The glimmer of hope that came from the joint announcement by United States and European Union Special Envoys that negotiations to end the war on Tigray would begin, the siege lifted and humanitarian access fully granted, is now dimmed by the recent relapse to war. The many people who were sceptical about the start of the talks are not surprised by this resumption of the war that will consume many more young lives. Reports of killings of children in Mekelle through indiscriminate aerial bombardment and drone strikes add more setbacks to the commencement of negotiations.
A further hindrance has been the insistence that the African Union (AU) mediator, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, remain involved in the process despite the reservations of a key party to the negotiations. In order to prevent further bloodshed, the honourable thing for former president Obasanjo to do is to resign.
The AU needs to avoid political wrangling with Tigray about keeping its mediator and instead focus on fast-tracking the appointment of a new envoy who has the approval of all parties, and begin negotiations on substantive politico-military agenda items.
As the war on Tigray approaches its second year, Ethiopian, Amhara, and Eritrean forces still control some areas of the region. Legitimately expected and essential public services such as ground and air transportation, electricity, telecommunications, banking services, and fuel deliveries, remain blocked. Humanitarian assistance has been reduced to a trickle despite the readiness of the UN and other agencies to supply aid. It would seem that the aim is to exterminate Tigrayans by starving them to death.
The continued lack of progress in implementing confidence and trust-building measures (primarily, an end to aid blockages, the lifting of the siege, the resumption of all public services and the withdrawal of forces from Tigrayan territory) has resulted in a dangerous waiting game. The statements by the envoys have become meaningless.
Without the lifting of the siege, it is highly likely that fighting will resume at the slightest provocation. This waiting game could constitute a “slow death” for Tigrayans – an abominable result that should be rejected. The relapse into military confrontation is disastrous for the long-suffering people of Tigray who have already gone through unimaginable suffering, for the people of Ethiopia and for any hope of peace in the Horn of Africa. Everyone, including the AU mediator, should be working tirelessly to avoid such an outcome.
It is important to note here that empires do not collapse overnight. What is at stake is nothing but the survival of the Ethiopian state, with dreadful implications for its 110 million population and for the Horn of Africa region. The AU Commission leaders knew about the war, the atrocities and Eritrea’s full involvement, but they remained silent and later provided tacit legal cover-up. The failure of African leaders to intervene rapidly and de-link an individual mediator from the process will render AU irrelevant in the resolution of the war on Tigray.
Why should Obasanjo resign?
Mediation is only as effective as the political will and trust the parties invest in ending the conflict. The mediator is the guarantor of the parties’ trust in the process. According to the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation, the “acceptability of the mediator and the mediating entity” are critical factors in determining the success of the process. Mr Obasanjo neither inspires trust nor satisfies the other criteria of a mediator, as outlined by the UN.
The ‘non-rejectability’ test
The UN states that mediation is a voluntary process that requires the consent of the parties to the conflict to be effective. Without consent, it is unlikely that parties will negotiate in good faith or be committed to the mediation process. A mediator cannot be imposed on the parties to negotiation; he or she must get their unreserved consent before the appointment. In other words, the choice of a mediator needs to pass the “non-rejectability” test.
Mr Obasanjo fails to pass this test, as Tigray has expressly rejected his role as mediator.
Impartiality, in appearance and in fact
The UN further states that “impartiality is a cornerstone of mediation – if a mediation process is perceived to be biased, this can undermine meaningful progress to resolve the conflict”.
Impartiality, both in fact and in appearance, is an essential requirement for a mediator. The principle of omni-partiality requires that the mediator is always on both sides of the negotiation to guide the parties to points of agreement and narrow areas of divergence. Thus, an accusation against, or even a reservation regarding the mediator’s impartiality by parties to the negotiation is a sufficient condition for the mediator to step aside. Whether the partiality is real or perceived does not matter, as reservations of this kind damage confidence in the mediator and undermine trust in the mediation process.
Several factors place the impartiality of Obasanjo in serious question. He was appointed by the leadership of the AU Commission, which has been accused of taking a partisan position on the war on Tigray. Furthermore, he served as head of the AU Election Observation Mission during the August 2020 elections in Ethiopia, which were denounced and boycotted by the Tigray government and other Ethiopian forces. Despite this, Obasanjo’s team judged the election to be free and fair, thereby endorsing the rejected polls.
