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From Paranoia to Process: The Future of African Migration

10 min read.

Human history is a record of mass migrations and evolutionary importance of migration remains undiminished. On today’s crowded planet demanding creative solutions, coevolutionary processes across system scales from local to global are the contemporary equivalent of bipedalism.



From Paranoia to Process: The Future of African Migration
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Our hominin ancestors descended from the canopy and hit the ground running. Bipedalism equipped the species with evolutionary advantages including the use of tools, enhanced cognitive skills, and the capacity for long distance travel. Human history became a record of mass migrations as our species travelled across desert, mountains, and through forests, peopling the continents and occupying the planet’s most remote islands and archipelagos. Then, around six thousand years ago, they started settling down.

The rest was inevitable. What began as the wandering of bands and clans eventually gave way to the mastery over nature and conquests that shaped and reconfigured the modern world. The disruptions of the Second World War and the decolonization that followed completed the world’s present ethno-nationalist map. The post-World II era was a period of state consolidation. Together with decolonization, it conveyed the impression of a sorted-out world map where almost everyone belonged to a territorially-defined place.

This status quo shifted in 1989. Freedom of movement resumed and thirty-four new states came into existence. Although the transnational flows of goods, services, and capital did not extend to labour, events following the neoliberal opening triggered a new wave of population movement. International migration increased by 41 per cent between the turn of the millennium and 2015. Migrants now comprise 3.6 per cent of the global population of 7.96 billion, and they remit some US$720 billion to their home countries.

Africans contributed only a small portion of the increase responsible for the surge, despite perceptions that locate them in the front of the wave. It’s not that they don’t want to move. A recent study reported that 52 per cent of the young Africans questioned are planning to move abroad in the next three years—marking a strong contrast with a survey several years ago that found more than two-thirds of the continent’s young people want to stay put. Their options, however, are limited.

This is in part due to the high numbers of immigrants from other regions who preceded them. Where European migration provided by far the largest number since 1492, Asia provided the largest segment of people who have resettled abroad since 1989. Most migration routes now run from south to north and from east to west. What began as resettlement and labour contracts ended up contributing to the we-are-here-because-you-were-there meme.

The backlash against immigration that is raising barriers to travel and resettlement is not only a Western country problem. The sentiments behind Brexit and Trump’s MAGA xenophobia are to be found in the intolerance for non-indigenous residents in many African countries. South Africa may be the most blatant example, but migrants in neighbouring countries remain vulnerable to political vagaries, as the large number of Kenyans who set up base in newly independent South Sudan discovered. An estimated 1 to 2 million Chinese, many of them contract labourers and small businessmen, have migrated to the continent at the same time as Africans are face growing impediments to setting up shop in neighbouring countries. Chinese sources report a much lower number, but they only include workers on formal contracts.

Migrants have always been pawns in domestic politics and the games nations play. The artificial refugee crisis created by the Government of Belarus in 2021 is one example.  President Alexander Lukashenko boasted that he would flood the European Union with drug smugglers, human traffickers, and armed migrants. Flights to the Middle East were increased to accommodate the tens of thousands of mainly Kurdish refugees who received new visas. The government said they were promoting their tourism sector. Arrivals reported they were provided with wire cutters and directions to unprotected border points.

The coronavirus pandemic added biomedical criteria to the list of conditions travellers must satisfy. Such trends contrast with economists’ reckoning that the free movement of people is one of our most effective tools for poverty reduction, and that it could potentially increase global GDP by over 30 per cent.

Despite the many success stories of displaced communities who have made good, perceptions of migration are now intertwined with climate change, socioeconomic precarity, and the other political forces reconfiguring today’s world. The administrative and political constraints hindering international travel immigration have long term implications for Africa’s developmental trajectory at a time when the continent’s population is surging.

Or does it?

External perspectives on African migration

There are many variations on the large-scale movement from one environment to another: involuntary, circular, seasonal, episodic, transnational, sponsored, and spontaneous to name a few. The scope of migration studies and policy analysis is by the same measure extensive and multi-faceted. This literature conveys a rather complicated picture of the dynamics in play and the empirical outcomes they continue to generate.

The common approach sees migration as a series of discreet events, reinforced by the role of diverse influences like political conflicts, environmental calamities, and economic drivers. It is further obfuscated by the influence of ethnic diasporas, reactionary populist enclaves, and human trafficking networks. Nomenclature distinguishing migrant from immigrant, immigrant from citizen, and guest workers from expatriates adds an element of incongruency.

The world appears to be awash with ever increasing numbers of migrants as the news cycle saturates us with images from crisis spots like Syria, Afghanistan, and the Ukraine. But the popular perception that most migration is driven by domestic crises does not synch with the large body of research, data, and scholarship. Rather, the evidence shows the migration is beneficial for both the new hosts and sending nations. Refugees comprise only a minor portion of the people on the move according to global data statistics.

The data also indicates that most international migration follows conventional pathways and formal procedures. The great majority of Africans leaving the continent do so in possession of valid passports and visas. The typical immigrant leaves in search of education, employment, and to reunite with family members. One study of African trends and patterns since 1960 calculated that only 20 per cent of African migrants between 1960 and 2010 were attributable to conflict and poverty. The analysis goes a long way towards debunking the stereotypical view that African is a continent on the move, and that most of the traffic is directed toward Europe.

