Two years on from the explosive and exhilarating Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin. This was the biggest social movement in American history. Millions of people took part in protests, marches and local rallies that spread across every state in the United States (US). In the US and the United Kingdom (UK), where the movement was biggest after the states, it was not just the big cities that answered the BLM rallying cry. Even predominantly white rural towns with little history of anti-racist struggles, such as Bethel, Ohio, a town of 3000 people or Haverford West, a Welsh market town, experienced protest.
Moreover, the international dimension of the movement meant that the banner Black Lives Matter was not only raised in white majority countries but also in the Global South. The biggest BLM protests in Africa were seen in Kenya and South Africa, while smaller yet significant mobilisations took place in other countries like Ghana and Uganda. So much so did Black Lives Matter resonate in Africa in 2020 that when the chairman of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat spoke out against the murder of George Floyd, he provoked widespread criticism against himself due to the brutality of police forces across the continent.
Despite all of this, two years on, a debate has emerged as to whether BLM achieved anything. For Elaine Browne, the former head of the Black Panther Party in the US, the movement is barely a movement and certainly isn’t worth celebrating as people weren’t willing to sacrifice their lives as her generation had in the Black Power movement. Cedric Johnson, author of The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now, instead has argued that BLM was a bulwark for neo-liberalism. Others are disheartened at the lack of concrete outcomes the movement produced. I disagree with these positions because BLM has had a massive impact on society.
Black Lives Matter Transformed How We Fight Racism
The movement achieved one of its primary aims – getting Derek Chauvin, the policeman who killed George Floyd, locked up on the charge of murder. While this is only the beginning of challenging police racism, we must remember that there was nothing automatic or inevitable about Chauvin’s charge. We know how rare it is to have police officers charged and sentenced for racist violence and murder, both in the US and the UK. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has radically transformed the terrain in which people understand and talk about racism, as well as making people feel more confident in challenging it. And this is the impact we have continued to see roll out two years on.
Let us remember the powerful response to the Child Q case. When news spread that a fifteen-year-old black female student was pulled out of an exam to be strip-searched by male police officers in Hackney, London, hundreds from the community, activists and crucially students, marched on two different days to the local police station. Among their demands for justice, they asked for the involved officers to be sacked. The widespread anger at the treatment of Child Q is in part what has forced the Met Police, alongside five other police forces in the UK, to be put under special measures at present.
The radical response to the Child Q case is not unique though. We have seen several spontaneous anti-racist mobilisations since Black Lives Matter that showcase the new layer of society radicalised against racism, as well as a new layer of activists within the movement. From the student protests and walk-outs at Pimlico Academy (South London) and City and Islington College (North London) to the anti-deportation protests in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Hackney and Peckham over the last two years, it’s evident there is a new and bigger layer of people confident and prepared to challenge racism. If the movement had no impact – to put it simply, the ruling classes wouldn’t be working so hard to undermine Black Lives Matter, something that happened from the very start of the movement and continues today. And we’ve seen this backlash in two ways: the ideological backlash and the backlash with repression.
Accommodation and Repression of the Movement
In the US, Biden has both openly opposed defunding the police and intensified his rhetoric of being tough on law and order, a green light to the right who treat protestors as violent, just as they did with the movement in 2020. This slander goes alongside the repression of Black Lives Matter activists. In the UK, we know that the Tories have been relentless in undermining the movement. They have produced the Sewell report, which denies the existence of institutional racism. Their education secretaries have dismissed calls to decolonise education and instead pushing for the positives of the British Empire to be taught.
As in the US, the UK’s Conservative party’s (The Tories) ideological attacks on the movement’s gains go hand in hand with their drive to ramp up the repression with the increasing of police powers through the expansion of Section 60, which allows police officers to stop and search anyone in a specific area without needing to have reasonable grounds. When we look at the vicious backlash of the ruling class to and since the Black Lives Matter movement, it becomes urgent that we not only celebrate the movement that threatens them so much, but that we also learn lessons from it to move forward.
The backlash from the ruling class and the other external pressures and challenges BLM faced meant that inevitably, debates emerged within the movement. Many of these debates continue today and are crucial to how the movement goes forward. Now, I talk in greater detail about these debates in my article in the International Socialism Journal, which I hope people will read, but I’d like to draw on a few of those debates briefly using the space I have here. While the issue of police violence toward black people was the igniting issue of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists proposed a plethora of solutions for dealing with police racism and brutality.