“Impartiality is a cornerstone of mediation – if a mediation process is perceived to be biased, this can undermine meaningful progress to resolve the conflict”.
Moreover, once appointed as mediator, Mr Obasanjo failed to ensure impartiality, both in appearance and in fact. He has conducted official and publicly televised visits with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, to areas and regarding issues that have nothing to do with the mediation. The aim of these visits has been to showcase the country’s “progress” and convey an aura of “stability” and “development” at a time when Ethiopia is facing its highest number of deaths and displacements yet due to conflict and starvation, with an economy that is in free fall.
In addition, reports indicate that Obasanjo enjoys unique access to the highest levels of the Ethiopian government – a privilege not granted to other diplomats. Obasanjo should have avoided the social and publicity events that show him to be overly close to one of the parties to the mediation. These visits have been perceived as illustrations of the “proximity of the High Representative to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia”.
Moreover, his efforts thus far have yielded no concrete outcomes. On the contrary, his pronouncements and actions have created even more confusion. In a BBC interview, Obasanjo backed a stance that makes lifting the siege and the humanitarian blockade a precondition for the start of negotiations – a position that the Ethiopian government believes is its only leverage over Tigray. Linking the provision of humanitarian aid to millions of civilians with peace negotiations is contrary to international human rights and humanitarian laws.
While the cardinal rule of a mediator is to objectively understand both the context and specificity of a conflict, Obasanjo is already armed with prescriptive templates that narrowly profile the resolutions of the conflicts in Ethiopia and, in particular, Tigray, Oromia, Gambella, Benishangul and Gumuz. Perhaps more concerning is Obasanjo’s recent brief to the AU’s Peace and Security Council. The report characterizes the armed conflicts in Ethiopia as “internal ethnic tensions in western Ethiopia; on and off tensions between Eritrea and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); recent deteriorating security situation between Ethiopia and Sudan over alleged skirmishes at the common border; reports of the arrest of suspects allegedly plotting terror attacks in Addis Ababa; and the attacks by al Shabaab in the Ferfer district of Ethiopia near the border with Somalia.”
While supporting the negotiations with Tigray, Obasanjo proposes “re-establishing strained intercommunal relations” to address armed conflicts in parts of the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. Does this mean the armed conflicts outside Tigray could be dealt with within the current dialogue, and not through negotiations?
Obasanjo’s report dramatically underplays the war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide caused by the nationwide internal and war on Tigray, and grossly underreports their true human and economic costs. The internal wars within Ethiopia, the intervention by Eritrean armed forces, and the armed conflict with Sudan in the border areas and Al Shabaab in the Somali region have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced more than six million people. More than half a million lives have been lost in the war on Tigray. Obasanjo has shown no genuine interest in the atrocities committed by Eritrea, accountability, and reparations for the victims of the war. His report fails to express empathy and demonstrate solidarity with victims of the war.
Obasanjo is already armed with prescriptive templates that narrowly profile the resolutions of the conflicts in Ethiopia.
After expressing doubts about the impartiality and integrity of Obasanjo and the lack of consultation regarding his appointment by the AU in the first letter written to the UN Security Council on 23 August 2021, the Tigrayan government announced that it would “only accept impartial and neutral mediators and not those that have displayed partiality towards the Government of Ethiopia. Those who endorsed the war on Tigray publicly or tacitly supported and attempted to bestow credibility to the sham elections conducted in June 2021 will not be accepted by the Government of Tigray”.
It further accused the AU of failing “to rise to the occasion when the war broke. They abandoned their core mandate of preventing the war when the Government of Tigray repeatedly appealed for their preventive diplomacy before and in the early stages of the war. The AU was proven incapable of pronouncing itself when combined Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces aided by non-African forces invaded Tigray and committed atrocious crimes. The Government of Tigray is deeply disappointed by Mr Moussa Faki, AU Commission Chairperson, who even went further to endorse the genocide and war on Tigray officially. The Government of Tigray strongly believes that the AU cannot provide any solution to the war in Tigray, which it has officially endorsed”. It added that “the Government of Tigray reserves its right to reject any imposition of mediation without prior substantive consultations”.
