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From Angola to America. Ana’s Journey From Nothing to Nowhere

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From Angola to America. Ana's Journey From Nothing to Nowhere
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Ana’s journey from nothing to nowhere

On 18 April, for fear of creating hotbeds of COVID 19 contagion, a Mexico City judge ordered the release of migrants from sixty-five overcrowded immigration centres in the country. By the end of that month, with both the northern and southern border lines under lockdown, the Mexican National Migration Institute (INM) estimated that over twenty thousand migrants were now stranded around border lines; under the lockdown, even appointments to identify refugees are suspended. Among those now either living in makeshift camps or left to their own devices in the country are an estimated four thousand Africans.

It was not yet like that, when Ana* arrived at in Mexico’s southern border town of Tapachula, in May 2019, but it was already bad enough.

Map of route travelled by Ana and her family from South through Central America to the Mexican border.

Map of route travelled by Ana and her family from South through Central America to the Mexican border.

A face from another universe

When I meet her in June that year her swollen face and dishevelled hair have long ceased to match the Ana from her WhatsApp profile photo. The smooth face, wavy hair extensions, outlined eyebrows, lipstick and big sunglasses; the golden necklace with a round green and white gemstone, all seem to have belonged to another time, another universe.

Ana, a 28-year-old Business Management graduate speaks three languages — Portuguese, English and French — but she could not find a job in her home country Angola. ‘I got tired of searching without finding anything’, she tells me. ‘I asked for a visa at the United States Embassy in Luanda, but they never responded. Some Angolan friends who live in America told me about this trip and I decided to take a risk. I went with my husband (who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and French-speaking, PC) and daughter, Amélia*’.  She and her family now spend their days in the sweltering heat around Tapachula’s Siglo XXI Migratory Station, the largest migrant centre in Latin America.

Pedro Cardoso, African migrants arriving in Mexico at Tapachula Siglo XXI migratory Station

Pedro Cardoso, African migrants arriving in Mexico at Tapachula Siglo XXI migratory Station

Tapachula is the almost-final wall to scale for migrants travelling to the United States. The official estimate of the number of travellers waiting here is one thousand, but there are probably close to four thousand here in this city, surrounded by humid jungle.

Ana has travelled around twenty seven thousand kilometres from Maquela do Zombo, Angola, to get here in search of a better life: a trip that involves crossing wild seas in rickety boats and weeks of walking through narco-gang territory in dense humid forest. Having risked rape, detentions and mistreatment along many parts of the way as well, it is still the forest that haunts most. Ana recalls ‘the days sliding in mud, the nights with poisonous insects, the fear of gangsters and snakes’, as well as ‘coming across graves of others’ on the way. ‘When I even mention the forest to Amélia (now eight years old, PC) she panics and starts crying’.

‘Angola is no longer for anyone, that’s why I left’, says another migrant from Angola, who met up with Ana and her family along the way. João*, from Uíge, is 27 years old, with constantly darting, distant eyes in his small, frowning face. Like Ana, he lived in Luanda, with his wife and two children. ‘I worked at a store. They fired me overnight. I did odd jobs for a while but we could not live on that. I needed to support my family’.

Poverty without prospects

João and Ana are just two out of hundreds of Angolans who left Angola after 2014, when the oil price fell. Like Venezuela, Angola’s corrupt regime had relied on its abundant oil resources to keep the economy somewhat afloat. An ordinary Angolan could not get clean water or healthcare, but with oil money floating around most citizens could still grab a dollar here or there. However, when the oil wealth ended, while the elites had their billions safely stored off shore; many others faced a future in a broken country with no jobs and no hope.

Ana set out for the US with her Congolese husband and then seven-year-old Amélia, because that route, even if way longer, seemed more doable than trying to go via north Africa and the Mediterranean, where so many have been reported drowned. ‘We travelled to Namibia and took a plane to Quito, with a stopover in Amsterdam. That alone was six thousand dollars. And it was only the beginning’.

Brazil’s São Paulo is one of the first south American towns for many African migrants on their way to the US. Here, Angolans, like other Portuguese-speaking Africans, have a small advantage over others: thanks to a shared colonial history and Portuguese language, an Angolan passport can get you into Brazil legally.

Throughout our interviews, Ana keeps insisting that she is a legal migrant.

