Last month, Beatrice Waruguru’s body arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from Saudi Arabia, almost a year after she was reported dead. Like many other young Kenyans seeking job opportunities in the Middle East, many of them women, her family says Waruguru left Kenya for Saudi Arabia in February 2021, and died under suspicious circumstances in December that year. The family maintains she was tortured. Waruguru worked as a househelp.
In 2010, Rose Adhiambo went to Beirut in search of a job at the age of 24, only to return home in a coffin six months later after being subjected to a catalogue of abuse by employers. Jane Njeri Kamau, 36, died under similarly harrowing circumstances in November 2014, also in Lebanon, where she had been employed as a househelp. Njeri fell ill while in police custody together with her friend, 22-year-old Margaret Nyakeru. Both had been detained after fleeing from their respective employers because of “ill-treatment”. They had been arrested in May of that year and held for five months. Nyakeru lived to tell the story.
The above cases suggest that the ill-treatment and abuse of Kenyan workers in the Gulf is not new. The problem does, however, appear to be have worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis.
While the US remains the largest source of overseas remittances into Kenya, accounting for 63.2 per cent, the Middle East has emerged as an important rival in recent times. According to Kenyan Wall Street, remittances from Asia in the twelve-month period leading up to February 2022 amounted to US$42.5 million, with Saudi Arabia being the largest source (US$19.2 million), followed by Qatar (US$7.1 million) and the United Arab Emirates (US$4.6 Million).
Speaking to the media, Sharon Kinyanjui, WorldRemit Director for Europe, Middle East, and Africa Receive Markets, explained that this development is a consequence of growing rates of migration from Kenya to the Middle East, itself a reflection of increasing rates of unemployment, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, back home. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2021, total employment outside small-scale agriculture and pastoral activities stood at 17.4 million in 2020, down from the 18.1 million recorded in 2019. In the same period, the survey finds, wage employment in the private sector declined by 10 per cent from 2.1 million jobs in 2019 to 1.9 million jobs in 2020, and “informal sector employment is estimated to have contracted to 14.5 million jobs”.
In July 2021, Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui said that since January 2019, the ministry had facilitated the employment of over 87,784 Kenyans in the Middle East, the majority of them working in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain. But these young Kenyans are taking risks because states such as Saudi Arabia have an extremely poor record with regard to the labour rights and working conditions of domestic workers. Reports of Kenyan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia suffering physical and sexual abuse, or dying under controversial circumstances have continued to appear in the press.
Stella Nafula Wekesa left Kenya in August 2021 to work as a househelp on a two-year contract. She died on 10 February 2022. A medical report from Saketa Hospital in Saudi Arabia indicates that Stella succumbed to cardiopulmonary arrest, but her family has said she died after her employer refused to take her to hospital, and alleges that she had suffered mistreatment under previous employers.
Appearing before the Labour and Social Welfare Committee in July 2021, Labour Cabinet Secretary Chelugui told members of parliament that 93 Kenyans have been killed while working in the Middle East in the last three years. Most were in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. The Departmental Committee on Labour and Social Welfare also noted that 1,908 distress calls were reported between 2019 and 2021, with 883 being reported in 2019-2020 and 1,025 in 2020-21.
But these young Kenyans are taking risks because states such as Saudi Arabia have an extremely poor record with regard to the labour rights and working conditions of domestic workers.
Chelugui had been summoned to explain the circumstances that led to the death of Melvin Kang’ereha in Saudi Arabia in 2020. Kang’ereha was also domestic worker, a job she obtained through United Manpower Services, a recruitment agency. She was reportedly abused and mistreated by her employer and did not return home alive.
In its 2021 report Amnesty International said migrant workers continued to be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation under Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, with tens of thousands arbitrarily detained and subsequently deported. The situation is no better in Qatar, which has faced criticism of its human rights record in the build up to the 2022 World Cup. “In the decade since Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup, exploitation and abuse of these workers has been rampant, with workers exposed to forced labour, unpaid wages and excessive working hours,” reports Amnesty.
Lebanon, which is grappling with a deep economic crisis and growing poverty, is emerging as another problematic destination for Kenyan migrant domestic workers. The Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera, among other leading international media, have highlighted numerous cases that point to poor working conditions and abuse. As in the Gulf countries, many of the affected persons appear to be female domestic workers, underlining the gendered nature of the threats faced by Kenyan and other workers in the region: A report by the International Labour Office finds that when it comes to “women’s paid employment and treatment of migrants, the region is falling behind others”.
