Nobody should really be surprised by the conflict taking place inside the Republic of Ukraine. In their long modern history, Europeans have been at war, or in preparation for war, or recovering from one, longer than they have been at peace.
Western Europe has been the key driver of conflicts at home and globally for the last three centuries. European armies have war graves in just about every country on every continent.
The only surprise is that they have been able to keep their warlike behaviour in check for the last seventy-seven years (if we exclude the fighting that followed the 1990 break-up of Yugoslavia), since the end of their 1939-1945 war that they spread to much of the rest of the world.
And even that peace was only because they managed, for once, to come to an agreement about the thing that drives their conflicts: money.
Ambassador Martin Kimani, Kenya’s permanent representative to the United Nations did an important thing when he asserted the idea that Africans can also have an opinion on world events, drawing on the lived African historical experience.
In his February speech to the Security Council, while criticizing the then anticipated Russian military entry into Ukrainian territory, Ambassador Kimani urged Russian leaders to follow the example set by Africa’s post-colonial leaders and simply accept post-empire borders as they are. He also urged them to put their faith in international diplomacy, in order to resolve such disputes.
Deep down, these words will sound strange to European ears on all sides of the Ukraine dispute. The historical record shows that this is simply not how these people do business, and certainly not the white powers of Western Europe (which birthed other white powers like the United States and Canada). For them, war is the norm, and when they say “peace”, they mean their successful imposition of conditions to their liking on the side they have defeated.
Ambassador Kimani urged Russian leaders to follow the example set by Africa’s post-colonial leaders and simply accept post-empire borders as they are.
The conflict now located in Ukraine has been brewing for quite some time. It is an expression of a wider tension between the continuing ambitions of Western countries and economic masters against the interests of Russia in the various forms it has taken before, during and after becoming the world’s first, biggest and most powerful non-capitalist state.
There has never been a period of actual good relations between Russia and the Western European powers in over one hundred years. And places like Ukraine are where this has often played out. The great plains of Europe, lying between Russia proper and the powers of the West, made up of shifting, weaker states, have always been a buffer zone.
In the first phase, this was the fight between the German and Russian empires during the 1914-1918 war, which led to both the collapse of the Russian monarchy, and the dissolution of the German Empire.
The second phase was between 1920 and 1939, when various combinations of Western European powers sponsored rebellions, small wars and sabotage in an attempt to dislodge the communist-led Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) regime that had eventually taken over the Russian state following the collapse of the monarchy there.
This was only briefly suspended by the rise of fascism to state power in Spain, Italy and Germany, setting the conditions for the 1939-1945 war.
But this was in fact a war against Germany’s attempt to re-establish an empire to replace the one taken from it under the terms of the treaty ending the 1914-1918 war, much as it was dressed up as a war against the fascism of Hitler’s Germany. During that war, the capitalist Western powers were embarrassed to have had to make an anti-Hitler alliance with the very Soviet Union they had been trying to undermine militarily not a few years earlier.
There has never been a period of actual good relations between Russia and the Western European powers in over one hundred years.
The end of that war gave rise to the third phase, between 1946 and 1991, when the effort to remove the communists (whose reach had now expanded to control parts of central Europe) resumed and became an all-consuming fixation of Western statecraft. Now led by the United States, it re-oriented all Western political, diplomatic and military thinking to see the Soviet Union, and its satellites state, as the principal enemy.
It is in this phase, known as the Cold War, that institutions like the US-dominated military alliance known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO: 1947), the well-known American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA: 1947) in the West, and the rival Soviet-led Warsaw Pact (Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance: 1955) in Eastern Europe, were formed. This phase officially came to an end with the collapse and dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991 while, conversely, NATO has just kept on going.
Originally made up of 15 member states by 1955, and committed to mutual defence for fifty years, NATO has never properly explained why then it continues to exist. There are a number of contradictions. The Cold War itself did not last 50 years, and the NATO side won anyway, yet it has gone on to include fifteen new members, thus doubling its membership. What is more, the bulk of these new member states are former territories of the Warsaw Pact, with membership being offered to even more, such as Ukraine, which used to be part of the Soviet Union proper. In other words, NATO became twice as big as its original size after the reason for its creation no longer existed.
This brings us to the fifth phase running from 1991 to Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, which is a whole story in itself.