Firstly, even though ‘defund the police’ became a mainstream slogan of the movement, most people think we still need the police and so reject getting rid of them. Secondly, the slogan ‘defunding the police’ has proven to mean different things to different people. For some, it’s cutting police budgets or diverting funds away from the police into other areas. For others, the slogan is about abolishing the police. For example, in the wake of the 2020 protests, 77% of Americans understood defunding to mean changing the way the police operate, only 18% saw it as meaning abolishing the police.
Now, in some cities, the movement did succeed in beginning attempts to defund the police. But two years on, most cities that did so have largely reversed this process. More than that, where cities did reduce or divert sections of police budgets, this had no impact on the way the police operated as they were able to mitigate those cuts. In other words, we can see that it is meaningless to cut police budgets without thinking about wider changes to the police as an institution and wider challenges to institutional racism and inequality.
Flowing from that, we must look at the role of the police in society. The police have the function of suppressing ordinary people, working-class people to uphold a system where a tiny minority have privilege over us. That system has racism hardwired into it to divide and rule, that’s why it’s inseparably embedded into the police, which has the task of upholding that system. That’s why we need strategies that confront the police, not reconcile with them.
As with previous black liberation struggles, the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 faced enormous pressures to be incorporated into the state and respectable politics, mainly by the Democrats. Because the Black Lives Matter movement began under the Obama administration many looked to Joe Biden, who was a presidential candidate at the time of the protests, with suspicion. This suspicion often underpinned a more confrontational stance with the state and establishment for people within the movement: more protests, more occupations, more street protests.
Despite this, sections of the movement in 2020 did get pulled into throwing their weight toward Joe Biden’s election campaign against then-President Donald Trump. Moreover, Biden’s making Kamala Harris his vice-president was met with much enthusiasm by many. For that section of the BLM movement, the fact that Kamala Harris could become the first black female vice-president was enough to warrant its support.
However, as mentioned before, lots of people within the movement were wary of the Democrats and their tendency to co-opt and tame movements. And rightly so, people pointed out that Kamala Harris’ politics were dangerous to the movement. She failed to support independent investigations for police using deadly force, stood against the use of body cameras on police and recently opposed defunding the police. The divisions between those pulled behind the Democratic party and those wanting to continue confronting the state exacerbated the decline and fragmentation of the street movement. For revolutionary socialists, both here in the UK and in the US the Democrats are no friends to the movement. They are a political party of the ruling class. Their interest is to demobilise and deradicalise the movement. Any movement pushing forward means resisting this pressure.
The question of co-option versus confrontation with the state and establishment relates to how we organise, which we shall now consider here. In rejection of big parties and organisations, the ‘structurelessness’ and ‘leaderlessness’ of the BLM movement are often celebrated as a strength of the movement. And to a large degree, this is fair enough – these qualities helped enable the movement’s creativity, which in turn produced a whole new layer of activists.
But, as the writer Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor discusses in her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, strategies that seek to be structureless and non-hierarchical have the limitation of being unable to formulate clear, united demands, nor make decisive moves for the movement at key junctures. This in turn allows for fragmentation, as had happened to some degree in 2020 and an even greater degree in 2016. And while debates can be had on social media, through blogs and so on as to how the movement goes forward – this doesn’t mean these are effective ways for conclusions and decisive action to be decided.
I go into more depth in my article as to the question of how the movement should organise and whether it should be leaderless or structureless, but it’s worth noting here that this debate isn’t unique to the Black Lives Matter movement – it emerged within the recent climate movement, as well as in previous movements like the anti-capitalist movement.
Multiracial Character of the Movement
Now a big debate that I’ll just mention is the debate around the role of white people within the BLM movement. This question has come up in one form or another in every anti-racist movement. What was different about BLM was that the multiracial nature of the movement and its spread (to predominantly white towns) has meant that more people are asking whether white people can play more than just a peripheral and passive role in the fight against racism. This is a positive development because the fight against racism can’t just be left to black people – if racism is systemic, ending it will take the energy of more than just the people who face racism.
The multiracial character of the movement links to how the question of class featured strongly within the BLM movement. COVID-19 exposed the depth of systemic and structural racism, as well as where the real privilege lies in society – with the 1%. Many people saw for the first time how most of our lives are disposable for the good of profit, but racism puts the lives of black and brown people on the sharp end of that. That is the context that BLM emerged from as a powerful mass multiracial uprising in 2020. Class demands for Personal Protective Equipment and decent housing for all were at the centre of the protests and online discussions surrounding the movement. I was at the protests in London, chanting with thousands of others for ‘justice for Belly Mujinga’, a black women rail worker who died after being spat at by a man claiming to have coronavirus.
