The legality, credibility and worth of a multi-million-dollar carbon trade project that forces pastoralists in Kenya to abandon age-old cultural practices, has been put to question in an assessment report that depicts it as conceptually misguided, abusive, potentially dangerous, lacking in genuine consent from the owners of the land and doomed to fail.
Based in northern Kenya, the project was however ok’d by international assessors and big-buck companies that have already bought the credits. The organization behind the project has been earning millions despite the fact that it does not own the land and has been unable to prove whether, or how, the project stores carbon in the soil. Nevertheless, this has not stopped the organization from touting it as one of the largest carbon removal projects on earth.
Painstakingly, and as if wielding the metaphorical fine-toothed comb and literary scalpel, Survival International has dissected the project in ways that expose its fundamental flaws, conceptual weaknesses and inherent inability to achieve what it loudly asserts and gets paid for. The international indigenous rights organization has inserted the analytical blade deep into the bowels of the project in its report Blood Carbon: how a carbon offset scheme makes millions from indigenous land in Northern Kenya.
As one reads through the 68-page analysis, there emerges the image of a deceptive, elaborate scheme that has little to do with what the project claims say it is all about. It is clear that the whole project has not aligned itself with the basic tenets of soil carbon retention. One gets a strong sense that the project owners have capitalized on the haplessness of the communities they purport to work with and the unquestioning eagerness of big polluters in the West to escape the blame by paying for what can literarily be described as hot air. These are polluting companies that have pumped millions to buy the carbon credits in the inexplicable belief that paying someone else in the southern hemisphere lessens the guilt associated with polluting the planet.
Unambiguously and with clarity, the exposé narrates the story of a large, well-funded non-governmental outfit that has unabashedly continued to benefit from distorting the truth while destabilizing and side-lining key traditional institutions that have managed and guided grazing practices adopted by pastoralist communities in northern Kenya over long periods of time.
Traditions influence resource use
As the narrative unfolds, it emerges that the project covers about two million hectares of one of the most remote and dry regions of Kenya. It brings on board some 13 wildlife conservancies that host more than 100,000 inhabitants, most of whom are members of the indigenous Samburu, Borana, Maasai and Rendille communities. Being pastoralists, the inhabitants rely on the naturally-occurring pastures, water, salt and other resources so vital for their extensive livestock rearing. To these communities, the health and wellbeing of cattle, sheep, goats, camels and, to some extent, donkeys is directly linked, in more ways than one, to their own survival, wealth and status. They inhabit a region with a delicate ecology which “drove” them to come up with a rational and pragmatic indigenous resource use and management system that places the elders in the driving seat, giving them the power to make decisions that bind other members of the community. Today, the pastoralists are in dire straits due to droughts that have risen in severity and frequency owing to climate change. As a result, the region now experiences a minor drought every two to three years and a major one every ten years or so, often resulting in severe famines and the attendant deaths of thousands upon thousands of livestock.
NRT’s support from the moneyed
This is the ecological, socio-economic and cultural context upon which the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) based the carbon trading project. Established in 2004 by Ian Craig, a rather “unseen” conservation personality from the old colonial stock, NRT prefers to be known as a “membership organization”. The body states that it improves people’s lives, creates and sustains peace and conserves the environment. Today, the organization boasts of bringing into its fold some 43 community conservancies spread over 63,000 square kilometres in the northern and coastal parts of the country. This area is significant as it constitutes more than 10 per cent of Kenya’s total land surface.
The NRT’s conservation work has drawn in the moneyed lot in the West who have generously kept it way above water financially. The amounts it receives each year are humongous and can turn other green organizations greener with envy. USAID, for instance, has donated some US$32 million since 2004. Over the years, USAID’s support was topped up by generous contributions from the who-is-who in the European giving order. Besides the European Union, Denmark and France, the organization receives over US$25 million from 46 donors each year. It is not known exactly how much the organization receives from whom as it does not publish its annual accounts. However, the financial support the NRT receives has greatly aided in raising its visibility as a wildlife conservation outfit whose model was adopted by the EU as the latter rolled out conservation in 30 African countries under NaturAfrica banner. Corporates too have come calling with accolades and cash as the NRT gives them somewhere “to hide their guilt”. For instance, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development bestowed the “Lighthouse” Award on the NRT last year.