In a recent open letter, the President of Tigray accused the AU of betraying the foundational principles of the Union. “The silence of the African Union over the war and the atrocities perpetrated by the forces ranged against us was a betrayal of the Foundational Principles of the Union. We have consistently condemned the failure of the African Union Chairperson and his High Representative to take a position consistent with their solemn obligations under the Constitutive Act of the Union, the Protocol establishing the Peace and Security Council, and a host of other commitments entered into. In the considered view of the People and Government of Tigray, the leadership of the African Union Commission has yet to redeem its failures and restore our trust.” This latest letter from the president was the final nail in the coffin of Obasanjo’s mediation role. Tigray has decided that Obasanjo is not impartial enough to mediate the war.
Possibly due to pressure from the regimes in Addis Ababa and Asmara, the Obasanjo brief recommends inviting Eritrea into the mediation effort, requesting the AU Commission “to extend a formal invitation to the Republic of Eritrea to join ongoing AU-led efforts aimed at finding lasting diplomatic solutions to the conflict between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF”. The brief notes that “Eritrea has sided with Ethiopia in the conflict with TPLF,” significantly underreporting the role that Eritrea played and is still playing as an omnipotent foreign force in the war on Tigray. It then states that “realities continue to prove that brokering genuine peace between Addis Ababa and Mekelle requires the involvement of Asmara.”
The proposal reveals the inconsistencies of the AU’s position on the war on Tigray. Despite the presence of incontrovertible evidence since the beginning of the war, the AU has long maintained a policy of silence and turned a blind eye to the major role of the Eritrean armed forces in the war on Tigray and the ensuing atrocities. This policy of ignoring Eritrea’s destructive role in Ethiopia’s current conflicts is to be contrasted with the EU and US positions, which publicly confirmed the participation of Eritrean armed forces in the war on Tigray and called for their immediate withdrawal and for perpetrators to be held accountable. The US government went further to issue an executive order that sanctioned the Eritrean regime for the atrocities in Tigray.
Without mentioning Eritrea’s role in the war on Tigray, the reasons forwarded to justify its involvement in the mediation speak volumes about the AU’s inability to master the intricacies of Ethiopian, Tigrayan, and Eritrean relations, or to decipher where Obasanjo’s actual bias lies. What is more, if the AU were to endorse such a recommendation, it would fly in the face of everything the AU stands for.
The AU was proven incapable of pronouncing itself when combined Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces aided by non-African forces invaded Tigray and committed atrocious crimes.
Furthermore, with the proposal to invite Eritrea into the negotiations, the AU mediation is entering a legal minefield. As with previous statements by the AU Commission, the Obasanjo report mentions nothing about the circumstances and legality of the Eritrean armed forces’ entry into the war, nor of the crucial role they played. While the Ethiopian government had not made an official statement inviting Eritrea’s intervention, Eritrea, along with the Amhara and Ethiopian forces, played a crucial part in the execution of the war on Tigray.
For many months, and despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied the participation of Eritrean soldiers in the conflict. Eritrea also vehemently denied its involvement. This suddenly changed on 23 March 2021, when the Prime Minister cautiously admitted before parliament that Eritrean forces had been in Tigray since the beginning of the conflict. Eritrea then followed suit. Both parties, by and large, hinted that Eritrea had sent its forces to Tigray in self-defence, without providing further details. These admissions did not clarify whether Ethiopia had invited the Eritrean forces into Tigray. What is clear, nonetheless, is that Ethiopia has never openly criticized the Eritrean intervention or the atrocities Eritrean forces have been accused of committing in Tigray, much less demanded that these forces leave Tigray. In addition, Eritrea still occupies certain areas of Tigray and is heavily deployed alongside the federal and Amhara forces in west Tigray.
In light of these developments, it is apparent that the Eritrean forces are working closely with the federal government forces. This has also been established by independent investigations, including by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which showed that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces regularly conduct joint operations. Thus, the war on Tigray is not an international armed conflict where internationally recognized states use force against each other.
Eritrea’s involvement, as such, does not change the situation into that of international armed conflict, as it is helping the Ethiopian government and its allies.
Since Tigray is not an independent country, it has no business negotiating with any entity except the federal government of Ethiopia. The negotiation is an internal Ethiopian issue. Although this fact is easily overlooked, the negotiations will determine Tigray’s relations with Ethiopia, not (or only indirectly) with Eritrea. There is no legal basis to involve Eritrea in the mediation effort without the consent of the negotiating parties.
