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Citizenship is a Right, Not a Political Tool

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If it appears that citizenship by birth can be granted to groups on the basis of discretion and not as a legal right, that can undermine the perceived authority of the constitution and the rule of law more generally.

Citizenship is a Right, Not a Political Tool
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On 28 July 2023, President William Ruto declared the Pemba community to be an “ethnic community of Kenya”. At a citizenship award ceremony in Kilifi County he read aloud from a proclamation issued in January, which states:

“I, William Samoei Ruto, President and the commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces, having considered the said petition and the consequent Parliamentary Report in light of the Constitution of Kenya, our National Values, and the Principles of Governance, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution, do recognise, proclaim and order:
1.
That Kenyans of Pemba heritage constitute a community that is one of the ethnic communities of Kenya.”

This is the second group which a president has formally proclaimed to be a tribe or ethnic community of Kenya in recent years. Uhuru Kenyatta did the same for Kenyan Asians in 2017, and gave less formal forms of recognition to other groups in speeches and statements. In 2016, registration of the Makonde people was declared to be compulsory following a cabinet decision, and Uhuru handed out certificates of citizenship to community members at a function in 2017. Uhuru also supported citizenship for Shona people and in 2020, issued certificates and ID cards to them at a public ceremony on Jamhuri Day.

But citizenship is not granted to groups. Indeed, there is much that is not well understood about how citizenship functions in Kenya.

Citizenship is the relationship between an individual and the state. It is a social contract and a symbiotic relationship where the state recognizes the rights and entitlements of an individual while at the same time the individual recognizes their responsibilities to the state. It also expresses the relationship of an individual to a national community. It is the legal recognition of belonging. When presidents talk of granting citizenship to communities, they are affirming that belonging in order to right some historical injustices. But they are also (perhaps unintentionally) giving a misleading interpretation of the way that citizenship law works in Kenya – or indeed in most other countries.

In this article we examine the use of presidential decrees of nationality, and their relationship not just to a politics of belonging, but to the laws of Kenya. 

How citizenship status really works: by birth vs by registration

Citizenship status derives from the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the Citizenship and Immigration Act 2011, and the regulations that define the procedures to apply for recognition or grant of citizenship. It is important to distinguish between citizenship by birth and citizenship by registration.

Citizenship by birth means citizenship that is automatically attributed to a child at birth. It does not require an application but is acquired simply by operation of the law. Of course, a person who is attributed citizenship by birth will in practice later have to apply for a national ID card to be able to prove the status when needed, but if the relevant facts are established, the person cannot in law be denied the documents. According to the constitution, a person is a citizen by birth if either their mother or father is a Kenyan citizen. Birth on Kenyan territory does not give any rights to Kenyan citizenship.

The next step, of course, is to prove that either the mother or father is Kenyan, and this is where it may become complicated for those whose parents do not have identity documents. The burden of proof of the relevant facts is on the individual who claims to be a citizen. This is not always obvious. On the one hand, there are real challenges in interpreting the law on automatic or voluntary acquisition of Kenyan citizenship upon independence in 1963, and up until an amendment to the constitution in 1985 that removed rights to citizenship based on birth in Kenya. This amendment was stated to be retroactive to the date of independence – against the general principles of the rule of law. On the other hand, very many people who are undoubtedly Kenyan citizens in law have historically held no identity documents.

Citizenship by registration, as opposed to by birth, is citizenship that a person who is not already a citizen has to apply for. It depends on an administrative process. For some people, citizenship by registration is available (in principle) on simple application, for example if they have been married to a Kenyan for seven years.

However, for others the process is much more discretionary and can be refused on a wide range of grounds. For example, someone who is a legal resident of Kenya for seven years can apply for citizenship, but must satisfy a list of conditions including being “capable of making a substantive contribution to the progress or advancement in any area of national development within Kenya” (section 13 of the Citizenship and Immigration Act). Again, the burden of proof that the conditions are fulfilled lies with the individual.

Very many people who are undoubtedly Kenyan citizens in law have historically held no identity documents.

As we know, members of some communities who have been living in Kenya for a very long time were not previously recognised as Kenyan. In recognition of this, the Citizenship and Immigration Act 2011 created special temporary procedures to enable such a person to apply to register as a citizen. These procedures were for people who have been living in Kenya continuously since independence in 1963 and who did not have a claim to citizenship in Kenya or any other state, or who did not hold an identity document recognising citizenship in any country. Descendants of people fulfilling these conditions were also eligible. The term “stateless” is commonly used to refer to such people in Kenya (although the law is more complicated). Just as with a normal application for registration, the process is an individual application, the burden of proof of the relevant facts is with the individual, and no membership of a community is mentioned.