Why is labour migration to these countries so distinctly marked by exploitation, abuse and life-threatening conditions?
At the core of the problem is the notorious Kafala system, which the Council on Foreign Relations describes as a mode of sponsorship that gives private citizens and companies almost total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status. Institutionalized in most Arab Gulf countries and some neighbouring states like Lebanon, the Kafala system renders migrants vulnerable to the whims of employers who retain control over their legal residency and right to work. The consequences for women are particularly harsh. Those who manage to escape abusive work conditions do so without their passports, which remain in the custody of their tormentors. It becomes complicated for employment agencies to intervene as they would be in breach of contract.
Despite the structural nature of such victimization, a good deal more could be done by the sending countries to protect the growing number of migrants opting to work in the Middle East. It is revealing that working conditions and levels of harassment appear to vary considerably depending on the country of origin of the workers. According to the aforementioned ILO report, workers from the Philippines, for instance, receive higher pay. If on the one hand, such discrepancies are evidence of a racially segmented hierarchy of discrimination, they also reflect the extent to which individual governments are willing and/or able to guarantee the protection of their citizens abroad.
Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful consular assistance to victims of abuse. Consulates often do not arrange for flights back home and workers are often told to fundraise for the cost of their repatriation.
Mary Vimto, who went to Lebanon in 2014 through a broker who had no office, is now in her eighth year under the same employer. Mary’s experience has been good, but while she herself has not experienced harsh treatment, Mary tells me, “Kenyans are suffering in Lebanon”.
And does the consulate help?
“To say the truth, the consul told us he doesn’t have any connection with the Kenyan government, so he cannot help Kenyans easily,” says Mary, who uses social media to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by Kenyan women working in Lebanon. She goes on: “Because I do YouTube videos, I [learn about] problems from different ladies as the majority don’t get help from the consulate unless you pay some money. Assume you don’t have the money?” she asks.
Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful consular assistance to victims of abuse.
In a 14 January 2022 report, the Middle East Eye said that some 20 Kenyan women had camped for a week outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut seeking repatriation. Most of the women were domestic workers some of whom had suffered physical and sexual abuse that had worsened with the economic crisis in Lebanon and the COVID-19 outbreak. The situation of these domestic workers is complicated because Kenya does not have an embassy in Beirut. But even if it did, there is little reason to believe that the situation would be any better than in Saudi Arabia where the Kenyan mission has been of little help to Kenyan domestic workers in that country, at least according to Kenyans working or who have worked there.
Asked whether the Kenyan consulate offered her any help, Vera, another Kenyan victim of abuse by employers in Lebanon, told the Elephant that it didn’t, and that at one point, the officer she spoke to told her she had to stay put. Vera called her mother and informed her about her situation but neither the agency in Nairobi nor the Ministry of Labour offered any help when Vera’s mother visited their offices.
The other key weakness of government policy is the lack of regulation to control the activities of brokers—individuals and groups operating recruitment agencies (some of which are unregistered) that profit from enlisting domestic workers on terms that amount to modern-day slavery. For instance, one of the women who camped outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut told the Middle East Eye that she travelled to Lebanon in November 2021, having been promised a salary of US$300 by her agents. Upon arrival, her employers offered her half the amount agreed—US$150. She couldn’t accept the work as the money wasn’t enough to cater for her family back in Kenya, and became desperate to return home.
Rose Adhiambo, whose death in 2010 is mentioned above, had been connected to an employer by Interlead Limited, which describes itself as a trusted and accredited agent, “a pioneering Human Capital Management (HCM) Solutions Company that provides manpower sourcing services for organizations locally and across the globe. . .” Adhiambo’s employer subjected her to conditions akin to slavery. Her body was found on the first-floor balcony of a building in Beirut’s Sahel Alma neighbourhood. “She is said to have fallen to her death from the sixth floor of a building in a bungled bid to escape from a house where she worked as househelp,” The Standard reported in September 2010. Before attempting to flee, Adhiambo had called her family and informed them of her situation and her intention to escape.