In addition to the legal, practical, and ethical considerations, on what political basis should Eritrea take part in mediations to resolve the causes of an internal war in Ethiopia?
The Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara governments grew very close during the months before the war on Tigray. They have a shared antagonism towards Tigray and its government. The Ethiopian regime allowed Eritrean forces to kill, displace, destroy, and commit atrocities in Tigray. Eritrea has few allies – the Ethiopian and Amhara governments are the only two in the region – and it will sacrifice its own people to avoid losing these two newly made friends. The regime in Asmara thrives only in a region that is besieged with instability, not a peaceful one, let alone a successful one. The very mediation effort between Tigray and Ethiopia threatens the Eritrean regime. A successful peaceful resolution of the war between Tigray and Ethiopia has the potential to unravel the entirety of Eritrea’s regional influence after the end of the triumvirate Abiy–Isaias–Farmaajo security pact. Thus, Eritrea is the most significant threat to the mediation process.
The negotiations will, among others, look at Ethiopia’s relations with neighbouring countries bordering Tigray, including Eritrea and Sudan. The post-war future of Ethiopia will determine how Eritrea will interact with Tigray. That’s why Obasanjo’s suggestion to invite Eritrea to the negotiation table never boded well for Tigray. While Ethiopia may welcome this, for Tigray it is likely to be a non-starter. There is no reason why Eritrea should have the unique privilege of being invited to a negotiation process that will define Tigray’s relations with Ethiopia.
With the proposal to invite Eritrea into the negotiations, the AU mediation is entering a legal minefield.
The same Obasanjo brief mentions that “unresolved disputes between Ethiopia and Sudan over the Al-Fashaqa area remain a source of tension . . . with Ethiopia accusing its neighbour of harbouring elements of the TPLF in its territories”. Thus, in applying the same logic, one is forced to ask why Obasanjo did not propose to invite Sudan – which, according to the report, supports Tigray – to the mediation table. Why extend an invitation to Eritrea but not Sudan? With Eritrea, Sudan, and more countries at the table, the mediation will only become more complex and unlikely to bear any peace.
In mediation parlance, impartiality is often ensured by objectively answering the big question: has the mediator passed the non-rejectability test, which requires that parties to the conflict must unreservedly consent to the mediator’s role? Is the mediator impartial? In principle and practice, a mediator’s credibility is beyond redemption once he/she is perceived as partisan by any of the parties to the conflict. This principle is not only informed by but also consistent with African mediation experience. Obasanjo himself has become an issue in this process, and he needs to recuse himself for the sake of peace in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. When the mediator’s impartiality comes into question, or even when a mediation effort lacks progress, or any of the conflicting parties refuse to cooperate, the long-standing practice is for the mediator to resign. The experiences of Said Dijinnit in the Burundi mediation, and Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi in the Syria process are instructive. Never before has a mediator insisted on staying put when one of the parties has opposed their participation. What explains Obasanjo’s unprecedented inclination to remain as a mediator contrary to established principles and practices?
What is to be done?
As a mediator, Obasanjo’s impartiality has been questioned by one of the parties, and it is only natural that he should step aside. His resignation would help avoid unnecessary political wrangling, prevent forum shopping, fast-track the selection of new mediators, and commence the negotiation on substantive agenda items.
The AU has no legal or political basis for ignoring Tigray’s position and has no right – legal or political – for opposing the selection of a mutually agreeable mediator. The AU must prevent the current rhetoric from becoming a political handicap, rendering the body irrelevant to the resolution of the war on Tigray.
A new mediator needs to be appointed quickly with the consultation and consent of all parties.
Mediating such a war requires neutrality, impartiality, undivided attention, and freedom of action unencumbered by institutional and individual conflicts of interest. Thus, the full-time availability of the mediators is a prerequisite for the successful engagement of the parties. An additional prerequisite for a successful mediation is a deep understanding of the context of the war on Tigray, the crises in Ethiopia, and the situation in the Horn of Africa, a quality some of the potential mediators possess.
Negotiations also require enforcement mechanisms and punitive measures against spoilers and violators of agreements. These necessitate strong government backing by states with influence with both parties as guarantors of such a process.