The popular perception that most migration is driven by domestic crises does not synch with the large body of research, data, and scholarship.

But this is not 2010. The world has shifted. The intensity of African migration (the percentage of emigration relative to the domestic population) has decreased, but this is accompanied by recent claims that environmental disasters, political instability, and the uneven impacts of globalisation now account for the majority of African movements. A UN University study on the root causes and regulatory dynamics of African migration begins with the highly dubious claim that migrants now comprise 12.5 per cent of the world’s population. It proceeds to observe that:

There are an estimated 1 billion migrants in the world today and demographic imbalances, economic inequality, increased globalization, political instability and climatic changes will all contribute to increasing large-scale migration in the coming decades, disproportionally affecting the Global South.

Determining the facts is not easy. After Syria, Africa as a region does host the world’s largest share of displaced persons. But the study cited here does little to clarify what the disproportionate effects referred to actually are. Even if the role of episodic events is greater at this juncture, the overall rate of African migration has declined to 2.9 per cent, and 79 per cent of that statistic is limited to the emigrants’ home region.

The same localized pattern holds for the impacts of climate change. Images generated by crisis-driven migration have nevertheless come to personify the influence of the environmental changes erupting across the planet. Levels of uncertainty are increasing apace. The sheer numbers of asylum seekers quarantined on the Greek island of Lesbos, and the sordid conditions of the refugees packed into the “Calais Jungle” camp in northern France reinforce public support for tightening borders. At the same time, unmet demand in labour markets is reflected in the growth of human trafficking, which tripled between 2008 and 2019.

Institutionalization of state surveillance in China and the zero-tolerance enforcement towards asylum seekers in Australia and eastern European countries may be symptoms of the fading neo-liberal vision. These and other policies are also influenced by the perceived threat of mass migration: allowing a small trickle today will turn into a flood tomorrow. Once again, empirical data contradicts popular perceptions. The UNHCR reports that two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar.

Local and regional issues are responsible for the great majority of involuntary movements.  The internally displaced now make up the great majority of the world’s refugees. The strict transnational protocols being enacted nevertheless point to the hidden transcript influencing white-wing populist narratives. Commentators like Tucker Carlson, for example, exploit ethno-nationalist nostalgia combined with the longstanding fear of barbarians at the gate to promote his replacement theory polemic in the United States.

The internally displaced now make up the great majority of the world’s refugees.

They need not worry. Migration is a function of capacity. For the highly skilled, migration is easy, and they emigrate over long distances. Although the poor also migrate, they do so less often and cover much shorter distances.

Redefining African migration

Studies of migration typically focus on push and pull factors, socioeconomic variables, directionality and destinations, and feedback effects like the brain-drain and other impacts. For present purposes, its best to redefine immigration as process, punctuated by stress and friction, facilitating the flow of ideas, and leading to outcomes including integration, assimilation, and coevolutionary syntheses.

African exemplars of this process encompass distinct Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan African variations.  Examples of mass migration include the Arabisation of North Africa, the Nuer’s rapid expansion at the expense of the Dinka between 1795 and 1845, and the Ogaden Somali migrations into northeastern Kenya after crossing the Juba river. But for the most part, African history is a record of small groups inscribing multi-directional migrations out of several linguistic “cradlelands” or dispersal areas.

Africa’s historically low population densities, climatic and environmental uncertainty, and irregular distribution of natural resources favoured the free movement of people. Spatial variables and the variegated landscape played a primary role in the patterns of migration and settlement. The role of iron and the domestication of plant and animal species featured prominently in the slow but steady distribution of the population across the continent. In most cases expansion took the form of clans, extended families, and individuals covering relatively short distances.

This growth reached a threshold around 1250 CE, when the end of the high humidity climate of the first millennia set a number of populations on the move. This led to the modern configuration of the larger eastern and Horn of Africa region. The outcome of these movements, as the archaeological record dating back to proto-historic times shows, was a quilt-work of sedentary, transhumant, and nomadic communities. They practiced a spectrum of livelihood strategies adapted to the mosaic of irregular ecological niches.

Over time a number of cultural solidarities emerged. Examples are the agricultural Akan-Ashanti, Mande, and pastoral Fulani and Tuareg in West Africa, the pre-Arab Amazigh of northern Africa, and the Swahili of the Afro-Indian Ocean littoral.

African state formation occurred in a diversity of settings, while freedom to move on moderated the hegemonic proclivities of kingdoms and lineage societies. In West Africa, population compaction in the forest zone and long-distance commerce in the Sahel explain the earlier emergence and greater permanence of centralized states. The kingdoms of the Great Lakes came about through the confluence of Cushitic, Nilotic, and Bantu elements. Like Abyssinia, they trace their origins to the process of secondary state formation originating in ancient Egypt.