Significantly, the movement highlighted the intersection between race and class. That’s an important step towards the recognition that racism does not affect us all the same. The death of the railway worker Belly Mujinga, a Congolese woman working at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, did not just happen because she was black. It happened because she was a black worker, like many others often in frontline work which put them at greater risk of contracting Covid. The disproportionate deaths in general of people who are black and of other global majority backgrounds were not simply down to race, but the intersection between race and class – whether to do with work, overcrowded housing, poorer health rates and so on. Class shapes our experience of oppression, including racism.
As Marxists, we think class ultimately gives us the power to end oppression, including racism. Racism has been hardwired into capitalism from its infancy. It was born out of the Atlantic slave trade, persisted through the era of empire as a mechanism of dividing and ruling and extracting resources abroad and continues today to scapegoat migrants and refugees as a way of deflecting anger from the ruling classes (that is, the bosses and politicians, who squeeze most of us to make their profits and maintain their privilege in society).
At the same time, the ruling classes’ reliance on labour makes it vulnerable. Workers who form most of society are the source of its profits and crucial to the functioning of the capitalist system. So, when workers collectively fight back by using their ability to withdraw labour, they can bring the system to a standstill and the ruling classes to their knees. Being part of the working class gives black and brown people the power to end the system, which maintains itself through racial divisions. With Black Lives Matter in 2020, we witnessed a glimpse of the potential impact that working-class action could have on the scale, breadth and radicalisation of the movement. The high points of that movement included the 2020 Longshoreman strike on Juneteenth, where thousands of dock workers shut down the ports up and down the West Coast to protest police brutality and institutional racism.
We welcome this process. But for the movement to achieve fundamental change and raise a challenge to systemic racism, it must consistently base its strategy for change on the power of the working class. We have a huge opportunity to do this now – the recent railway strike in the UK led by black, migrant, and white workers, was an inspiring example. It has rocked the Tories. We must connect the radicalism of BLM with the power of the organised working class if we are to win fundamental change and stamp out racism across the world.
Click the link to read Nadia’s article online: “More than a moment: what did Black Lives Matter achieve” International Socialism Journal Issue 175, 2022.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven
From its beginnings as a fishing village, Lagos has grown into a large metropolis that attracts migrants seeking opportunity or Internally Displaced Persons fleeing violence.
Lagos, City of Migrants
From its origins as a fishing village in the 1600s, Lagos has urbanised stealthily into a vast metropolis, wielding extensive economic, political and cultural influence on Nigeria and beyond. Migration in search of opportunities has been the major factor responsible for the demographic and spatial growth of the city as Lagos has grown from 60,221 in 1872 to over 23 million people today. The expansion of the city also comes with tensions around indigene-settler dynamics, especially in accessing land, political influence and urban resources. There are also categories of migrants whose status determines if they can lay hold of the “urban advantage” that relocating to a large city offers.
A major impetus to the evolution of modern Lagos is the migration of diverse groups of people from Nigeria’s hinterland and beyond. By the 1800s, waves of migrants (freed slaves) from Brazil and Freetown had made their way to Lagos, while many from Nigeria’s hinterland including the Ekiti, Nupes, Egbas and Ijebus began to settle in ethnic enclaves across the city. In the 1900s, migrant enclaves were based on socio-economic and/or ethnicity status. Hausas (including returnees from the Burma war) settled in Obalende and Agege, while the Ijaw and Itsekiri settled in waterfront communities around Ajegunle and Ijora. International migrant communities include the Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaian, as well as large communities of Lebanese and Indian migrants. The names and socio-cultural mix in most Lagos communities derive from these historical migrant trajectories.
A study on coordinated migrations found that, as a destination city, Lagos grew 18.6 per cent between 2000 and 2012, with about 96 per cent of the migrants coming from within Nigeria. While migration to Lagos has traditionally been in search of economic opportunities, new classes of migrants have emerged over the last few decades. These are itinerant migrants and internally displaced persons.
Itinerant migrants are those from other areas of Nigeria and West Africa who travel to work in Lagos while keeping their families back home. Mobility cycles can be weekly, monthly or seasonal. Such migrants have no address in Lagos as they often sleep at their work premises or in mosques, saving all their earned income for remittance. They include construction artisans from Benin and Togo who come to Lagos only when they have jobs, farmers from Nigeria’s northern states who come to Lagos to work as casual labourers in between farming seasons (see box), as well as junior staff in government and corporate offices whose income is simply too small to cover the high cost of living in Lagos.