So far, none of the parties has rejected Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s offer to lead the mediation. As an outgoing president he remains a viable option if the incoming government of Kenya, the AU, IGAD, and the UN were to support him. Given that he has been officially engaging the parties with the support of international actors, continuing what he has started would allow the smooth and speedy resumption of mediation.
A successful peaceful resolution of the war between Tigray and Ethiopia has the potential to unravel the entirety of Eritrea’s regional influence.
Given that state backing is crucial to any mediator’s success, political, diplomatic, and financial support for the office of the mediator, as well as the AU, IGAD, UN, EU, US and China is necessary. If for any reason President Uhuru is unable to take up the role, there are several other potential mediators that could be acceptable to and possess leverage with both parties and the international community. As is often the case, the US and EU may not explicitly show their preference on this and other matters related to the mediation to avoid being accused of undermining AU and African mediation efforts.
At the same time, to avoid competing and fragmented mediations, it is crucial to ensure that there is only a single mediation process. A consultative approach helps to avoid parallel initiatives and build confidence.
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Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The East African Community (EAC), whose goal is to achieve economic and political federation, brings together three former British colonies – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – and newer members Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Somalia first applied to join the EAC in 2012 but with fighting still ongoing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, joining the bloc was impossible at the time. Eleven years later, joining the bloc would consolidate the significant progress in governance and security and, therefore, Somalia should be admitted into the EAC without undue delay. This is for several reasons.
First, Somalia’s admission would be built on an existing foundation of goodwill that the current leadership of Somalia and EAC partner states have enjoyed in the recent past. It is on the basis of this friendship that EAC states continue to play host to Somali nationals who have been forced to leave their country due to the insecurity resulting from the prolonged conflict. In addition, not only does Somalia share a border with Kenya, but it also has strong historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural links with all the other EAC partner states in one way or another.
Dr Hassan Khannenje of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies said: ”Somalia is a natural member of the EAC and should have been part of it long ago.”
A scrutiny of all the EAC member states will show that there is a thriving entrepreneurial Somali diaspora population in all their economies. If indeed the EAC is keen to realise its idea of the bloc being a people-centred community as opposed to being a club of elites, then a look at the spread of Somali diaspora investment in the region would be a start. With an immense entrepreneurial diaspora, Somalia’s admission will increase trading opportunities in the region.
Second, Somalia’s 3,000 km of coastline (the longest in Africa) will give the partner states access to the Indian Ocean corridor to the Gulf of Aden. The governments of the EAC partner states consider the Indian Ocean to be a key strategic and economic theatre for their regional economic interests. Therefore, a secure and stable Somali coastline is central to the region’s maritime trade opportunities.
Despite possessing such a vast maritime resource, the continued insecurity in Somalia has limited the benefits that could accrue from it. The problem of piracy is one example that shows that continued lawlessness along the Somali coast presents a huge risk for all the states that rely on it in the region.
The importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean has seen Kenya and Somalia square it out at the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute.
Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group said that ”Somalia joining the EAC then might present an opportunity to discuss deeper cooperation frameworks within the bloc, including around the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute. The environment was not as conducive to collaboration before, and perhaps it explains why the ICJ came in. Integrating into the EAC potentially offers an opportunity to de-escalate any remaining tensions and in turn, focus on developing mechanisms that can be beneficial for the region.”
Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist in the region, said: “The East African states along the East African coast are looking for opportunities to play a greater role in the maritime security to the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Somalia joining the EAC bloc will allow them to have a greater say.”
Third, Somalia’s membership of the Arab League means that there is a strong geopolitical interest from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, Somalia stands to gain more in the long-term by joining the EAC rather than being under the control of the Gulf states and, to a large extent, Turkey. This is because, historically, competing interests among the Gulf states have contributed to the further balkanisation of Somalia by some members supporting breakaway regions.
On the other hand, the EAC offers a safer option that will respect Somalia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, EAC partner states have stood in solidarity with Somalia during the difficult times of the civil conflict, unlike the Gulf states. The majority of the troop-contributing countries for the African Union Mission to Somalia came from the EAC partner states of Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. Despite having a strategic interest in Somalia, none of the Gulf states contributed troops to the mission. Therefore, with the expected drawdown of the ATMIS force in Somalia, the burden could fall on the EAC to fill in the vacuum. Building on the experience of deploying in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is highly likely that it could be called upon to do the same in Somalia when ATMIS exits by 2024.