Raincoats and a flashlight

Once arrived in São Paulo you take a plane to Rio Branco, in Brazil’s extreme northwest, after which you cross through Peru. Quito, in Ecuador, is the hub. ‘We quickly found out how to move onward from other Africans, whom we met at a big square on the outskirts of the capital. We moved fast because every day you spend more money on food and a place to stay’, says Ana. Based on the advice they received they took an overnight bus from Quito to Colombia’s northern coastal cities of Turbo and Necoclí.

On web images the port of Turbo looks peaceful, with its mangroves, blue-and-white speedboats and fried fish market stalls. Daily, dozens of Africans pass here with camping backpacks on their backs, supporting the bustling street traders here with migrant dollars. Besides food, you buy a ‘travellers kit’ here: a plastic cover to protect cell phones and passports, plus a bigger one for around the back pack will set you back US$ 15. For US$ 20 more you obtain a special package that prepares you for the jungle: waterproof rubber boots, a flashlight and a plastic raincoat.

The trafficking of migrants through here is worth one million us$ Per week

Perhaps the plastic, the boots and flashlight should have forewarned Ana and the others of what lay ahead. Firstly, like the Mediterranean, Turbo’s Gulf of Urabá in this part of the ‘Colombian Caribbean’ is starting to become a watery grave for unlucky travellers: just a year and a half ago twenty-three travellers drowned on the coast of Sapzurro, a few kilometres from the Panama border. Secondly, the jungle you reach after the water, besides being just as wet, is even more dangerous. But leaving from the idyllic-looking beach town of Necoclí, fifty kilometres north of Turbo, ‘where customs controls are less’  and Ana’s family paid US$ 50 per person for the boat trip to Capurganá on Colombia’s border with Panama , they had no idea what awaited on the other side. ‘These were legal boats’, says Ana. ‘The local people use them too’.

According to Colombia’s state migration agency, almost eight thousand migrants left from Turbo and Necoclí in the first four months of 2019 alone.

Carlos Ortega/El Tiempo, African migrants getting ready to cross the Gulf of Urabá

Carlos Ortega/El Tiempo, African migrants getting ready to cross the Gulf of Urabá

The forest of hell

The Darién forest, known to tourists as the Darién National Park, is referred to simply as ‘the forest’ by the migrants; alternatively also as ‘the nightmare’, or ‘hell’, as Ana calls it. Measuring 750,000 hectares in total, the jungle that clogs the border between Panama and Colombia is so impenetrable that the Pan-American Highway stops dead at its doorstep. ‘The path is completely closed by trees and plants’, João says.

It is only sixty-five kilometers to get through, but you have to place your fate in the hands of the traffickers, nicknamed coyotes, who know the way. In Colombia´s coastal Capurganá, where they are based, the crossing of migrants through Darién is worth about one million dollars a week.  Working as a ‘coyote’ is so lucrative that, according to Father Aurelio Moncada, a local parish priest in Capurganá whom I interviewed telephonically, ‘young people and children stop going to school to enter the migration business’.

Ana and family, lucky to have had a mostly smooth boat ride, hoped to cross the forest in one or two days. ‘But it turned out to be many days of climbing up and sliding down hills under heavy rains, with your feet dragging through the mud, carrying your bags and food. And there are mosquitos. We heard stories of people who drowned here after the rains caused the river to rise. They had been sleeping on the banks and the water just took them away’. ‘Sometimes groups have to leave behind those who do not have the strength to endure’, adds João.

Other travellers mention noticing the clothes, food, bottles and toys left on the jungle’s zigzag tracks by migrants who either had to ditch their belongings, lost them, or simply perished, and the narcos of the Colombian Gulf who force you to carry drugs for them or else; other bandits simply rob you. Jacqueline*, a traveller from the DRC who made it to Tapachula, recounts how ‘bandits appeared out of nowhere’ when her group was resting to drink water. ‘They brought very large weapons. They put their fingers in the anuses of men and in the vaginas of women to see if we were hiding money. They threatened to kill us’.

A zinc hangar

Exiting the jungle in March 2019, Ana’s family was given ‘a little rice and beans’, in the village of Bajo Chiquito. They then took a twenty-five dollar canoe to travel four hours down the Chucunaque River to the only migrant station that Panama’s migration agency Senafront operates in the region: the so-called Temporary Humanitarian Assistance Station (ETAH) at La Peñita.