Expanding the NRT mandate
With such support and encouragement, the NRT has kept adding on to its initial conservation mandate. Besides taking up the maintenance of peace and security, the organization is also involved in livestock marketing. Its conservation, peace-making and security initiatives have however raised a hue and cry from many people in Kenya who question why a non-governmental body has armed units and controversially takes up what is solely mandated to the Kenya government by the country’s constitution. But the NRT feels justified in its peace-building mission, saying that this creates the right conditions necessary for its conservation programme. Those opposed, however, including many of the affected indigenous people, say that the organisation’s conservation activities are disruptive to the lives and livelihoods of local people as they require them to cede part of their communally-owned lands to create room for “core” areas that are exclusively used by investors, tourists and wildlife.
There have also been claims that well-trained and armed NRT rangers have been involved in extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights abuses as documented by the Oakland Institute, a US-based think tank, in its report Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya. The report dealt a devastating blow to the image of the organization as it exposed how the NRT and its partners, allegedly dispossessed the herder communities of their ancestral lands through corruption, violence and intimidation to create and maintain the wildlife conservancies.
There have also been claims that well-trained and armed NRT rangers have been involved in extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights abuses.
The NRT and controversy appear to be bedfellows. According to the Survival International report, the organization rolled out the carbon project almost a decade ago when the claims made against it were starting to gain public attention. The project is ambitious, opens new ground in the global carbon trading regime and is hinged on the involvement of pastoralist communities in the region. Essentially, it leans on the thinking that were the pastoralists to move away from traditional “unplanned” grazing and embrace “planned” rotational grazing, this would give vegetation over the vast area a better chance to grow prolifically. Consequently (as the thinking goes), this would result in greater storage of carbon in the soils of the project area. The NRT estimated that as much as 750 kilos of additional carbon would be stored in each hectare every year. Cumulatively, the organization estimated that the project could generate about 1.5 million tons of extra carbon “storage” per year and thereby produce 41 million tons of carbon credits for sale over its project’s 30-year lifespan. This would, in turn, generate between US$300million and US$500 million according to Survival’s estimates. With such highly attractive end results, the NRT labelled the project a “natural climate solution” as it went into the carbon credit market.
Project ok’d by assessors
Before taking the carbon credits to potential buyers, the project was taken through the Verra System, which is touted to have a “rigorous set of rules and requirements”. Documents show that the auditors appointed to “validate” the project struggled for several years to obtain answers to some of their questions about serious problems with the project. Some were never answered but, astonishingly, the project was eventually passed and credited with generating real, credible and permanent emissions reductions; it was attributed with the ability to store additional carbon in the soil. Since it was ok’d in the Verra System, the project has so far generated some 3.2 million carbon credits which the NRT’s agents had sold out by January 2022. Although the gross income the organization received is unknown, Survival International estimates that it has generated between US$21 million and US$45 million with some of the credits being offloaded to Netflix and Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook).
Impenetrable wall of conspiracy
Usually, the true value of claims made by conservation NGOs in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa is hard to ascertain. This is because the same outfits are allowed to assess the before-and-after scenarios of the conservation projects they are involved in. In some cases, local and international assessors are contracted to undertake evaluation studies. But as external assessors visit the field, they are usually chaperoned by officials from the same NGOs they have been commissioned to scrutinize. Even where assessors demand to do “independent” reviews, their work is largely hampered by language, and geographical and cultural barriers. This has created an almost impenetrable “wall of silence and conspiracy” because what ends up constituting the findings on impact is actually more or less what the NGO wanted the assessors to know in the first place. By the end of the day, the NGO ends up with a good image and a nod from donors. It is no wonder that there is little to show for all the billions pumped into conservation. In any case, species have been disappearing and wildlife populations are dwindling while the worst effects of climate change bite hard even within the NRT carbon project.
The project is ambitious, opens new grounds in the global carbon trading regime and is hinged on the involvement of pastoralist communities in the region.
As far as the carbon trading project is concerned, the truth typically deviates, to a great extent, from what is stated by the organization and the project assessors. Survival International established an unmistakable dichotomy between what the NRT has eloquently put in the project’s documents and the reality in the project area. Most importantly, the NRT did not inform the communities properly about the project, “let alone receive their free, prior and informed consent to it”. As Survival International officials toured the area, they established that the organization had, at best, merely shared the required information with a small number of people who sat on the boards of the 13 conservancies. However, the information given was limited, was not shared in native languages, and was done “long after the project started”. The same was reported by the project’s auditors during the initial verification of the project. This is a clear violation of some of the principles that carbon trading projects are expected to adhere to.
