the coups, electoral democracies are still in vogue on this dimly lit continent. A more nuanced, and more empirically useful piece appeared in The New York Times: “Five African Countries. Six Coups. Why Now?” Although the NYT analysis does not directly focus on the drills and labours of democracy, it employs the same dialectic, debating coups against democracy.

Before discussing the ahistoricism and related theoretical limitations internal to these analyses, my contention is that framing coups in juxtaposition with electoral democracies is not only simplistic but is also distractive in the sense that it reduces coups to just a mode of government—problematically viewing them as a highway to authoritarianism.  In truth, coups are much more than a mode of government or a means to power. More theoretical-historically, coups in Africa are a colonial question related to the modern state, and the throes and turns that bog this “post-colonial” construction. Coups constitute a part of those events that have come to define the search for the soul of the independent African state. Phrased differently, if independence concerned itself with uplifting the formerly colonised—in all spheres of human development such as education, health, income, access to food and water, access to capital, civil liberties and dignity of Africans—these dreams have been defined and continue to undergo different political processes in different moments in the life of the postcolonial state.

What is historically accurate is that the soul and promise of independence is above any form of government (democratic, authoritative, cultural-hereditary); rather, it is constitutive of different political events. Therefore, these coup-vs-democracy analyses are not only ahistorical and theoretically handicapped, they also ought to be seen as absolute neo-colonialist distortions. They blur the histories and political economies, regimes of power and pillage in which major global political shifts continue to shape the African continent, especially in the context of what Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni has called coloniality, or “postcolonial neo-colonised Africa”, as Gayatri Spivak terms it.

Coups constitute a part of those events that have come to define the search for the soul of the independent African state.

What is normally confusing to observers is that coups display a deeply contradictory form of agency on the part of the African actors—the military coup leaders—who tend to be viewed as selfish power grabbers. That is half the analysis. In fact, it is the smaller analysis. In truth, while actors appear to be responding to or may claim actually visible local grievances (specifically, the emptiness of independence), they are at the same time, sadly, responding to, and are inspired and riding on shifts in political regimes in Europe and North America (from where, also, coup execution resources come). The shifts in European-North American politics which influence local events on the continent often relate to the ways in which African resources continue to be pillaged. This essay is an effort to make visible these historical, local-international shifts, and their interactions with the soul of the African.

Africa since independence

One can actually draw a periodised graph reflecting shifts in African politics and the ways in which leaderships have changed since independence in the 1950s and 1960s to the present.  These shifts in local African politics were responses to seismic shifts, to superior forces in neo-colonial politics. Oftentimes, these shifts have little to do with the men who emerge as new leaders in Africa, except through a little positioning and sheer luck. It could be anybody. This is not to say that African actors are deprived of all agency. Not at all.  African actors, especially ordinary folks, have continued to exercise agency in seeking to find meaning in their independent nation states. But often, they are crushed or exploited by superior international players who are quick to influence and conscript publics through both violent and technocratized means. The table below captures the different phases in both global and African politics, and the ways in which they respond to each other.

Period Intl./colonial contestations Local events/leaderships
1955-1965 Independence Anti-colonial leaders
1965-1975 Neo-colonial posturing Coup leaders
1980-1990 Cold War/Proxy wars Liberation wars
1990-2010 USSR collapses, USA rises, Capitalism Electoral democracies
2010-2020 R2P, Human Rights movements, ICC Street Protests/Arab Spring
2020 — Africom; rise of China, Russia, Turkey Coups return

Of course, there are, and will always be overlaps. But the table captures the most prominent political orders of every decade. Congolese politician Denis Sassou Nguesso is the living embodiment of these overlaps, having participated in most of these different phases (led coups, liberation wars, and currently wins elections).


Independence saw anti-colonial leaders naturally emerge as presidents and prime ministers: Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana; Patrice Lumumba in Congo-Kinshasa; Milton Obote in Uganda; Julius Nyerere in Tanzania; Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya; Aden Adde in Somalia; Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia; Agostinho Neto in Angola; etc. Discussing the myth of the postcolonial world, Puerto Rican sociologist, Ramon Grosfoguel has noted, “The heterogeneous and multiple global structures put in place over a period of 450 years did not evaporate with the juridical-political decolonization of the periphery.” Indeed, with African independence, colonialists had only strategically withdrawn, but were too impatient to return. As Africa’s leaders sought to consolidate the promise of independence, the “former” colonisers jostled for ways of continued access to resources in the so-called formerly colonised places: coups came to define the African continent.