The case of Vera, a returnee from the Gulf who was interviewed by The Elephant, is also illustrative. Vera went to Lebanon in August 2014 on a two-year contract, having deferred her education at Moi University in the first semester of her second year because she couldn’t afford to pay the fees. While at her home in Nairobi, she was approached by a woman who told her about opportunities to teach English in Lebanon. Abela Agencies, whose offices were at the time in Uganda House, Nairobi, arranged for Vera to travel to Lebanon. She was offered US$750; the contract was in Arabic.
Upon Vera’s arrival in Lebanon, she learnt she would instead be a domestic worker on a US$200 salary. “I was connected to a lady employer. The house was on the 16th floor in the Middle of Beirut. They have these big windows and flowers on the outside. I was okay with watering the flowers but my problem was cleaning windows from the outside. I couldn’t do that as it was risky,” the beginning of problems with her employer which culminated in her employer taking her back to the agency in Beirut. “I had not settled; I was not experienced as a housemaid. I couldn’t function well because what I got on the ground was not what I anticipated. I was also not well briefed,” Vera says.
Before attempting to flee, Adhiambo had called her family and informed them of her situation and her intention to escape.
Vera was employed by a second family for whom she worked for five months. She says that although they were not physically abusive, there were restrictions on what she could touch or eat, and she was only allowed to call home once or twice a month. When one of the sons in the family moved out, she was asked to work for his young family and the situation escalated; the wife would leave her locked up in the house and she was not allowed to operate the TV. “They would go eat out and leave me without food. They would then tell me there is milk powder and sugar and I can make tea for myself. She would bring bread on Monday and make me have it until the next week,” Vera says.
When the going got extremely tough, she demanded to return home. The response was harsh: “I paid a lot of money, I bought you and you have to work for at least seven months for me to recover my money,” Vera recalls. When Vera fell ill due to the cold, she was not taken to hospital.
In November 2021, Francis Atwoli, the Secretary General of the Central Organization of Trade Unions, termed the working conditions in the Middle East as slavery and called for the closure of agencies enlisting Kenyans to work in the Gulf. “As a government, we should take care of our people. We are tired of watching our children coming back in coffins,” Atwoli said. However, Atwoli’s seriousness on the matter has been questioned given his preoccupation with succession politics rather than with the welfare of workers.
The government has rejected calls to ban the export of labour, with CS Chelugui arguing, “It is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, while more than 100,000 Kenyans were under favourable conditions.” Given the growing macro-economic importance of remittances from countries such as Saudi Arabia, it seems unlikely that calls for a ban will be heeded anytime soon, a fact which underscores the importance of addressing the need for better protections at the policy level.
There have been attempts by parliament to address the Middle East problem. In November 2021, the Senate Labour and Social Welfare Committee presented a report to parliament in which it accused recruitment agencies of riding on the absence of formal agreements or memorandums of understanding between Kenya and other countries to manipulate desperate jobless Kenyans.
“And where they exist, the agreement falls short of taking care of the interests of the workers,” the report by the Senate Labour and Social Welfare Services committee reads in part. The committee also reported that recruitment agencies and employers were taking advantage of the lack of policy and a legal framework on labour migration to exploit Kenyans working in the Middle East.
“It is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, while more than 100,000 Kenyans were under favourable conditions”.
It further reported that Kenyans working as domestic workers do not receive consular assistance to protect their rights. “With the growing numbers of migrants to the Middle East, there is need to streamline key prerequisite processes for effective governance,” the report says. It recommended the immediate suspension of all labour migration of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, where abuse and employment conditions akin to slavery are particularly rife.
When I asked him whether the government is doing enough to protect Kenyans in the Middle East, Senator Sakaja, chair of the Labour and Social Welfare Committee, told me it doesn’t and that, in fact, the government is squarely to blame for the problem. “First, the reason they go there is because there are no jobs here. There are more than 18,000 Kenyans in Saudi Arabia, the majority are domestic workers. But some have been successful,” he said.
Sakaja noted that most of those who have gone there through the Musaned system are okay. “In that system, you can check the house she is working in, the contacts and where the passport is,” he explained.
However, Sakaja spoke of the presence of rogue agents who run the business as human trafficking. “Because for every girl you send out, you are given almost US$1,500, it is as if they are putting potatoes in sacks. They don’t care. You should have insurance, their return ticket and be recognized by that [Musaned] system so that there is proper reporting,” he said, adding that all the agencies should be vetted afresh.