The entire project can be seen as one that exploits and grossly interferes with the lives of tens of thousands of pastoralists. As the project unfolded, the communities have been increasingly losing control of their lands and the power to determine how to use it. As the organization went about removing what it calls “cultural barriers” to carbon retention in the soil, the unfairness of the entire approach emerged in the sense that people who have very little to do with polluting the planet were forced to alter how they have survived in order to adhere to the dictates of an organisation that used falsehoods and unproven methods to receive finances it does not deserve. This notwithstanding, the project is attempting to replace the prevailing practice in which boys herd livestock by paying cash to adults to be doing the task. This is seen as a blatant attempt to destroy the dignity of the men and women who are traditionally not involved in such an activity. This, as the report says, is likely to face “rejection and failure”.
In addition, the report raises serious issues on the legality of the project. Half of the project area is on lands classified as trust lands which are subject to the provisions of the Community Lands Act 2016. The Act mandates not the NRT but the relevant county governments with “holding the land in trust” until they are formally registered as community lands. However, the registration process has taken too long, with the delays being partly attributed to what some locals say is “active obstruction” by the powerful organization. Indeed, the legality of the conservancies established by the NRT was challenged in the Environment & Lands Court in 2021. The case is still going on.
Related to the legality of the project is the question raised in Survival International’s report as to whether the NRT has the right to trade on carbon stored in the soils of lands that it does not own. The organization did not have a formal agreement with the communities in the 13 conservancies before it embarked on the project. It cobbled together the agreements in June 2021, eight-and-half years after it started the project. On this, the report says that “NRT did not have a clear contractual right to sell the carbon during this period”.
Survival International estimates that it has generated between US$21 million and US$45 million with some of the credits being offloaded to Netflix and Meta Platforms.
In its communication, the NRT has consistently claimed that it does not own the relevant lands. One then would expect that it would have let the biggest share of proceeds from the carbon trade project go to the communities. However, Survival International says that the organization not only continues to hog the lion’s share of the proceeds, but has the final say on how the proceeds are distributed. The organization claims that it dishes out 30 per cent of the total funds to the 13 conservancies “for purposes which the communities themselves determine”. But Survival International disputes this. “This largely proves not to be the case,” the report avers, going on to state that 20 per cent of the conservancies’ portion is actually spent on the “NRT’s prescribed” grazing practices while 60 per cent is distributed at the discretion of the organization. Community leaders interviewed during the investigation by Survival International said that the distribution is done “through a largely opaque process” and that the money “is used to exert control over communities and to promote NRT’s own priorities”.
Whipping communities into acceptance
The report terms the credibility of the carbon offsets as “wanting” and its impact on the pastoralist communities as “negative”. The project’s very success (or lack of it) depends on whipping communities into accepting a radical shift from the age-old traditional grazing pattern they have been practicing to what the organization believes would bring about the required carbon offsets. But for Survival International, this could “endanger [the] livelihoods and food security” of the pastoralists besides being “culturally destructive”. By establishing a project which demands that the herders confine their animals to the project area, the NRT’s desire was to align the project with one of the requirements of the relevant methodology. But the whole thinking attaches no value to what is obviously a rational and pragmatic animal husbandry practice adopted by the communities hundreds of years before the project was ever started.
The NRT did not inform the communities properly about the project, “let alone receive their free, prior and informed consent to it”.
More poignantly, the NRT’s demands for a change in grazing patterns appears insensitive to the problems pastoralists have been experiencing with the worsening changes in the climate. This is also a typical example of the predicament presented to communities in Africa whenever they are forced to engage in activities that hardly cater for their own survival and interests. To many “woke” Kenyans today, although the NRT was formed in Kenya, its very philosophy and operations are “alien and transplanted” from Europe. Many deem it to be a body that has boldly and with single-minded determination rekindled the colonial scenario in which white people see nothing wrong with using force and money to put in place changes that do not benefit African communities but instead are extremely disruptive to their lives.