There was a legal window of five years for this process, and in that time practically no use was made of it – a few people tried to apply, but there was no procedure in place to treat the applications. Diana Gichengo of the Kenya Human Rights Commission at the time was quoted in the Daily Nation (4 October 2016) saying, “It is unfortunate that the deadline has elapsed without a single person being registered.” It was thanks to the efforts of the Makonde community and their famous march, and the civil society groups that supported them, including the KHRC, that the interior secretary agreed to take action and to extend the registration deadline, using the additional three-year extension available in the law. This extension expired in 2019.

What has been the procedure applied in recent cases?

In none of the cases of the Makonde, the Shona, or the Pemba – or Kenyan Asians – did the president “grant” citizenship to all members of those communities. Instead, the presidential declarations, preceded by a parliamentary committee report in the Pemba case, and lobbying from civil society (as well as the UNHCR), generated the political will to find the legal means to resolve their statelessness. It is still the case that every individual had or will have to go through their own process, and provide proof of their own birth, parentage and so on.

The nature of these registrations was different in each case. The Makonde and Shona people were registered as citizens during the special window provided in law for the registration of stateless people (although the ceremony for the Shona took place after it had expired). They had to first apply for citizenship and swear an oath of allegiance. Only once citizenship was granted for each individual were they issued with ID cards.

For Pemba people, the proclamation by President Ruto took place after the expiry of that special window. This meant that they would not be able to apply for citizenship in the same way. Instead, it seems that the government is taking the approach that they were citizens by birth and simply lacked recognition of that fact – despite the previous statement by the cabinet secretary that this was not the case. Accordingly, it seems they will simply be issued with ID cards without swearing an oath – if they can fulfil whatever evidential requirements are put in place. By issuing ID cards to members of a community on the basis that they are citizens by birth, the government admits that they have been legitimate Kenyans all along but have been denied citizenship for all these years.

It is still the case that every individual had or will have to go through their own process, and provide proof of their own birth, parentage and so on.

The government could have introduced a bill in parliament to amend the Citizenship and Immigration Act (Section 15(2)) to further extend the window for registration of stateless people, but this has not yet happened. The reasons for this are not transparent. If this window can be extended, there are other communities who could also benefit from targeted registration processes – including people of Rwandan and Burundian descent (with the exception of a handful of Rwandans who have been issued with ID documents).

What is the relevance of “communities” or “tribes” of Kenya for citizenship?

Kenya’s citizenship law does not contain any mention of “tribes” or “ethnic communities”. What, therefore, is the relevance of the recent proclamations and declarations?

They are important because, despite the lack of relevance of ethnicity for citizenship law, membership of an “ethnic community” has historically had official and unofficial significance in the processes of acquiring identity documentation.

The Registration of Persons Act 1947 is still in effect, and until a 2018 amendment, required a person to declare their “race or tribe” to acquire a national ID. This is, of course, a hangover from colonial administrative practices, including for the infamous kipande system to ensure that men did not move from their Native Reserves without the permission of the settler authorities.

Though there is, since 2018, no longer any legal or regulatory requirement to include ethnicity on application forms or in a population or citizenship register, it continues to happen. The National Registration Bureau is not transparent about why it collects this data, or what impact it has on an individual’s application. But we know from the experiences of several marginalised communities that members of some ethnic communities continue to face “vetting”, requiring additional forms of proof of identity and parentage that can be impossible fulfil. When they can’t meet these sometimes unduly onerous requirements, they can find themselves stateless.

In practice, the communities most affected by these unofficial and discriminatory practices are ethnic groups that are vaguely perceived, en masse, as not belonging to Kenya either now or at the time of independence: Nubians, Makonde, Shona and Pemba are the most well known but not the only examples. This leads to a situation in which public debates take place about an entire community’s belonging and history in Kenya. These debates then shape public perceptions of whether these people “deserve” citizenship or not, even though this should really be a question of each individual’s biography.

Members of some ethnic communities continue to face “vetting”, requiring additional forms of proof of identity and parentage that can be impossible fulfil.