ETAH’s own photographs show the station as a zinc hangar, surrounded by metal fences and soiled blue portable toilets. Equipped to deal with a hundred migrants at a time, the place usually overcrowds with over a thousand, many of whom spill over into the village and sleep under trees. Its ‘humanitarian assistance’ consists mainly of registering and vaccinating the migrants against tetanus, measles and rubella, while Senafront takes fingerprints ‘to track possible criminals sought by Interpol’. ‘There were lots of kids with diarrhoea there, and sick people, but no medicines. There was only dirty water to drink’, says Ana. ‘Still, it was better than the jungle’.

After weeks, Senafront transferred Ana’s family, João and others, on a bus to the Planes de Guacala migrant hostel — a converted old hydroelectric installation — more than eight hundred kilometres to the north. ‘At that moment, the worst was over’, says Ana. Travellers commonly praise Costa Rica, as a place of kindness and officials who actively help them. ‘It was undoubtedly where they treated us the best, people are very kind and we never lacked food, support or medication’, João confirms.

Grupo Nación, Migrant center in Costa Rica

Grupo Nación, Migrant center in Costa Rica

The migrants quickly received passes to move on to Nicaragua, where, it was said, one could pay at the border to get further north to Honduras. In March 2019, Ana, her husband and daughter paid an official US$ 150 each in order to be shown to a low wall of about a meter and a half next to the border post. ‘It was very easy to jump’.  Nicaraguan police officers were already waiting for their share of the bribe money on the other side. Boarding the mini buses to Honduras from there was another US$ 30.

The trip of 330 km, between Peñas Blancas and Guasaule, on the northwest border with Honduras, was also a smooth one, Ana and João say.

Grupo Nación, Border patrol at frontier between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

Grupo Nación, Border patrol at frontier between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

The heavy hands of Trump

It is in Honduras that one starts to feel the heavy hands of Trump. In early 2019, the US president threatened to cut over US$ six hundred million in economic aid to the ‘northern triangle’ countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras if these did not block the caravans of people walking on sore feet towards the United States. The result was much tightened immigration policies, both against own citizens who want to leave — Honduras, like El Salvador and Mexico, is tormented by poverty and violent gang rule (1) — and migrants from elsewhere. ‘Some go missing. Many are deported back, sometimes maimed and disabled (2)’, says Karla Rivas, the regional coordinator of the Mexico-based Jesuit Migrants Service in Central America, in a telephonic interview. ‘It is a very harsh reality of poverty and misery’.

Ana’s family and João passed through here a few months before the restrictions came into effect. They entered Honduras through a ‘blind spot’ on the border at Choluteca, then ‘walked through a small bush for an hour or two, then took a bus to (the capital) Tegucigalpa, where we obtained a pass to Guatemala’, says João.

It would become much more difficult for those who came later. In the last six months of 2019, Honduras’ Police Force for Migration Control stepped up surveillance of nineteen blind spots on the Nicaraguan border, Choluteca among them, arresting thousands. Early in 2020 the Honduran Migration Institute would boast that ‘illegal migration’ in the southern region had ‘decreased by sixty-two percent’ compared to the same period in 2019. The described success, however, only means that migrants now wander the border, waiting for a moment of distraction from la migra to continue the journey north. ‘We have a couple of thousand deported back to Honduras every now and then’, says Karla Rivas, ‘but also still hundreds leaving every day’.

Honduras meets Guatemala (and other neighbour El Salvador) in Esquipulas, home of the Black Christ: a wooden and very black statue of Jesus that is worshipped here by those displaced by war, the homeless and otherwise downtrodden. Joao and Ana’s family managed to get through here just in time in late March 2019: taking a bus, moving quickly, not visiting the Christ, spending US$ 30 on a single ticket per person. Ten months later, in January 2020, the country’s police, in a display of force never seen before, stopped a caravan of hundreds of Hondurans here.

Grupa Nación, Migrants surrender to Costa Rican authorities

Grupa Nación, Migrants surrender to Costa Rican authorities

Those in the know say that this was mere window dressing to please Trump; that Guatemala’s police is not really that capable; and that, like in Choluteca, arrested and released, or even deported, migrants soon get back here. But the new harsh rules require legal proof of residence in Guatemala for anyone wishing to buy a bus ticket. Migrants now fork out over US$ 100 for a spot in a coyote minibus or private vehicle to the country’s border with Mexico.