Sakaja argued that the Philippines has over 300,000 workers in Saudi Arabia but they don’t have cases of their people being killed or harassed because their government has set up a system to liaise with the government of Saudi Arabia. He also decried the shortage of personnel to handle consular issues. “We only have one labour officer called Juma. From Riyadh to Jeddah are thousands of kilometres. So, we said we must have more labour attachés and officers in Jeddah and Riyadh and safe houses in case of anything,” he said during the interview.
Sakaja also said that there are Kenyans languishing in deportation centres, and others who have been buried in cemeteries in Saudi Arabia. (Sakaja’s remarks in parliament are reported in the Hansard from page 23.)
Before resigning to join active politics, former Foreign Affairs Chief Administrative Secretary Ababu Namwamba said he was leading a review of the Diaspora Policy and, together with CS Chelugui, reviewing the bilateral legal instruments with all the Middle East countries “that are causing Kenyans a lot of trouble”.
A Labour Migration Management Bill was to be passed and a Migrant Workers Welfare Fund established following a government directive at the Cabinet level. The bill is still stuck in the National Assembly, while the fund is yet to be operationalized.
What is so difficult about establishing bilateral agreements, vetting agents and putting in place a system that works?
Interest groups are active in pretty much every sector in Kenya—individuals working in government or have influence in government who use their power for financial gain. If Haki Africa is to be believed, the migrant labour sector is no different. In a report published by the Daily Nation, the Mombassa-based national human rights organisation claimed one government official owned 10 labour recruitment agencies.
“I paid a lot of money, I bought you and you have to work for at least seven months for me to recover my money,”
So powerful are some recruitment agencies that they have reportedly bribed members of parliament to go slow on a clampdown, a claim corroborated by Senator Sakaja who went on to allege that some members of parliament and officials from the Ministry of Labour own the recruitment agencies. Cotu’s Atwoli is on record saying, “most of the recruitment agencies in the country are owned by senior people in government and operate with impunity”.
Needless to say, confirming such allegations is far from straightforward. It would nonetheless explain why, despite Sakaja’s report and former Nominated Senator Emma Mbura’s April 2015 petition in the Senate seeking better policies for Kenyan migrants in the Middle East, not much has been achieved.
Mbura, a human rights activist, had proposed that the government develop a framework that spells out the minimum entry-level salary, weekly and daily rest periods and signs a special employment contract with Saudi Arabia to protect Kenyan workers. The framework, she said, would also provide Kenyans with paid leave, non-withholding of passports and work permits, free communication and humane treatment.
Whatever the obstacles to reform, one thing is clear: a complete overhaul of the entire labour export industry is necessary because unless substantive reforms are undertaken, Kenyan migrant workers, particularly women, will continue to return to their families abused and mistreated. Unless we listen to those who live to share their tales, others will continue to arrive in body bags—a state of affairs no amount of foreign currency can justify.
This article is the first in a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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Moving, or Changing?
The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.
Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?
That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.
A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.
“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.
He moved along quickly.
“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:
Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.
Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.
More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.
The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.
It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.
Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.
A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.
We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.
Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.
For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.
All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.
In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.
Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.
While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.
The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.
And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.
Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.
European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.
Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.
Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.
This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.
To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.
I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.
There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.
A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.
It starts even with naming.
The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.
With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.
According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.
This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.
This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.
And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.
Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.
Human migration was not always like this.
Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.
There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.
Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.
Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.
With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.
The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.
Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.
Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.
International Monetary System
Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.
Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).
Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.
Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.
The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”
Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.
In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”
When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”
Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”
Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.
As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”
The Post-colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh
The lesson from political economist Rok Ajulu’s academic work and activism: it’s not enough to change the “tenants,” but fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.
In early May 2022, with almost three months to the August election, Kenya had close to 50 presidential candidates, and 5,000 people running for the 1,500 Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions. Ultimately, not all of these aspirants will be cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (more like “blunder commission” judging from the 2017 elections and its lack of preparedness for the August 2022 poll), but the question remains—one that the political economist, Rok Ajulu, asked in his 2021 book Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State: what is it about the post-colonial state in Africa that makes so many people want to control it?