Russia’s unease with this expansion—expressed in a number of failed diplomatic initiatives, with Ukraine increasingly at the epicentre—was never really taken seriously. The immediate trigger begins with a 2014 coup in Ukraine that brings a pro-West government to power. There followed a series of measures against the Russian ethnic minority of Ukraine, as well as proscriptions against the symbols and legacy (both good and bad) Russia had left in Ukraine during the communist era. In particular, there was the public rehabilitation of the legacies of fascist organizations that had collaborated with Hitler’s forces during the German invasions of the 1940s, and the public tolerance of new fascist organisations. It is one issue to wonder why anyone should find it desirable to join a political identity with such a record. It is another issue to also question why such politics should be even permissible in a society claiming to be civilized.
How this invasion ends will be the start, and then the nature, of the sixth phase.
Africans are not obliged to take sides. But there is a human obligation to share knowledge and experience, as Ambassador Kimani has done. And any call for the avoidance of armed conflict is a good thing.
More than once in the last century, Europeans have dragged us into their conflicts in a bout of global racism.
Therefore, scenes of Africans being discriminated against on the Ukraine-Poland border as they tried—like many other peoples in Ukraine—to flee the looming conflict, should have been expected.
European culture is racist, and it did not become racist when it arrived in the Americas, Asia and Africa; it was its racism that took it there in the first place. What is more, Europeans actually began their racism among themselves.
Eastern Europe is Slavic country. “Slavic” is how the Eurasian people described themselves, as a concept of praise. However, these people had been conquered in the 9th Century (in other words, in yet another inter-European war), and had been reduced to what would now be called slavery.
So, Western European history ascribed a different meaning to the name. “Slavonic” was turned to mean “captive” in Latin. “Slav” is where the word “slave” in Western European languages comes from.
European racism—now directed at mainly non-white people—may be less expressive and performative at home as compared to the settler spaces it created overseas, because it is less directly in the presence of black people, and it is also more secure and confident in itself at home. But it is always there; it is just a matter of opportunity and circumstance (such as a border).
The Nazi Germany era was in many ways a condensed form of the already 400-year white supremacist project that had seen white Europeans forcibly settle themselves in the Americas from the arctic to the Antarctic, Australia, New Zealand, and all of southern Africa. In all cases, these incursions (that Hitler called “lebensraum”, literally, “space for living in”, when he applied them to Eastern Europe) began with genocides, and were sustained on them.
European culture is racist, and it did not become racist when it arrived in the Americas, Asia and Africa.
Being hemmed in militarily, Hitler’s Germany found it necessary to massively mobilize its population. It did this by appealing to their racism by victimizing a significant minority in an acute intensification of perhaps the longest standing racial prejudice in European public life; vilifying people of Jewish descent, as well as picking on its neighbours.
Underneath the usual romanticisation of the conflicts among Europeans lies the story of coal and iron. Until perhaps the 1960s, the Alsace-Lorraine region, which lies where the lands of France and Germany meet, held the largest known deposits of iron ore in the Western world. Together with the abundant supplies of the coal in the neighbouring regions, this created the opportunity for the bulk production of perhaps the most significant material to industrialization—steel.
On top of the already mentioned 1914-1918 British-German war that led to Germany’s loss of its entire global empire as well as territory closer to home, and the 1939-1945 British-French-American-Russian war against Germany, Italy, and Japan, which left Europe militarily split in half for the following four decades, there had already been the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 which had ended with German occupation of France. All these were essentially conflicts over the Alsace–Lorraine region.
It was the site of the beginnings of a reversal of fortunes for Germany in its big gamble to also invade the Soviet Union in 1941. This gave rise to the heroic politics of the Americans leading the massive landings on the shores of Western Europe in a race for Berlin, the German capital. The real panic was to try and capture Germany before the Russians advancing from the East did. Perhaps they feared that Russia would reclaim those territories it conceded to Germany as part of the process of pulling out of the 1914-1918 war in which the then new communist regime had felt it had no side.
Underneath the usual romanticisation of the conflicts among Europeans lies the story of coal and iron.
This is why from the day of the German defeat in 1945, up until its reunification in 1990, all the countries that had fought Hitler’s armies had their armies in the ridiculous situation of each controlling a cramped sector of Germany’s capital Berlin, while Berlin as a whole was itself deep inside Soviet-controlled territory (because the Soviet Union’s Red Army had overrun German territory before the Western armies got there).
Russia has always been governed by a cultural tension between its actual Asiatic roots, and an underlying tendency to embrace a more western European identity. This “Westernizer tendency” (as it is known) played a role in taking the monarchy to the degree of crisis the Russian Empire had. In trying to become more like the more industrialised powers to the west, Imperial Russia had become financially indebted to them.
The socialist revolution under the communist party put an end to this, and in so doing saved the Russian state from collapse.