In addition to assassinations, such as, more prominently, that of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 (in which Americans and Belgians supported Mobutu Sese Seko), coups were the more prominent feature of the new wave of colonial tinkering starting in the early 1960s and running through the 1980s. Nkrumah is overthrown in 1966.  Mali’s Modibo Keita in 1968.  Uganda’s Milton Obote in 1971.  Fulbert Youlou of Congo-Brazzaville in 1963, and his successor, Alphonse Massamba-Débat, five years later. In Somalia, Siad Barre’s coup takes place in 1969. Nigeria’s Tafawa Balewa is couped in 1966 by Yakubu Gowon.  In Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana overthrows Gregory Kayibanda in 1973.  Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie is overthrown by the Derg in 1974, while Muamar Gaddafi’s coup happens in 1969.

With African independence, colonialists had only strategically withdrawn, but were too impatient to return.

Throughout this period, many promising leaders that had emerged from the colonial struggle would be either assassinated, blackmailed or simply couped out of office. It is important to note that while these coups were the product of local grievances, they were largely masterminded by former colonisers jostling for access to resources. (In West Africa, to this day, France has sustained its grip on 14 countries using its central bank, its currency, and its military.) With the culture of coups introduced, one coup led to another, and more leaders sought to portray themselves as the most compliant with the demands of their former colonisers.

Then came the Cold War, as superpowers wrestled each other, again over our resources. Proxy guerrilla wars gave us the next crop of leaders (1980-90s). Africa became the battleground for “liberation wars”, with contending groups, aligned to a superpower, seeking to overthrow the dictator that had come to power through a coup. Foreign-supported Ugandans fought against nationalist leader Idi Amin, and later Obote II, ushering in Yoweri Museveni. President Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fought Juvenal Habyarimana. In Somalia, several groups emerged to fight against Mohammed Siad Barre during the Somali civil war between 1980 and 1991. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Laurent Désiré Kabila fought and overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko. One major driving thread was that rebel-liberators had to have the support of a superpower, or a subsidiary, which often gave them access to weapons, cash, and other resources including public relations for the purposes of legitimacy.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, we entered an era of democratic elections alongside structural adjustment programmes. Former guerrilla leaders quickly started chanting multiparty politics, and surviving coup-presidents quickly mutated into capitalist-democrats. They promulgated constitutions, and also periodically held elections.  But their actual hold on power was not through elections; rather, it was bedrocked on giving former colonisers unlimited access to resources.  (These were technocratized, expert-driven pillage schemes executed through regimes of banking, tax avoidance by multinational corporations, and monopolies—all of them superintended by the new colonial administrators, the World Bank and the IMF.) These leaders include Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Joseph Kabila of DRC, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, etc.

Throughout the 1990s and 2010s, former rebels and earlier coup leaders—now democrats and incumbents—organised and won one election after another. In truth, the ways in which an election unfolded did not matter; what mattered was the holding of an election itself, which translated into legitimacy for loans and grants. During this time, with one single power dominating the world, and already granted access to resources across Africa, there was a phase of relative political stability, with leaders enjoying long spells in office.  It did not matter who was in charge of the country or which policies they implemented, as long as they implemented free market economics, which in effect allow Europe and North America unrestricted access to resources.

It is important to note that while these coups were a product of local grievances, they were largely masterminded by former colonisers jostling for access to resources.

Then came the era of human rights movements and discourses—especially within the context of 9/11, the birth of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect doctrines. Emboldened by one of the doctrines of R2P, which is protection against human rights and other violations (with potential for intervention), street protests as a legitimate means of political negotiation were born.  Indeed, it is the 2010-2020 decade that gave us, among other things, the Arab Spring. Ironically, the uprisings in Arab Africa and the Middle East continue to be read as “struggles for democracy” or are viewed as “manifestations of democracy”. (There are tons of papers and media commentary with keywords “Arab Spring” and “democracy” in their headlines.) They were not agitations for democracy. With the exception of one country, Libya, the others—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria—have continuously held elections, a major defining marker of a democratic dispensation (and on the basis of which the WB and the IMF view a government as legitimate and thus deserving of loans and grants). But as the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda Movement in Tunisia demonstrated, these were historical struggles for independence, with formerly colonised peoples still dreaming of being governed on their own local-cultural terms, and ironically seeking to escape the oppressive and exploitative character of the democratic order preached by the world’s “new intellectuals of empire’” in academia and mass media.

Presently, human rights discourses have not necessarily become obsolete, but they have lost their salience and their urgency. They have been overtaken by events. There is dullness around them, especially in black Africa, where current governments freely give foreign banks and Western monopoly capital all the access they need.  But at the same time, our democracy-practicing former rebels have found smarter ways of preventing protests from taking place while some communities simply lack the intellectual and material resources to pull off successful protests.

There is a new phase in international European colonial positioning: On the one hand, there is United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) established in 2007 and launched in 2008. Coming on the heels of 9/11, Africom was pitched as a tool to coordinate military relations with African countries.  But in reality—as all US bases actually do—Africom pursues and protects American political and economic interests. In an enriching conversation with Democracy Now, political anthropologist Samar Al-Bulushi noted that Africom,

. . . now has approximately 29 known military facilities in 15 states across the continent. And many of the countries . . . that have experienced coups or coup attempts are key allies of the U.S. in the war on terror, and many of the leaders of these coups have received training from the U.S. military.