While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly. This is mostly because of the economic challenges Nigeria is currently facing that have crashed the Naira-to-CFA exchange rates. As a result, young men from Togo, Ghana and Benin are finding cities like Dakar and Banjul more attractive than Lagos.
Aliu* aka Mr Bushman, from Sokoto, Age 28
Aliu came to Lagos in 2009 on the back of a cattle truck. His first job was in the market carrying goods for market patrons. He slept in the neighbourhood mosque with other young boys. Over the years, he has done a number of odd jobs including construction work. In 2014, he started to work as a commercial motorcyclist (okada) and later got the opportunity to learn how to repair them. He calls himself an engineer and for the past four years has earned his income exclusively from riding and repairing okada. Even though he can afford to rent a room, he currently lives in a shared shack with seven other migrants.
He makes between N5000 and N8000 weekly and sends most of it to his family through a local transport operator who goes to Sokoto weekly. His wife and three children are in the village, but he would rather send them money than bring them to Lagos. According to him, “The life in Lagos is too hard for women”.
Since he came to Lagos thirteen years ago, Aliu has never spent more than four months away from Sokoto at a time. He stays in Sokoto during the rainy season to farm rice, maize and guinea corn, and has travelled back home to vote every time since he came to Lagos.
The second category of migrants are those who have been displaced from their homesteads in Northern Nigeria by conflict, either Boko Haram insurgency or invasions by Fulani herdsmen. The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee. With many who initially settled in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) dissatisfied with camp conditions, the burden of protracted displacement is now spurring a new wave of IDP migration to urban areas. Even though empirical data on the exact number of displaced persons migrating out of camps to cities is difficult to ascertain, it is obvious that this category of migrants are negotiating their access to the city and its resources in circumstances quite different from those of other categories of migrants.
IDPs as the emerging migrant class in Lagos
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, two of every three internally displaced persons globally are now living in cities. Evidence from Nigeria suggests that many IDPs are migrating to urban areas in search of relative safety and resettlement opportunities, with Lagos estimated to host the highest number of independent IDP migrants in the country. In moving to Lagos, IDPs are shaping the city in a number of ways including appropriating public spaces and accelerating the formation of new settlements.
There are three government-supported IDP camps in the city, with anecdotal evidence pointing to about eighteen informal IDP shack communities across the city’s peri-urban axis. This correlates with studies from other cities that highlight how this category of habitations (as initial shelter solutions for self-settled IDPs) accelerate the formation of new urban informal settlements and spatial agglomerations of poverty and vulnerability.
While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly.
IDPs in Lagos move around a lot. Adamu, who currently lives in Owode Mango—a shack community near the Lagos Free Trade zone—and has been a victim of forced eviction four times said, “As they [government or land owners] get ready to demolish this place and render us homeless again, we will move to another area and live there until they catch up with us.”
In the last ten years, there has been an increase in the number of homeless people on the streets of Lagos—either living under bridges, in public parks or incomplete buildings. Many of them are IDPs who are new migrants, and unable to access the support necessary to ease their entry into the city’s established slums or government IDP camps. Marcus, who came from Adamawa State in 2017 and has been living under the Obalende Bridge for five years, said, “I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.
Blending in or not: Urban integration strategies
Urban integration can be a real challenge for IDP migrants. Whereas voluntary migrants are often perceived to be legal entrants to the city and so can lay claim to urban resources, the same cannot be said about IDPs. Despite being citizens, and despite Nigeria being a federation, IDPs do not have the same rights as other citizens in many Nigerian cities and constantly face stigmatisation and harassment, which reinforces their penchant for enclaving.
The lack of appropriate documentation and skillsets also denies migrants full entry into the socio-economic system. For example, Rebekah said: “I had my WAEC [Senior Secondary school leaving certificate] results and when Boko Haram burnt our village, our family lost everything including my certificates. But how can I continue my education when I have not been able to get it? I have to do handwork [informal labour] now”. IDP children make up a significant proportion of out-of-school children in Lagos as many are unable to get registered in school simply because of a lack of address.
Most IDPs survive by deploying social capital—especially ethnic and religious ties. IDP ethnic groupings are quite organized; most belong to an ethnic-affiliated group and consider this as particularly beneficial to their resettlement and sense of identity in Lagos. Adamu from Chibok said, “When I come to Lagos in 2017, I come straight to Eleko. My brother [kinsman] help me with house, and he buy food for my family. As I no get work, he teach me okada work wey he dey do.”
The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee.