The migrants now cross at more dangerous points

Tecún Umán, the main crossing point on the Suchiate borderline river between Guatemala and Mexico, has also become quiet since the new security measures. ‘The migrants now pass through more dangerous points, in the north, that are more isolated and controlled by organised crime’, Mario Montes, coordinator of the NGO Casa Migrantes in Tecún Umán tells me telephonically. ‘Or they cross the river a little further south, where it is wider and deeper’.

Ana, her family and João crossed the river at Tecún Umán in May last year, still just before the clampdown, on wooden and rubber rafts. ‘They rocked a lot. We paid just over a dollar per person’, says Ana. On the Mexican side they found minibuses to Tapachula and forty minutes later they were here, where I would meet them two weeks later: tired, thin, and frustrated, but hoping to regularise their status at the Siglo XXI Migration Centre.

Then, on 30 May 2019, Donald Trump threatened to raise taxes on Mexican imports and within days from Ana’s family and João’s arrival twenty thousand National Guard soldiers marched in to create an anti-migrant buffer. A little more than a month later the Mexican National Institute of Migration (INM) abolished the procedure to obtain a pass to leave Mexico on the northern side, towards the US. The only way out now — it was still before ‘corona’ — was south, where you came from. But Ana and her family had spent over ten thousand dollars by then; they were not going back. “We started to contact our relatives in the US and Canada to send more money.” Canada, rather than the US, is where they hope finally to make a new life for themselves.

Memories of broken glass

Out of a total of over thirty thousand migrants in Tapachula, an estimated four thousand are Africans. Most hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo (a quarter) and Cameroon (almost half).

In early October 2019, the bodies of three Cameroonians were found floating off Puerto Arista beach, two hundred and forty kilometers northwest of Tapachula. They had each paid fifteen hundred dollars to coyotes to bypass Mexican National Coast Guard controls, but shipwrecked. Eight survivors (seven men and one woman) were detained, then given papers to stay in Mexico for a year; they have since disappeared without leaving any contact behind. There had been eighteen passengers in total on the boat, but no trace of the other seven passengers has been found to date.

‘they can come from mars, but we will send them back’, said the commissioner of migration

You can’t go back to Cameroon, the West African country where a large majority of citizens starve under the kleptocrat regime of octogenarian autocrat Paul Biya and where the military violently oppresses dissent. In a mosquito-infested waiting room at the Tapachula Health Center, Favour*, who coughs incessantly, shows photos from her phone: houses with broken glass, burned buildings (‘this was the hospital’), shrapnel, soldiers, bloody bodies and corpses. This is the home town, Buea, in Cameroon’s south west, that she left behind four months ago, she says. ‘The military burned my parents’ and grandparents’ house with them inside. Then they arrived at my pedicure salon and forced me to see how my sisters were raped. Then it was my turn. I was four months pregnant’. She starts to cry. ‘That day they also took my 17-year-old son, I have known nothing about him since’.

Pedro Cardoso, Migrants arriving at Tapachula Siglo XXI Migratory Station

Pedro Cardoso, Migrants arriving at Tapachula Siglo XXI Migratory Station

Of all those stuck in Tapachula, many of the men do odd jobs on farms and in construction; for women, the main way to get money is sex work. Local trade benefits from the foreigners’ purchases of cell phones, food and clothes, with whatever dollars they have left. Tapachulans also gain from commissions they charge for helping the migrants receive money transfers from relatives.

Even so, the local right wing press has long campaigned against the foreigners, accusing them of bringing diseases, as well as of littering and violence. And Mexico’s government doesn’t want them either.  In October last year, the INM’s National Commissioner, Francisco Garduño, thundered that ‘They can even come from Mars, but we will all send them to India, to Cameroon, to Africa!’

The commissioner’s simultaneous referring to African migrants as ‘black humans’, got him accused of racism. He later apologised, but met a storm of criticism again in April 2020, when a protest by migrants against abusive and unhealthy conditions in a detention centre at Tenosique resulted in a riot and a fire, and a Guatemalan migrant died of suffocation. Over a dozen of human rights organisations in Mexico then signed a petition demanding Garduño’s removal. The petition has so far been ignored by the authorities, however, and Garduño remains in office.