Take Shona people, for example. They tell their history as having come from Zimbabwe before independence, as missionaries of the Gospel Church of God. Pemba peoples have sought to present themselves as long-term inhabitants of the coast, not of Pemba Island, and therefore indigenous to what is now Kenya for centuries. They use their fishing prowess to further support this point. Nubian people point to having been settled in Kenya long before independence, and to their support for Tom Mboya and the Kenyan nationalists.

In all these cases, these communities – as communities – have been in Kenya for generations, they have made it their home, and they have strong ties and allegiances here. This is in the spirit of what citizenship is meant to be, even though the law is actually about individuals. In this sense, ethnic community is something of a vehicle to a generalised sense of belonging and a widespread political acceptance thereof, and this can be useful. But it does not, and should not, supplant the notion that citizenship is individual.

The president has no powers to grant citizenship

While it is welcome that the president took an inclusive tone in his address to the Pemba community, he overstated his powers. The Constitution of Kenya 2010 sets up the backbone of citizenship acquisition in Kenya and it doesn’t give the president any powers to confer citizenship or declare “ethnic communities of Kenya” in any official way. Nor did the drafters ever dream of giving such power to the president, as it could reduce nationality to a political tool. This is not to discredit the president’s roles in advancing the political will to help end statelessness in Kenya, but rather to examine the sustainability and fairness of such initiatives, and to clarify the limits of the executive in this area.

As described above, entitlements to citizenship are outlined in the constitution and in laws. If it appears that citizenship by birth can be granted to groups on the basis of discretion and not as a legal right, that can undermine the perceived authority of the constitution and the rule of law more generally. Such powers were not given to the president because they are not meant to be discretionary, and there are meant to be safeguards in place to ensure all those entitled to citizenship can get it. If we were to centre these powers in the presidency, what would the procedure be for application? What would the appeals mechanisms be if you have been denied the opportunity due to your political inclination or other discriminatory grounds?

While it is welcome that the president took an inclusive tone in his address to the Pemba community, he overstated his powers.

So why have both Uhuru and Ruto acted as if they have more powers than they do? The answer is, of course, political. It is a way for presidents to continue to gather political support. The “launch” or “citizenship declaration” events become like rallies. This is especially so since devolution. The blow to Kenya’s executive delivered by devolution has perhaps been removing opportunities for the president’s “benevolent” flights every other week from one corner of the country to the other, launching “development”: schools, hospitals, water projects, agriculture projects. The executive has been forced to be creative in the ways that they connect to the wananchi on the ground. Such a proclamation as made by Ruto on the Pemba or the directives issued by Uhuru in favour of the Makonde and Shona gives the illusion of the president as still a dispenser of state goodies in a decentralised system of patronage.

For the local politicians involved, their role in lobbying the parliament and the executive is also, at least in part, for political benefit. Where the executive used to play the biggest role in handing out political favours, this has now shifted to the county-level political class like members of parliament, senators and governors. The Makonde trek was flagged off by Kwale governor Salim Mvurya who said at the time, “My government fully supports this registration and we are going to fight tooth and nail until you get your rights.” Later, a kicker in the local daily on Makonde’s recognition read, “Nkaissery, Mvurya ask community to return the favour by voting Jubilee in next year’s elections”

There are two take-home messages here.

One is that in making our judgments about the presidential citizenship declarations, we must take into account that although they have been inclusive for some, they also reproduce ethnic patronage politics more generally, and that is not always such a good thing.

The second is that Kenyans must remember there are checks and balances in place to ensure the proper conferral of citizenship in line with the law, and it is not up to the president. This is especially important for those whose citizenship is still denied.

Citizenship and IDs are given to individuals, not to groups

The practice of conferring citizenship looks – on the surface – as if it has been conducted on a community by community basis. This is how the president, the media, civil society groups and the UNHCR have presented the process for the Pemba people.

However, citizenship is an individual status. Despite appearances – the big ceremonies and targeted registration drives – every Makonde, Shona and Pemba individual had to go through their own process to either prove their right to citizenship by birth, or by registration.

Importantly, this means there are people in all these communities who, because of the inability to acquire sufficient proof, still do not have any citizenship. Civil society groups and bureaucrats must be careful to ensure nobody falls through the cracks, and that these individuals receive assistance in building their case to get their Kenyan documents when they are entitled to them.