Does the NRT deserve the millions?
The NRT cannot escape the accusation of carbon colonialism and nor can the polluting companies that find nothing wrong with dealing with a “broker” and everyone else to the exclusion of the owners of the land upon which the carbon trading project is based. This notwithstanding, the question arises as to whether the organization deserves the millions of dollars paid to it by Netflix and other companies. For one, the project does not provide believable evidence that traditional grazing has led to the degradation of soils and hence the loss of soil carbon. “It is based on a presumption that the traditional forms of grazing were causing degradation of soils and that only the carbon project could remedy this,” the report says. It adds that the NRT does not support “with any empirical evidence” the assertion that degradation there happens due to “unplanned grazing.”
Although the NRT was formed in Kenya, its very philosophy and operations are “alien and transplanted” from Europe.
At the same time, the project’s core activity of “planned rotational grazing” does not seem to be taking place. “The limited information provided by the project purporting to show a decline in vegetation quality prior to the project does not in fact show this at all,” the report says. In any case, evidence presented by the NRT indicates that the quality of vegetation “has declined since the project started”. The report concludes that “this would suggest that soil carbon in much of the area is in fact also declining.”
Brick by brick
Survival International dismantles, brick by brick, most of the project’s foundational claims. Besides painting the carbon storage assessment method as “unsuitable”, the report disputes the credibility of the periodic reports on grazing activities submitted by the 13 conservancies, terming them “entirely worthless”. The report says that they cannot be relied upon to ascertain whether the rotational grazing has been implemented let alone its outcomes. Added to this is the fact that the NRT used an error-laden method to measure the amount of carbon retained in the soil. This was the use of remote sensing to establish vegetation cover rather than direct measurement of soil carbon. Apparently, the NRT is aware of the weaknesses of this approach and actually admits that it contains very large margins of error and inaccuracy—Survival International terms it “demonstrably faulty”. Further, it is highly doubtful that any additional carbon stored (which is unlikely) can last long in the project area. In this regard, Survival International asserts that the worsening changes in climate in most parts of the project area as well as the entire northern Kenya region “will result in declines in vegetation and soil carbon storage”.
The NRT purports that it was able to count the number of days livestock spend away from the project area. This information is essential in knowing whether the extra carbon supposedly stored in the project area’s soils might come at a cost of carbon simply being lost somewhere else through grazing, thus invalidating the project. But the monthly grazing reports used to monitor livestock movements are inadequate for such a purpose; they lack credible information on where animals are at any given time, and are based on maps that are vague and border on guesswork. Besides this, the project area is largely remote, inaccessible and this makes it almost impossible to monitor what happens in the highly porous boundaries of the project. Although the NRT says that it has the mechanism to detect and monitor livestock movement off the project area, it does not comply with the methodology under which the project was developed in the first place. This can be translated to mean that the organisation has little or no idea of the amount of carbon “leakage”.
An informed lie?
From a layman’s assessment of the report, it is clear that the project has “adhered” to the long tradition in which many conservation NGOs in Kenya misrepresent facts for the purpose of securing funding from those ready to open their purses in the West. One cannot explain how the NRT was able to secure the nod of assessors and huge amounts of money from big-buck companies. The explanation lies elsewhere; the success with which such NGOs manage to get millions in funding has to do with whether they are able to include white people, either as founders, as members of their boards or as staffers in the top echelons of their establishments. For some reason, NGOs that recruit white people in Kenya stand a far better chance of securing financial support from Europe or America. In this regard, the NRT is associated with the Craig family who have lived in Kenya since the early 1900s. This is a family that has more than a casual relationship with the British royal family. For instance, not only did Prince William have an intimate friendship with Jessica Craig, the daughter of the founder of the NRT, Ian Craig, before he married Kate Middleton, but he also proposed to Kate at Craig’s former family home in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. A casual observer might not see the connection, but many organizations formed by white people in Kenya are able to easily get away with unjustifiable untruths and half-truths. Those who fund them appear to have no desire to commission independent assessments that would shed light on the truth value of such organizations in solving the problems they purport to address.
The NRT carbon project is no different. It clearly misrepresents facts while its truth value and worth are questionable. One is unable to decide whether the entire project is based on a carefully crafted lie arrived at through the use of a complicated algorithm, or that it is simply a sham.
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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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