In many of these states the proclivity for centralization was countered by people’s ability to vote with their feet. Ruling clans carried their royal power objects and traditions with them in the case of the Lwoo speakers. Since the proto historical era the process resulted in resilient ethno-cultural mosaics bound together by webs of exchange, practicing different forms of decentralized governance, and demarcated by the interactive neutral zones that served as borders. These mosaics provided the underpinning for Africa’s distinctly coevolutionary developmental trajectory.

Many of these areas supported a coevolutionary dynamic that by the late precolonial era was feeding into the rise of proto-state organization, including the multi-ethnic followings attracted to charismatic leaders and prophets, and councils integrating generational age-set systems. Kinship fictive and real operated alongside other cultural institutions accommodating the migration and assimilation of clans and individuals.

The rise of multi-ethnic polities and networks continued up to the moment of European intervention. Imperial conquest short-circuited the process. The formation of Africa’s colonial states ring-fenced communities, demarcating hard borders separating nations and communities. Migration continued, but the process was now managed from above.

Contrary to the expectations cultivated by the Pan-African movement, decolonization actually resulted in a decline of migration. Governments used immigration controls to demonstrate their sovereignty over the populations within their borders. Both Ghana and Nigeria ordered large-scale deportations of African immigrants within their borders two decades into the independence era. Many countries imposed strict requirements for African nationals’ visas.

As noted above, most of the movement and scope for policy-based solutions is now taking place on the regional scale. Africa’s regional economic communities like the Economic Community of West African States, the East African Community, and the Southern African Development Community have endorsed policies supporting the free movement of people, but governments continue to display ambivalence when it comes to implementation. Intra-African movements continue to decline, especially for land-locked countries, although migration abroad remains strong in a sample of countries that include Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya.

Contrary to the expectations cultivated by the Pan-African movement, decolonization actually resulted in a decline of migration.

Africa’s mosaic template remains active, but at this moment it is for the most part sustained by internal displacement and the waves of refugees seeking sanctuary across borders. Both conflict and migration have always been intrinsic to socioeconomic transitions. This dynamic assumes greater cogency in current circumstances, where intra-African migration continues to decline and African states remain reluctant to relax border controls. These conditions in turn highlight the role of informal processes on the margins.

The region’s rangelands are the one area where the free movement of goods and peoples still follow the dynamics displaced by the imposition of artificial boundaries. A new IGAD-UNDP project supporting cross-border free-trade zones represents a first step towards recognizing how developments in these areas are contributing to regional integration. Benefits generated by the new socioeconomic mosaics emerging in the borderlands include improved cooperation among government administrators on issues of conflict, livestock rustling, and human trafficking.

No population is permanent

The evolutionary importance of migration remains undiminished. On a crowded planet demanding creative solutions, coevolutionary processes across system scales from local to global are the contemporary equivalent of bipedalism.

In an influential 1971 paper entitled Hypothesis of the Mobility Transition, Wilbur Zelinsky argued that processes of economic development and modernisation coincided with increasing rural-to-urban migration followed by a subsequent increase in emigration. Subsequent developments supported his predictions: as societies become wealthy emigration decreases and immigration increases.

Rising emigration is normally an indicator of a nation’s economic growth, education, and access to information and transnational networks. By this measure, Kenya’s mobility transition is well underway. The diaspora is an active contributor the national economy, and the country’s percentage of immigrants has gradually risen from 2.14 to 2.35 since 2005. These other indicators suggest it is one of a cluster of African nations poised to become net destination countries over the coming years.

Kalundi Serumaga’s companion piece to this essay clarifies the local context of the pathways discussed here. As he reminds us, modern world history is mainly a record of Western European migration. Their peregrinations gave us the present world system. If migration is a function of capacity and institutional checkpoints, this still favours citizens from the Global North—prompting Serumaga to conclude by predicting that the next large-scale migration into Africa will be Caucasian.

On a crowded planet demanding creative solutions, coevolutionary processes across system scales from local to global are the contemporary equivalent of bipedalism.

This makes karmic sense. From the onset of the Christian era until 1900 Africa’s percentage of the globe’s population decreased from 15 per cent to 9 per cent. Africa should have been a magnet for in-migration considering Africa demographic conditions and economic resources, but the continent got the slave trade instead. The flow of world history is due to reverse.

Africa’s share of the population is expected to hit 20 per cent in 2030. In two decades Africa will host the lion’s share of the world’s labour force. Unless artificial intelligence achieves a radical shift in how things work, global economic integration will follow suite. Africa will become a destination continent. The directionality of world migration is already shifting, but I disagree with Kalundi on its composition. As the continent’s future emerges, our new neighbours are more likely to be Chinese and Indian than European—alongside the sundry Sudanese, Nigerians, Egyptians, and Congolese.

But who knows? Zelinsky also prophesied that the widespread adoption of information and communication technologies will impact human geographic mobility. Maybe we will end up living in a demobilized world where everyone will be cohabiting in the metaverse.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.


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.



Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
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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.

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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.



The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Photo: Image courtesy of Kenyans4Palestine © 2023.
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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.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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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.



UK-Rwanda Asylum Pact: Colonial Era Deportations are Back in Vogue
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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.

Feeling powerless

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.”

Hotel life

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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