There is no such thing as a register of Kenya’s ethnic groups

It is also important to recognise that, despite the presidential proclamations and other gazette notices of “tribes of Kenya”, there is actually no single, authoritative register of Kenya’s ethnic groups. When people refer to “the 42 tribes” and add 43 (Makonde) and 44 (Asian), this draws on the number of ethnic groups counted in the 1969 census, but that is usually not acknowledged. And the census is not a singular, fixed and definitive list of the ethnic groups in Kenya. It changes every decade, in fact, and now counts well over 100 if you include “sub-tribes” (and even if you don’t, the number is still not 42, or 44).

The idea, then, of giving a “tribe” a “code” is something of a fiction. It is a political stunt.

There are other lists of ethnic groups in use, including by the National Registration Bureau (though they are not transparent about this) and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to keep track of ethnic representation in political parties, and by the Public Service Commission to keep track of ethnic diversity in public service employment. But none of these are the same as each other, and some groups find themselves on one and not on the other. Being “recognised” with a code does not guarantee access to jobs or electoral constituencies.

Most importantly for this article, there is absolutely no list of ethnic groups that would mean that if your group were on it, you automatically get citizenship.

Where to from here?

The approach of the government and politicians has painted a misleading picture of citizenship, enabling its politicisation. It is our hope that there can be a more sensitive and informed discussion of citizenship and inclusion in Kenya that might adhere to the following principles:

Stop promoting the idea that the president grants citizenship to groups.

While it is great that presidents talk in inclusive terms, and they can continue to drum up political support for registration drives, they and others need to be more careful and clear that they are only implementing the law.

The executive’s “granting” of citizenship through declarations and orders for stateless communities without clarifying their legal basis makes citizenship acquisition look like a game of musical chairs.

Push the bureaucracy to do its job on citizenship

The National Registration Bureau and associated bodies have learnt a lot in these processes. Although they have targeted particular communities based on the political will generated by the presidential declarations, that does not mean these same capabilities cannot be put to wider use. Civil society must continue its important work of pushing NRB in this direction.

Individuals who believe they are Kenyan citizens by birth should have access to the same processes that seem to be proposed for Pemba people. The NRB has shown that there are ways of dealing with difficult situations where individuals may lack all the formal documents necessary, and it should make more use of them.

Being “recognised” with a code does not guarantee access to jobs, or electoral constituencies.

In some cases, an individual’s right to citizenship by birth is reasonably contested, and the NRB may deem they require “vetting”. However, vetting should only be directed at establishing if a person is a citizen by birth under the law. It should never be used because of an individual’s membership of an ethnic group. Vetting procedures should also be reviewed to be more transparent and less discriminatory, as recommended by the parliamentary committee considering the issue of ID cards for Nubian people.

In cases where individuals are applying for citizenship by registration, these processes could also be made more accessible, learning from these recent experiences, including by extending the timeline for the registration of stateless persons indefinitely. While the law unfortunately provides for discretion in some cases, this does not mean procedural improvements would not help in many of them.

Problematic as the misleading “mass grant” narrative is, can some of the gains of these processes be put to work for those who have previously faced mass exclusion? We hope so.

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Dalle Abraham is a writer and researcher based in Marsabit, Kenya. Samantha Balaton-Chrimes is an academic based in Melbourne, Australia, working in Kenya on matters of marginalisation and citizenship since 2009. Mustafa Mahmoud is co-director of Namati Kenya, and a citizenship and inclusion expert Bronwen Manby is an expert on comparative citizenship law and statelessness, especially in Africa.

Politics

Being Black in Argentina

What does Javier Milei’s presidential victory mean for Argentina’s black and indigenous minorities?

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Being Black in Argentina
Photo: Argentinian President Elect Javier Milei. Image credit Mídia NINJA CC BY 4.0 Deed.
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On November 19, Javier Milei secured the presidency of the Republic of Argentina with 56% of the vote. However, his victory is expected to significantly impact a specific segment of the country.

During my six-month exchange in Argentina’s Venado Tuerto (pop. 75,000) in 2016, I encountered someone of shared Black ethnicity on the street only once. A person whom many locals incidentally mistook for me—along with a Cuban Black girl, the only black person like me in the whole high school. As insignificant as a census of this small city’s population may seem, it effectively illustrates a sobering reality: the presence of Black people in Argentina is sparse, and their numbers have dwindled over time.