Interestingly, migration to the city can also be good for women as many who were hitherto unemployed due to cultural barriers are now able to work. Mary who fled Benue with her family due to farmer-herder clashes explained, “When we were at home [in Benue], I was assisting my husband with farming, but here in Lagos, I have my own small shop where I sell food. Now I have my own money and my own work.”
Need for targeted interventions for vulnerable Lagosians
“Survival of the fittest” is an everyday maxim in the city of Lagos. For migrants, this is especially true as they are not entitled to any form of structured support from the government. Self-settlement is therefore daunting, especially in light of systemic limiting factors.
Migrants are attracted to big cities based on perceived economic opportunities, and with limited integration, their survival strategies are inevitably changing the spatial configurations of Lagos. While the city government is actively promoting urban renewal, IDP enclaving is creating new slums. Therefore, addressing the contextualised needs of urban migrant groups is a sine qua non for inclusive and sustainable urban development.
“I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.
There is an established protocol for supporting international refugees. However, the same cannot be said for IDPs who are Nigerian citizens. They do not enjoy structured support outside of camps, and we have seen that camps are not an effective long-term solution to displacement. There is a high rate of IDP mobility to cities like Lagos, which establishes the fact that cities are an integral part of the future of humanitarian crisis. Their current survival strategies are not necessarily harnessing the urban advantage, especially due to lack of official recognition and documentation. It is therefore imperative that humanitarian frameworks take into account the role of cities and also the peculiarities of IDP migrations to them.
Lagos remains a choice destination city and there is therefore need to pay more attention to understanding the patterns, processes and implications of migration into the city. The paucity of migration-related empirical data no doubt inhibits effective planning for economic and social development. Availability of disaggregated migration data will assist the state to develop targeted interventions for the various categories of vulnerable Lagosians. Furthermore, targeted support for migrant groups must leverage existing social networks, especially the organised ethnic and religious groups that migrants lean on for entry into the city and for urban integration.
*All names used in this article are pseudonyms
It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It
Nurses are central to primary healthcare and unless Kenya makes investments in a well-trained, well supported and well-paid nursing workforce, nurses will continue to leave and the country is unlikely to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals in the area of health and wellbeing for all.
Nancy* is planning to leave Kenya. She wants to go to the United States where the nursing pastures are supposedly greener. I first met Nancy when the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic that tested Kenya’s healthcare system to breaking point. She was one of a cohort of recently graduated nurses that were hastily recruited by the Ministry of Health and thrown in at the deep end of the pandemic. Nancy earns KSh41,000 net with no other benefits whatsoever, unlike her permanent and pensionable colleagues.
When the then Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui announced in early September 2021 that the government would be sending 20,000 nurses to the United Kingdom to help address the nursing shortage in that country, Nancy saw her chance. But her hopes were dashed when she failed to raise the KSh90,000 she needed to prepare and sit for the English language and nursing exams that are mandatory for foreign-trained nurses. Nancy would also have needed to pay the Nursing Council of Kenya KSh12,000 for the verification of her documents, pay the Kenya Medical Training College she attended KSh1,000 in order to get her exam transcripts, and apply for a passport, the minimum cost of which is KSh4,550 excluding the administrative fee. Nancy says that, contrary to then Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s disputed claims that a majority of applicants to the programme had failed the English language test, most nurses simply could not afford the cost of applying.
Of the targeted 20,000 nurses, the first 19 left Kenya for the UK in June 2022. But even that paltry figure represents a significant loss for Kenya, a country where the ratio of practicing nurses to the population is 11.66 per 10,000. The WHO considers countries with less than 40 nurses and midwives for every 10,000 people to not have enough healthcare professionals. Nearly 60 per cent of all healthcare professionals (medical physicians, nursing staff, midwives, dentists, and pharmacists) in the world are nurses, making them by far the most prevalent professional category within the health workforce. Nurses offer a wide range of crucial public health and care services at all levels of healthcare facilities as well as within the community, frequently serving as the first and perhaps the only healthcare provider that people see.
The growing shortage of nurses in the UK has been blamed on the government’s decision to abolish bursaries and maintenance grants for nursing students in 2016, leading to a significant drop in the number of those applying to train as nurses. Consequently, the annual number of graduate nurses plummeted, reaching the current low of 31 nurses per 100,000 people, below the European average of 36.6 and half as many as in countries like Romania (96), Albania (82) and Finland (82). Facing pressure to recruit 50,000 nurses amid collapsing services and closures of Accident & Emergency, maternity and chemotherapy units across the country, the UK government decided to once again cast its net overseas. Established in 1948, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has relied on foreign healthcare workers ever since staff from the Commonwealth were first brought in to nurse back to health a nation fresh out of the Second World War.