All foreign investments as well as locally owned private concerns were nationalized. Furthermore, key elements of Slavic culture, such as language, were synthetized into education and science in a way that allowed for the rapid progress of the spread of education and technological knowledge. This enabled the country to make a rapid leap forward technologically, and become an industrial and military power by the middle of the last century.
The political leaders were also adept at keeping the country’s enemies at bay through military and diplomatic manoeuvring. The coming to power of the Russian communists in October 1917 only intensified this, because under the Russian monarchy, Russia had been in alliance with the big powers of the West (France and Britain), in fighting Germany in the 1914-1918 war. It was of great use partly because, being to the east of Germany, Russia formed a whole other front. Those powers were very annoyed when Russia’s new rulers pulled out of the conflict.
Russia has always been governed by a cultural tension between its actual Asiatic roots, and an underlying tendency to embrace a more western European identity.
From that moment, the fight was no longer over the respective profit-seeking factions of several empire states seeking to grab valuable territory and markets for themselves. It became a fight between all such factions collectively on the one side, versus a huge country taken over by a political party that was opposed to private profit-making to begin with, on the other.
But with this loss of a crucial ally in the ongoing war, three things were at stake for the powers to the west. Germany, which had only really united as one nation in the 1871 war (minus Austria; that would be organized later by Hitler), now had more opportunities and room to manoeuvre in the conduct of the war. There was the immediate possibility of Germany taking over all the installations and resources that the Russian forces had left scattered all over the eastern front from Finland, Siberia to the central European plains.
Second, the substantial aforementioned economic and war debts that the economic powers to the west had over broke imperial Russia were now under threat of not been honoured.
Finally, the prospect of the communist party finally taking power, especially in a major country, raised the prospect of communism (by this time a movement with nearly eighty years of struggle behind it) gaining popularity in all the major capitals of Europe. For (mainly Western European) capitalist governments, this would be a political disaster.
Germany lost the war anyway. And, as said, the big powers to the west immediately turned their attention to supporting a combination of Russian forces trying to remove the communists from power in a growing Russian civil war between 1920 and 1922. Eventually, after deploying a few military expeditions, and even engineering a couple of coup attempts, they gave up and went home. But they were to continue sponsoring Russian exile groups in sporadic incursions and attacks on the growing communist state for many years after, until 1939 when Britain and the United States, principally, needed to make an about-turn and form an alliance with the very same Soviet Union they had been undermining, against Hitler.
It paid off well; the record shows that Nazi Germany’s decisive defeat took place on the Eastern front, at great human and material cost to the Soviet Union. Russian losses to Nazi Germany exceeded 26 million people, including 10 million soldiers.
Therefore, beyond the earlier historic rivalries, by 1945 significant countries of Western Europe were collectively hostile to the Soviet Union, the culmination of a process that had begun shortly after the communist takeover of power in 1917, but which also predated it.
Indeed, as soon as the ’39-’45 hostilities ended in Europe with the capture of Berlin, the Western powers immediately reverted to a stance of armed hostility towards the Soviet Union. It is said that one legendary American General called Patton had to be removed from command because he was calling for an immediate attack on the Soviet forces in Germany, followed by the invasion of Moscow. This stance has effectively continued even after the demise of communist rule in Russia. The old game of lusting after the territories of the Balkans and beyond has resumed.
This then, is the Russian experience of Western powers, right from the start of the last century, whether as the Russian Empire, the communist state, or as the Russian Federation.
After being besieged by Western debt, what began as a free-for-all among the competing ambitious ruling classes of the various European empires developed into a quasi-unity of those ruling classes in a joint attempt to prevent the spread of communism among the ordinary people. Once that was achieved, they all went back to trying to have economic advantage over the weaker parts Europe. These were the 1990s wars over the re-division of the Baltic states, and their seduction into the Western debt-based economic system.
Whether democratic or not, any Russian head of state would do well to understand NATO’s interest in Eastern European countries now bordering Russia in this context. President Vladimir Putin, whatever one may think of him, certainly holds a sense of this history.
The old game of lusting after the territories of the Balkans and beyond has resumed.
Russia fears it may be seen as the next prize; the very name “Ukraine” literally means “border” or “frontier” in some Slavic languages. The only new development is that wealthy Russians probably also harbour the same ambitions, and wish to expand their own place in the Russian economy.
All this tells us Africans four critical things.
First, that these wars are about business: making money, or seizing territory to make money from it later. When capitalists want something, they find an excuse to start a war in order to get it. These recurrent conflicts were only suspended for the last eighty years with the creation of a trade mechanism that enabled interested European countries to access resources for their domestic industries without having to also physically control the territory. This mechanism began life as the European Coal and Steel Commission, later renamed the European Economic Commission, and then renamed again the European Commission. Today, it is known as the European Union.