During the period when I met Ana’s family and João in June 2019, they were still continuing to try to get papers allowing them to leave in the northern direction. But ‘they (the authorities) don’t even talk to us’, Ana told me at one of the occasions I saw her. She was sitting on the ground then, next to a group of women queueing in front of the centre under a hellish sun. A few Africans, Cubans and Haitians wandered around and under some trees, a group of six or seven Indian men listened to frantic Bollywood-style music. The arrival of some buses disrupted the boredom and we watched as they entered the Migratory Station grounds empty, and left full. ‘Central Americans being deported’, said João.

Pedro Cardoso, Migrants arriving at Tapachula Siglo XXI Migratory Station

Pedro Cardoso, Migrants arriving at Tapachula Siglo XXI Migratory Station

Dreaming of Tijuana

On another occasion we met two Cameroonians who were suddenly very happy: they wandered around waving bus tickets and papers, and explained that they had managed to obtain a departure pass to Tijuana, border town with the United States. They were about to take the ‘Estrellas del Sur’ bus that was to leave at 2 30 PM to embark on the three day trip. ‘We have family in the US and we are going to apply for asylum’, one said with a big smile. In the background a radio played ‘Hoja en Blanco’, a hit from the 90s. ‘And fly, fly / In other directions / Go and dream, dream / That the world is yours’, the song went, in Spanish. The Cameroonians probably didn’t know Spanish, but the text fitted like a glove.

They had been gone before we could talk of the dangers that would await up north. The United Nations estimate that in 2019 alone close to five hundred people died on the Mexican border with the USA. Over a hundred of these drowned while trying to cross the Río Bravo or Río Grande; the rest lost their lives under the scorching sun of the desert. And those are only the recorded deaths. An estimated seventy thousand people have simply disappeared while crossing Mexican border territory: remaining under the radar at best, kidnapped or killed by organised crime at worst. In 2010, in the so-called Massacre of San Fernando, in Tamaulipas, Los Zetas, a syndicate regarded as one of the most dangerous of the country’s drug cartels, massacred seventy-two migrants who refused to join their ranks.

Those who survive the crossing but are caught by the US Border Patrol, are placed in detention centers. These have recently attracted much publicity for their appalling conditions, separations of children from their families, and children held in mesh cages. A wave of solidarity from empathetic Americans after the media reports has since resulted in many coming forward ‘who take in complete families of migrants, even without knowing them, just to help’, says Sara Sorto, a welfare worker at the Espacio Migrante in the border town of Tijuana, in a telephonic interview.  The luckiest of migrants now benefit of such arrangements, allowed by American law, and wait ‘in controlled freedom’ until the day of their deportation hearing.

The national guard focuses especially on those with black skin

Meanwhile, thousands who are afraid of the desert, the narcos and US border control, wait in improvised camps at the various border towns in Mexico to apply for asylum. Others ‘live in cheap hotels or apartments which they almost never leave for fear of being arrested’, says Sara Sorto, adding that the National Guard in Tijuana focuses especially on ‘those with black skin’. ‘The military and migra agents go out at night in the centre or the beach area and arrest those who cannot prove they are legally in the country, -which at the moment goes for practically all migrants’. However, ‘without any strategy for what to do next’, they are often released a few days later, presumably after once more paying bribes.

The last time I saw Ana, she said that that night the family would sleep in a pension in the center of Tapachula since they had a bit of money sent by relatives. ‘When it runs out, we’ll sleep on the street’, she told me as we said goodnight. A mutual acquaintance would tell me later that she and her family finally did succeed in reaching Ciudad Acuña, on the border with Texas. He did not know if they managed to get into the US.

But I imagine her and her husband crossing the Rio Grande, with Amélia in their arms, on their way to Canada.

Update: Migrants in the pandemic

According to Mexico’s National Migration institute only just over a hundred migrants remained in its custody after the ‘COVID 19’ closure of the country’s immigration centres last April. Over three thousand people had been deported to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Under the rules of the lockdown, gatherings in public places like parks and squares are now forbidden in Tapachula. Hotels and restaurants are closed. Migrant rights NGOs say that, while those who still have money are still able to rent rooms, others sleep on the town’s deserted outskirts. They also say that many experience hunger. The few shelters that still exist are dangerously overcrowded.