To fully appreciate the new phase emerging on the continent that favours coups, one has to consider the other side of this conversation—the other seemingly competing powers.  China, Russia and Turkey have continued to rise in power and stature and are viewed as destabilising long established (American-European) patterns of resource exploitation on the African continent. Indeed, the ongoing rivalry between China and the United States has been well documented. With the ideological orientation of the soldiers trained by Africom, and the security-related grants they are privileged to receive (easier than anything else, be it education or health, as Al-Bulushi noted in the same interview), it is arguable that more than a decade later, these officers are seeking to take over power, securitizing entire countries, confident to emerge as the legitimate buffer between their ideological and military benefactors and the Chinese and Russian competition. Worth noting is that over and above the push-and-pull between these new superpowers, long-staying leaders have become an embarrassment to their benefactors in Europe and North America—particularly with regard to their human rights records—while at the same time they are easily winning elections and constitutionally amending constitutions. Once they are deposed, Europe and America are hard-pressed to condemn the coups. It is no wonder then that coups are receiving general acceptance in our so-called international community.

The problem with democracy discourses

I started this article with the assertion that coups have nothing to do with democracy, and nor does democracy have anything to do with coups. But coups point to the revolving life-cycle of foreign and local interests, and the quest for meaning in Africa. Democratic or un-democratic (whatever those terms mean), African countries remain the same: exploited, their economies dominated by Western bankers (and African banks are the most profitable across the world), exporters of raw materials (and not because they are unable to add value), with heavily impoverished populations and a youth problem, etc. From Nigeria to South Africa, Zambia to Ghana, Kenya or Uganda, with regular elections and chants of democracy, these countries remain the same with regards to most growth indices. Strangely, a so-called non-democratic autocracy, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was classed as most advanced on the UN Human Development Index, above South Africa.

In their BBC opinion piece of 8 February 2022, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege express worry but are also confident in the resilience of democracy. Thus, they are quick to pour water on the cheers that welcomed coups in some of the places where they took place. They are armed with figures and surveys that they endlessly regurgitate, discussing inexistent things such as economic growth and human rights. While running their surveys, they never include the work of anthropologists to appreciate the quality of civil publics in Africa, and nor do they include the work of historians and political economists dealing with broader theoretical questions relating to notions such as “problem spaces” and local-international connections.

The ways in which an election unfolded did not matter, but what mattered was the holding of an election itself.

The NYT analysis on the other hand, points to the excitement around coups, but notes that the grievances run deep, springing mostly from the economy and continued colonial control.  Focused on understanding why coups are back, the NYT underlines, “insecurity, bad governance, and frustrated youth”. Reporting on pro-coup voices in downtown Ouagadougou, the NYT notes that they were “inspired by the way the junta in neighboring Mali had stood up to France, the increasingly unpopular former colonial power”. Quoting an ordinary person—a customer at a cellphone market in Ouagadougou called Anatole Compaore, who had welcomed the coup, the NYT reported him as saying, “Whoever takes power now, he needs to follow the example of Mali—reject France, and start to take our own decisions,” echoing the anti-colonial sentiments that run deep in most West African states still under direct French control, which also include Togo, Senegal, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire.

Quick to dismiss any grounds upon which coups could be welcomed, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege simplistically and directly connect coups to authoritarianism, arguing that authoritarian regimes do not deliver economic growth. They write, that “despite growing frustration with the way that multiparty politics is performing [link in original], on average democracies generate higher economic growth and do a better job of providing public services, according to a study at the US’s Cornell University.” Without problematizing the ways in which democracies generate higher economic growth (than non-electoral regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya under Gaddafi, or the United Arab Emirates), it is curious scholarship that directly connects non-electoral leaderships to autocracies incapable of delivering civil liberties and freedoms. Perhaps noticing this anomaly, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege add, “The poor performance of authoritarian forms of government on African soil . . . helps to explain why the support for democracy is high,” perhaps to create the dichotomy that authoritarian governments elsewhere have performed better. But how does one generate firm understanding through such ahistorical and untheoretical analyses?

It becomes clear that democracy discourses in the present “problem space” of African politics ought to be understood as not necessarily obsolete but overtaken by events ironically emanating from Europe and North America, and their contestations. Africans remain colonised. New problem spaces require that we ask questions that are specific to the discursive context. Clearly, coups are back because of the nature of the new phase we are in in the life of the neo-colonised postcolonial state.

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Yusuf Serunkuma is a columnist in Uganda’s newspapers, scholar and a playwright. In 2014, Fountain Publishers published his first play, The Snake Farmers which was received with critical acclaim in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. He is also a scholar and researcher who teaches political economy and history.


Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Labour migration as climate mitigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reparations include No Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?



The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections
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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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