Hay más por otros lados, acá no llegaron” (There are more of them elsewhere, they have not arrived here) is a rhetoric prevalent among many Argentines, but the reality is quite dissimilar. Contacts between Argentina and Black people, particularly of African descent, date back to the 16th century transatlantic slave trade, when West and Central Africa people were brought by Spanish and Portuguese settlers to the coastal city of Buenos Aires, only to be sold and moved mostly within the Río de la Plata, present-day Argentina and Uruguay. In “Hiding in Plain Sight, Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic,” Erika Denise Edwards reports that between 1587 and 1640 approximately 45,000 African slaves disembarked in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 18th century, one-third of Argentina’s population was Black.

What, then, became of the Black African population in Argentina? Some attribute their decline to historical factors such as their active involvement in conflicts including the War of Independence against Spanish colonists (1810-1819) and the war with Paraguay (1865-1870), in which Black men often found themselves on the front lines, enduring the brunt of the attacks, or even choosing to desert and flee the country. These factors intersect with a gradual process of miscegenation and interracial mixing, leading to a progressive whitening of the population—both in terms of physical attributes and ideology.

Adding to this complex mix, political rhetoric comes into play. Influential Argentine leaders, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the 19th century, idealized white Europe not only as a model for overcoming the country’s socio-economic challenges but also as a narrative that implied the absence of Black people in Argentina, thereby erasing an integral part of the nation’s history.

Doing so has shrewdly allowed a country to avoid reckoning with its past of slavery and navigate the complexities of its presence, using the escamotage that there are no race-related issues in the country because there are no Black people. This assertion is incorrect for several reasons beyond those mentioned above. First, despite being imperceptible to the naked eye, there is a small but existing population of Afro-descendants in Argentina. Nevertheless, in my second stay in Argentina, this time in Buenos Aires, it became more apparent to me how a certain nationalistic current, in the footsteps of Sarmiento, proudly makes itself of this consistent lack of Black heritage. Comparing itself favorably to neighboring countries, this current boasts a notion of white supremacy in Argentina, which celebrates the Italian immigration from the 19th and 20th centuries as the foundation of national identity, while largely overlooking the historical legacy of African bodies that predates it.

As a result, even in a cosmopolitan capital city such as Buenos Aires, a significant portion of the white Argentine population based its identity on my opposite—not knowing that as an Afro-Italian, my Italian citizenship actually made them closer to my blackness and African roots than they wanted. Asserting that there are no racial concerns in Argentina is misleading. It amounts to the invisibilization of racial discrimination in a country where those who deviate from the preferred prototype, including Indigenous communities such as Mapuche, Quechua, Wichi, and Guarani, experience limited access to education and social services, and are disproportionately prone to experience poverty than their white counterparts.

Even within everyday discourse in Argentina, the assertion is refuted: many are labeled Black despite not matching the physical appearance associated with the term. The expression “es un negro” might refer to everyone who has darker skin tones, grouping them into a specific social category. However, beyond a mere description of physical attributes, “es un negro” delineates a person situated at various margins and lower rungs of society, whether for economic or social reasons. The appellation is also ordinarily used in jest as a nickname for a person who, of “black phenotype,” has nothing. The label “morocho” seems to be the most appropriate appellation for dark-skinned people in the country.

Argentine white supremacist identity is often matched by a certain right-wing political ideology that is classist, macho and, to make no bones about it, xenophobic. In the 2023 elections, such a systemic structure takes on the face of Javier Milei. The Argentine’s Donald Trump claimed in 2022 at the presentation of his book that he did not want to apologize for “being a white, blonde [questionable element], blue-eyed man.” With false modesty, the demagogue took on the burden of what it means in the country to have his hallmarks: privilege, status, and power.

Milei’s need for apologies should not revolve around his connotations but rather the proposals presented during his election campaign and outlined in his political program, which include the dollarization of pesos and the removal of government subsidies. Besides assessing if these actions would really benefit the vulnerable economy of the country, it’s worth questioning why it’s the middle-class, often white population that stands to suffer the least from such policies. They can afford to transact in dollars, weather an initial depreciation of their income, and provide for their children’s education without relying on government subsidies. In essence, they can do without the limited benefits offered by the Argentine state, given their already privileged positions.

The election of this politician not only adversely affects Black minorities, but also targets apparent minorities whom this divisive ideology seeks to erase, including Indigenous populations and the poorest segment of society—the current Argentinian “blacks”—who significantly enrich the Argentine populace. In such a scenario, one can only hope that the world will strive for a more consistent record of their existence.

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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Politics

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.

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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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Politics

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.

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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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