The presence of the Al Shabaab group in Somalia is an albatross around its neck such that the country cannot be admitted into the EAC without factoring in the risks posed by the group.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the government of Somalia must move to consolidate these gains – especially in central Somalia – as it continues with its offensive in other regions. However, Somalia may not prevail over the Al Shabaab on its own; it may require a regional effort and perhaps this is the rationale some policymakers within the EAC have envisioned. If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
Somalia’s admission comes with risks too. Kenya and Uganda have in the past experienced attacks perpetrated by Al Shabaab and, therefore, opening up their borders to Somalia is seen as a huge risk for these countries. The spillover effect of the group’s activities creates a lot of discomfort among EAC citizens, in particular those who believe that the region remains vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks.
If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
The EAC Treaty criteria under which a new member state may be admitted into the community include – but are not limited to – observance and practice of the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. Critics believe that Somalia fulfils only one key requirement to be admitted to the bloc – sharing a border with an EAC partner state, namely, Kenya. On paper, it seems to be the least prepared when it comes to fulfilling the other requirements. The security situation remains fragile and the economy cannot support the annual payment obligations to the community.
According to the Fragility State Index, Somalia is ranked as one of the poorest among the 179 countries assessed. Among the key pending issues is the continued insecurity situation caused by decades of civil war and violent extremism. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch ranks Somalia low on human rights and justice – a breakdown of government institutions has rendered them ineffective in upholding the human rights of its citizens.
Somalia’s citizens have faced various forms of discrimination due to activities beyond their control back in their country. This has led to increasingly negative and suspicious attitudes towards Somalis and social media reactions to the possibility of Somalia joining the EAC have seen a spike in hostility towards citizens of Somalia. The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Nicodemus Minde, an academic on peace and security, agrees that indeed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes will shape their behaviour towards Somalia’s integration. He argues that ”the admission of Somalia is a rushed process because it does not address the continued suspicion and negative perception among the EAC citizens towards the Somali people. Many citizens cite the admission of fragile states like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a gateway of instability to an already unstable region”.
Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the EAC has been how to involve the citizens in their activities and agenda. To address this challenge, Dr Minde says that ’’the EAC needs to conduct a lot of sensitisation around the importance of integration because to a large extent many EAC citizens have no clue on what regional integration is all about”. The idea of the EAC being a people-centred organisation as envisioned in the Treaty has not been actualised. The integration process remains very elitist as it is the heads of state that determine and set the agenda.
The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Khannenje offers a counter-narrative, arguing that public perception is not a major point of divergence since “as the economies integrate deeper, some of these issues will become easy to solve”. There are also those who believe that the reality within the EAC is that every member state has issues with one or the other partner state and, therefore, Somalia will be in perfect company.
A report by the Economic Policy Research Centre outlines the various avenues through which both the EAC and Somalia can benefit from the integration process and observes that there is therefore a need to fast-track the process because the benefits far outweigh the risks.
EAC integration is built around the spirit of good neighbourliness. It is against this backdrop that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has extended the goodwill to join the EAC and therefore, it should not be vilified and condemned, but rather embraced. As Onyango Obbo has observed, Somalia is not joining the EAC – Somalia is already part of the EAC and does not need any formal welcoming.
Many critics have argued that the EAC has not learnt from the previous rush to admit conflict-plagued South Sudan and the DRC. However, the reality is that Somalia will not be in conflict forever; at some point, there will be tranquillity and peace. Furthermore, a keen look at the history of the EAC member states shows that a number of them have experienced cycles of conflict in the past.
Somalia is, therefore, not unique. Internal contradictions and conflict are some of the key features that Somalia shares with most of the EAC member states. The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should, therefore, be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.
Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.
When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.
Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.
When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.
Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.
Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.
Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.
Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.
24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.
“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.
Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.
Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.
If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.
One couple’s story
Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.
The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.
Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.
I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)
I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.
At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.
Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller. The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”
To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger. They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”
The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat. Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers. As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey. It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”
On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.
“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing. But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest. I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.
“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”
“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.
“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded. Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights. The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”
At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard. “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.) Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.
Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country. In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years. What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself. Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar. But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff. One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child. Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”
“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.
I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.
I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”
Making sense of the world
World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.
Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.
This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.
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