The UK government’s press release announcing the signing of the Bilateral Agreement with Kenya states that the two countries have committed “to explore working together to build capacity in Kenya’s health workforce through managed exchange and training” and goes as far as to claim that “with around only 900 Kenyan staff currently in the NHS, the country has an ambition to be the ‘Philippines of Africa’ — with Filipino staff one of the highest represented overseas countries in the health service — due to the positive economic impact that well-managed migration can have on low to middle income countries.”
It is a dubious ambition, if indeed it has been expressed. The people of the Philippines do not appear to be benefiting from the supposed increase in capacity that the exchange and training is expected to bring. While 40,000 of their nurses worked in the UK’s National Health Service last year, back home, according to Filipino Senator Sonny Angara, “around 7 of 10 Filipinos die without ever seeing a health professional and the nurse to patient ratio in our hospitals remains high at 1:50 up to 1:802”.
Since 2003 when the UK and the government of the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the recruitment of Filipino healthcare professionals, an export-led industry has grown around the training of nurses in the Philippines that has attracted the increased involvement of the private sector. More nursing institutions — that have in reality become migrant institutions — are training nurses specifically for the overseas market, with the result that skills are matched to Western diseases and illnesses, leaving the country critically short of healthcare personnel. Already, in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.
It is difficult, then, to see how the Philippines is an example to emulate. Unless, of course, beneath the veneer of “partnership and collaboration in health”, lies the objective of exporting Kenyan nurses with increased diaspora remittances in mind – Kenyans in the UK sent KSh28.75 billion in the first nine months of 2022, or nearly half what the government has budgeted for the provision of universal health care to all Kenyans. If that is the case, how that care is to be provided without nurses is a complete mystery.
Already in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.
For the UK, on the other hand, importing nurses trained in Kenya is a very profitable deal. Whereas the UK government “typically spends at least £26,000, and sometimes far more, on a single nurse training post”, it costs only £10,000 to £12,000 to recruit a nurse from overseas, an externalization of costs that commodifies nurses, treating them like goods to be bought and sold.
However, in agreeing to the terms of the trade in Kenyan nurses, the two governments are merely formalizing the reality that a shortage of nurses in high-income countries has been driving the migration of nurses from low-income countries for over two decades now. Along with Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Kenya is one of the top 20 countries of origin of foreign-born or foreign-trained nurses working in the countries of the OECD, of which the UK is a member state.
Faced with this reality, and in an attempt to regulate the migration of healthcare workers, the World Health Assembly adopted the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Recruitment of Health Personnel in May 2010. The code, the adherence to which is voluntary, “provides ethical principles applicable to the international recruitment of health personnel in a manner that strengthens the health systems of developing countries, countries with economies in transition and small island states.”
Article 5 of the code encourages recruiting countries to collaborate with the sending countries in the development and training of healthcare workers and discourages recruitment from developing countries facing acute shortages. Given the non-binding nature of the code, however, and “the severe global shortage of nurses”, resource-poor countries, which carry the greatest disease burden globally, will continue to lose nurses to affluent countries. Wealthy nations will inevitably continue luring from even the poorest countries nurses in search of better terms of employment and better opportunities for themselves and their families; Haiti is on the list of the top 20 countries supplying the OECD region.
“Member States should discourage active recruitment of health personnel from developing countries facing critical shortages of health workers.”
Indeed, an empirical evaluation of the code four years after its adoption found that the recruitment of health workers has not undergone any substantial policy or regulatory changes as a direct result of its introduction. Countries had no incentive to apply the code and given that it was non-binding, conflicting domestic healthcare concerns were given the priority.
The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has developed its own code of practice under which the country is no longer recruiting nurses from countries that the WHO recognizes as facing health workforce challenges. Kenya was placed on the UK code’s amber list on 11 November 2021, and active recruitment of health workers to the UK was stopped “with immediate effect” unless employers had already made conditional offers to nurses from Kenya on or before that date. Presumably, the Kenyan nurses who left for the UK in June 2022 fall into this category.
In explaining its decision, the DHSC states that “while Kenya is not on the WHO Health Workforce Support & Safeguards List, it remains a country with significant health workforce challenges. Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”
The WHO clarifies that nothing in its Code of Practice should be interpreted as curtailing the freedom of health workers to move to countries that are willing to allow them in and offer them employment. So, even as the UK suspends the recruitment of Kenyan nurses, they will continue to find opportunities abroad as long as Western countries continue to face nurse shortages. Kenyan nurses will go to the US where 203,000 nurses will be needed each year up to 2026, and to Australia where the supply of nursing school graduates is in decline, and to Canada where the shortage is expected to reach 117,600 by 2030, and to the Republic of Ireland which is now totally dependent on nurses recruited from overseas and where working conditions have been described as “horrendous”.
“Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”
Like hundreds of other Kenyan-trained nurses then, Nancy will take her skills overseas. She has found a recruitment agency through which to apply for a position abroad and is saving money towards the cost. She is not seeking to move to the UK, however; Nancy has been doing her research and has concluded that the United States is a much better destination given the more competitive salaries compared to the UK where nurses have voted to go strike over pay and working conditions. When she finally gets to the US, Nancy will join Diana*, a member of the over 90,000-strong Kenyan diaspora, more than one in four of whom are in the nursing profession.
Now in her early 50s, Diana had worked for one of the largest and oldest private hospitals in Nairobi for more than 20 years before moving to the US in 2017. She had on a whim presented her training certificates to a visiting recruitment agency that had set up shop in one of Nairobi’s high-end hotels and had been shortlisted. There followed a lengthy verification process for which the recruiting agency paid all the costs, requiring Diana to only sign a contract binding her to her future US employer for a period of two years once she had passed the vetting process.
Speaking from her home in Virginia last week, Diana told me that working as a nurse in the US “is not a bed of roses”, that although the position is well paying, it comes with a lot of stress. “The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients,” she says, adding that in such an environment fatal mistakes are easily made. Like the sword of Damocles, the threat of losing her nursing licence hangs over Diana’s head every day that she takes up her position at the nursing station.
“The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients.”
Starting out as an Enrolled Nurse in rural Kenya, Diana had over the years improved her skills, graduating as a Registered Nurse before acquiring a Batchelor of Science in Nursing from a top private university in Kenya, the tuition for which was partially covered by her employer.
Once in the US, however, her 20 years of experience counted for nothing and she was employed on the same footing as a new graduate nurse, as is the case for all overseas nurses moving to the US to work. Diana says that, on balance, she would have been better off had she remained at her old job in Kenya where the care is better, the opportunities for professional growth are greater and the work environment well controlled. But like many who have gone before her, Diana is not likely to be returning to Kenya any time soon.
*Names have been changed.
Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance
In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner.
Even before the 9 August general election, it was expected that the loser of the Kenyan presidential contest would petition the Supreme Court to arbitrate over the outcome. Predictably, the losing party, Azimio La Umoja-One Kenya Coalition, petitioned the court to have William Ruto’s win nullified on various procedural and technical grounds. Azimio’s case was predicated on, among others, three key allegations. First, that William Ruto failed to garner the requisite 50 per cent plus one vote. Second, that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati had announced the outcome without tallying and verifying results from seven constituencies. Finally, that the commission could not account for 250,000 votes that were cast electronically.
As we know, Azimio lost the case as the judges dismissed all the nine petitions that the party had filed, unanimously finding that William Ruto had won fairly.
Adjudicating electoral fallouts
Since its inception in 2010, the Supreme Court has played a decisive role in adjudicating fallouts linked to contentious presidential politics in Kenya, with the court deliberating on the outcome of three out of the four presidential elections held after its inauguration. Prior to this, the losing party had no credible institutional mechanism of redress and electoral disputes were generally resolved through mass political action (as in 2007) or consistent questioning of the legitimacy of the winner (as in 1992 and 1997).
The Supreme Court’s presence has, therefore, been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent, with the court operating as a “safety valve” to diffuse political tensions linked to presidential elections. It is, hence, impossible to conceive of the relatively peaceful elections held in 2013, 2017 and 2022 without the Supreme Court whose mere presence has been key in discouraging some of the more deadly forms of political rivalry previously witnessed in Kenya.
While the Azimio leadership were right to petition the court in the recent election, first because this successfully diffused the political tensions among their supporters, and second because the court was expected to provide directions on IEBC conduct in future elections, it was clear that Raila Odinga’s relentless petitioning of the court in the previous two elections, and the nullification of the 2017 elections, was in essence going to be a barrier to a successful petition in 2022.
In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner. The relentless petitioning of the court and the nullification of the 2017 elections had in essence raised the bar for the burden of proof, which lay with the petitioner(s) and, therefore, reduced the probability of a successful petition.
The Supreme Court’s presence has been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent.
The reason for this is both legal and political. Legal in the sense that the IEBC is expected to conduct the elections under the law, which, among other issues, requires that the electoral process be credible and the results verifiable before any certification is made, otherwise the election is nullified, as was the case in 2017. It is political because the power to select the president is constitutionally, hence politically, delegated to the Kenyan people through the ballot, unless electoral fraud infringes on this, again as was the case in 2017.