To Europeans, fighting is normal. And they are very good at it, on the whole. They manufacture their own weapons, and make money out of that, too. War, for the European, is a relatively sustainable activity.
Even modest-sized European cities will have a monument (if not whole cemeteries) to the dead of more than one war. There are about 68,000 war memorials in the UK alone, and 3,000 war cemeteries in France.
Tiny Belgium holds about 800 military cemeteries for the 1914-1918, and the 1939-1945 wars alone. It is why military-style language (e.g. “to pull a flanker”, and “to steal a march”, in common English) peppers a lot of casual Western speech. It is why most Western armed forces retain standing divisions trained to be quickly transported far abroad, and to fight in terrain very unlike their home territories. Europeans (and white America) are warmongers. That is the historical and contemporary record, quite contrary to the political propaganda they produce in their media and education systems.
The second lesson is that among white powers (of which the Russian state is one) there is never any real principle involved. Millions died fighting “Nazis”, only for the politicians that sent them to their deaths to recruit those very same Nazi leaders into their own programmes.
When capitalists want something, they find an excuse to start a war in order to get it.
For example, one Arthur L. Rudolph was a German Nazi-era scientist brought to the United States in 1945 for his rocket-making expertise. He has even been honoured by the United States National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA). He is considered to be the “father” of the Saturn V rocket upon which the Apollo moon-landing programme depended.
More directly, one Adolf Heusinger, a German general who served as chairman of the NATO Military Committee from 1961 to 1964, had in an earlier life been a colonel in Hitler’s General Staff, and had been directly involved in planning the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union also grabbed from defeated Germany as many Nazi scientists as it could lay its hands on. But their case was handled more like a reparative abduction than the offer of an entirely new comfortable life.
Today’s enemy may become tomorrow’s friend, and today’s friend was the enemy yesterday. It is just their culture of politics, war and diplomacy. Get involved at your own risk.
Third, that when these giants fight, they do so on an industrial scale. Their conflicts often spill across other borders and territories. Their weaponry brings mass death, and their logistical and human resource needs often suck in people who have very little to do with the actual cause of the conflict. In Africa, it is only Ethiopia that has come anywhere near this scale of war-making.
Today’s Democratic Republic of Congo was plundered for the rubber and copper needed to make tires and bullet casings for the 1914-1918 war. The Lumumba-led independence government fell victim to the Cold War rivalry over Congo’s uranium deposits as part of the America vs. Soviet Union nuclear arms race.
Hundreds of thousands of black Africans faced off and killed each other as loyal soldiers of the German and British armies fighting for German Tanganyika and British Uganda and Kenya, respectively.
Ukrainians, like all peoples everywhere, matter. That is why its real independence from either power is important to the rest of the world. For the Western powers, it would be nice to have Ukraine, but Russia as a whole, is the real prize.
Whatever one may wish to now call it, Ukraine is a place of wealth and potential profit. It is the second largest country in Europe by area, holding significant reserves of uranium, titanium, manganese, iron, mercury and coal.
It is a world leader in the production and export of a whole range of agricultural products (corn, potatoes, rye, wheat and eggs, all of which are central to the processed food industry).
In Africa, it is only Ethiopia that has come anywhere near this scale of war-making.
Ukraine is also a country with a significant body of advanced industrial knowledge.
And as with the Alsace-Lorraine, and the earlier wars to dislodge the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from power, this is about Western corporations (and Russian oligarchs) looking to increase their wealth.
This is not an African story, but it is certainly beginning to look like one. In the history of the conflicts of the modern world, certain zones stand out as having suffered from the accident of being located where strategic resources were to be found. Before the DRC, there was Western Europe and the Middle East. With lots of minerals and fertile land, all that is missing in Ukraine is a population too weak, too poor, and too divided to think and speak for itself. War, autocratic government, and CIA-sponsored “good governance” workshops have been known to supply those.
Therefore, Ambassador Kimani’s advice notwithstanding, Africans are better off staying away from all this, just as Ukraine would have been wiser to stay out of the Russia-NATO rivalries.
While the white powers were not fighting in Ukraine, they were still promoting fighting somewhere else. Now that they have also kicked off in Europe, it means their unusual break of eight decades of peace is finally over. “Normal service has resumed”.
Europe is at war with Europe, in Europe, once again.
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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.
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.
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.
“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 debt, unfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheid, labour 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.
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?
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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