In this impressive compendium, Ajulu chronologically and exhaustively mapped out the authoritarian turns of the Kenyan post-colonial state. In doing so, he documented the predatory nature of the colonial regime and how three successive African governments— headed respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki—have built on this legacy and, in addition, weaponized ethnicity at specific junctures to consolidate control and accumulation. And not just any accumulation: predatory and parasitic hoarding—in the sum of trillions of dollars and with many detrimental effects for the population—that is only possible when steered, despite declarations to the contrary from the top.
While he charts the oscillating, often moderate and neo-imperial allegiances of actors such as Jomo Kenyatta (the late father of outgoing president, Uhuru), Tom Mboya and Moi—none of whom were great fans of the Mau Mau—Ajulu’s focus is on how the state “becomes brazenly the instrument of the dominant political elite. This type of regime gravitates towards authoritarian dispensation of power precisely because economic mobility and expansion of the new elite is largely tied to their continued control of state-power.”
This thesis, while not unique to Ajulu and recognized in everyday discourse, is anchored here in a prolific and comprehensive archive, which also makes evident, as does the author, that the predatory pursuits of politicians are not unencumbered, even against the heavy-handed authoritarian implements (read political assassinations, state sanctioned ethnic clashes) they use to entrench them. Although Ajulu does not dwell on protests or resistances to this authoritarian rule over four decades(please read this powerful book by Maina wa Kinyatti for that), and focuses primarily on party politics and the trajectories of (in)famous politicians to narrate the incremental creation of an authoritarian state in Kenya, the constant tug and pull of class tensions and the heterogeneous actions of supposedly homogeneous ethnic populations are always on the horizon.
Who is this man Rok Ajulu? In the short film about him called Breakfast in Kisumu, his daughter, the filmmaker Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, documents his academic and political labors dating to his exile from Kenya in the early 1970s. Oriented around interviews she had with him—and it is his narrations that piece together the diverse landscapes that are the visuals for this film (we actually, interestingly, barely see Ajulu)—his voice takes us through his life as a student, political activist and academic, in a journey that spans Bulgaria, Lesotho, the UK and South Africa. The evocative images of these countries where Rok Ajulu lived, while recent, anchor this narrative that accounts for a life of political praxes in academia and beyond. Though his sojourns mainly pivot around academic pursuits, we also hear about his labors as an agricultural worker in Bulgaria, a pirate taxi driver in Fulham, London and, importantly, as an organizer with the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS) while at the National University of Lesotho in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for this work he was imprisoned for three weeks).
It is, perhaps, this period as an anti-apartheid organizer in Lesotho that created the path to a life in South Africa from 1994. Here he taught at Rhodes University and married Lindiwe Sisulu, the current Minister of Tourism (and one of the aspirants vying to succeed Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s next president), and daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activists Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Consequently, it is in South Africa, rather than Kenya, where his influence was more extensive, even as Kenya appears to have been the primary focus of his academic scholarship.
Ajulu-Bushell’s poetic film demonstrates that her father’s life was not ordinary. But it is perhaps the internationalist and pan-African paths he chose that led her to recognize him, as she does in this film, as a “father” but not a “parent.” Her bid to understand her father’s life as an adult and, simultaneously, to document his political praxes, appear to be what has prompted this documentary. While the style of the film may not be for everyone—there are a few seemingly gratuitous appearances of the filmmaker—Breakfast in Kisumu is an important tribute to a father, and one who is representative of a generation who endured many unanticipated and painful exiles for nations and lands which did not always claim them, but for which they gave their lives.
As the final book Ajulu wrote before he died of cancer in 2016, Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State is informed by questions that, likely, the author grappled with throughout his life.
Against the impending 2022 Kenya general elections that are not cause for much inspiration —with the male dominated alliances, handshakes, intrigues and elite contestations that characterize it—Ajulu’s thesis still rings true: that the state is the primary vehicle for accumulation and thus engenders a predatory authoritarianism by those who want to control it.
After years in an exile(s) documented by Ajulu-Bushell’s film, I’m not sure how optimistic Ajulu was for our Kenyan future, for he wrote in his final book: “Besides the change of tenants at the state house, not much really changed. The mandarins who used to lord it over the hapless rank and file remained in their same old places.”
At the very least, this generation can turn to the histories Rok Ajulu has documented in his book, as well as those he lived, to reflect on how, for this election and the next, we are not just going to change the “tenants,” but will fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.
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