The court in its deliberation must, therefore, balance the legal-political trade-off in its verdict in search of a plausible equilibrium. For instance, while the majority of Azimio supporters had anticipated a successful petition based on the public walkout and dissent by the four IEBC commissioners, it seems that the decision to uphold the results displayed the court’s deference to political interpretation of the law by issuing a ruling that did not undermine the Kenyan voters’ right to elect their president.
While the settlement of legal-political disputes by a Supreme/Constitutional court is a common feature across democracies, and continuously being embedded in emerging democracies like Kenya, it does seem that in this election, the political motivations for upholding the vote outweighed the legal motivations for nullifying it. In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.
Supreme Court power grab
A counterfactual outcome where the evidential threshold for the nullification of presidential results is low would foster a Supreme Court power grab, in lieu with the 2017 nullification, by marginalising the sovereign will of Kenyans to elect their president.
In many ways, nullification of the results would also have incentivised further adversarial political behaviour where every electoral outcome is contested in the Supreme Court even when the outcome is relatively clean, as in the case of the 2022 elections.
It is this reason (among others) that we think underlined the Supreme Court justices’ dismissal of Azimio’s recent petition. The justices ultimately dismissed the evidence presented by the petitioners as “hot air, outright forgeries, red herring, wild goose chase and unproven hypotheses”, setting a clear bar for the standard of evidence they expect in order to deliberate over such an important case in the future.
In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.
Since the earth-shaking nullification of the 2017 elections, the Supreme Court transcended an epoch, more political than legal by “invading” the sovereign space for Kenyans to elect their president, thereof setting a precedence that any future successful petition to contest a presidential election requires watertight evidence.
In a sense, Azimio were victims of Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the successful 2017 petition. In so far as the evidence submitted to the Supreme Court by Azimio in 2022 was at the same level or even lower than the 2017 base, their case at the Supreme Court was very likely to be dismissed and even ridiculed as the justices recently did.
The precedent set by the 2022 ruling will, actually, yield two positive political outcomes. First, it will in the future weed out unnecessary spam petitions that lack evidence and rather increase needless political tensions in the country. Second, it has signalled to future petitioners, that serious deliberations will only be given to petitions backed by rock-solid evidence.
From the recent ruling, it is evident that the judgement fell far below the precedent set in 2017. The 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the IEBC should make the servers containing Form 34A publicly available, was crucial in improving the credibility of the 2022 elections, by democratising the tallying process. At a minimum, the expectation was that the justices would provide a directive on the recent public fallout among the IEBC commissioners with regard to future national tallying and announcement of presidential results.
By dismissing the fallout as a mere corporate governance issue, the justices failed to understand the political ramifications of the “boardroom rupture”. What are we to do in the future if the IEBC Chair rejects the results and the other commissioners validate the results as credible?
Additionally, by ridiculing the petitioners as wild goose chasers and dismissing the evidence as “hot air”, the justices failed to maintain the amiable judicial tone necessary to decompress and assuage the bitter grievances among losers in Kenya high-octane political environment.
In a sense, Azimio were victims of Mr Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the 2017 successful petition.
The Supreme Court ought to resist the temptations of trivializing electoral petitions, as this has the potential of triggering democratic backsliding, where electoral losers might opt for extra-constitutional means of addressing their grievances as happened in December 2007. It is not in the petitioners’ place to ascertain whether their evidence is “hot air” or not, but for the court to do so, and in an amiable judicial tone that offers reconciliation in a febrile political environment.
The precedent set by the 2017 ruling that clarified the ambiguities related to the IEBC’s use of technology to conduct elections, set an incremental pathway towards making subsequent elections credible and fair, and increased public trust in the key electoral institutions in Kenya.
The justices, therefore, need to understand that their deliberations hold weight in the public eye and in the eyes of political leaders. Therefore, outlining recommendations to improve the IEBC’s conduct in future elections is a bare minimum expectation among Kenyans. In this case, while they provided some recommendations, they failed to comprehensively address the concerns around the walk-out by the four IEBC commissioners.
At the minimum, chastising the IEBC conduct was necessary to consolidate the electoral gains made thus far but also recalibrate institutional imperfections linked to how elections are to be conducted and, especially, contestations around the role of the commissioners in the national tallying of results in the future.
This article is part of our project on information and voter behaviour in the 2022 Kenyan elections. The project is funded by the Centre for Governance and Society, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.
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