The Suchiate border river has been fenced off completely and is guarded by soldiers with face masks. An estimated seventy people reside on the river banks on the Guatemalan side, waiting to be let in to that country again. All along the border, further up north, shelters run by NGOs have closed ‘to prevent contagion’; migrants now roam the border lines and sleep in makeshift camps. According to the NGOs around three thousand people have converged in the largest such camp, in Matamoros.

Even for those who have decided to go back south — presuming that Guatemala will let them back in — the trip won’t be easy. There have been attacks on migrants recently from locals who fear virus contagion: according to the UNHCR, a Returned Migrant Service Centre in Honduras has had to close ‘due to protests by the local population against the entry of these people into the country for fear of becoming infected’. Similar stories come from Mexico. ‘We have been asking the government for data on measures to protect migrants, both from the pandemic and from hostility’, says Irineo Mujica, director of the NGO Pueblos Sin Fronteras. ‘The authorities do not even answer us’.

  1. Mayhem caused by criminal groups such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 have turned Honduras and El Salvador, into two of the most violent countries in the world. Forced recruitment of young people by these gangs is one of the main reasons for them to flee the country.
  2. Many get injured on the trip; stow-away transport on La Bestia, the freight train that traverses Mexico, in particular, has led to hundreds of cases of mutilation when people fell off the roof or had limbs crushed between cars.

*names changed
This report was published earlier this year in Angola’s Novo Journal.

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Pedro Cardoso (1982) is a Luso-Angolan journalist. He worked as a reporter at the newspaper A Semana, in Praia, Cape Verde. In 2006, he returned to Angola, where he joined the magazine Economia & Mercado and worked as the subeditor of Novo Journal in Luanda. He collaborated on academic works at the University of Coimbra and the Catholic University of Angola on Angolan society and politics. He is currently on a tour of Latin America.

Long Reads

Kenya’s Elusive Digital Driving Licenses: Who Pays and Who Profits

Leaked documents from Belgian biometrics company point to inflated pricing and political influence in license contracts.

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Kenya’s Elusive Digital Driving Licenses: Who Pays and Who Profits
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Boniface Gikunda struggled to pay his bills even more than usual under Kenya’s COVID-19 restrictions. Some days, the professional driver went without a single customer call from the three driving app services that dominate Nairobi: Uber, Taxify, and Little Cab.

But what weighed heaviest on his mind was a government mandate that required him to get a new driving license by July 1. The digital license costs 3,000 Kenyan shillings (around US$30), double the previous fee and, according to this investigation, potentially double the cost of production.

“Three thousand shillings for a Kenyan like me?” Gikunda asked rhetorically. “It’s just ridiculous for a normal driver.”

He estimates that in ordinary times, after covering the fees he pays to the driving apps and the car’s owner, plus expenses like fuel and parking, he takes home roughly KSh 500 to 800 a day. The cost of the new license could cover a week of food for him, his wife, and their son, who live in a small one-bedroom home on the outskirts of Nairobi. In his native Meru County, near Mount Kenya, the fee could cover three months of rent.

“We survive by the grace of God,” Gikunda told reporters.

To afford the license, he said he is considering borrowing money from Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), despite its personal loan interest rate of 13 percent. “At that point,” he said, “you’re desperate.”

A draft agreement between Semlex and the government includes a requirement to make conversion to digital driving licenses mandatory. Credit: OCCRP

A draft agreement between Semlex and the government includes a requirement to make conversion to digital driving licenses mandatory. Credit: OCCRP

Gikunda didn’t know that part of the money for his license fee is also likely going to KCB. Last year, the bank bought the National Bank of Kenya (NBK), which unexpectedly won the latest government tender to produce digital driving licenses.

The Kenyan government has been attempting to roll out the new licence for over a decade. A similar tender was previously awarded to Semlex Group, a Belgian biometric solutions firm, in 2008. That contract fell apart due to political wrangling.

Semlex Group’s central office in Brussels’ wealthy Uccle district. Credit: OCCRP

Semlex Group’s central office in Brussels’ wealthy Uccle district. Credit: OCCRP

A trove of leaked Semlex emails and documents analysed by Africa Uncensored, The Elephant, and OCCRP shed light on the politicised procurement process behind the digital driving license tender. The documents reveal how the individuals involved in the contract planned to personally make millions of dollars — including Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan, his Kenyan broker Mujtaba Jaffer, and unidentified consultants — at the expense of ordinary Kenyans. Moreover, internal deliberations regarding production costs and profits indicate the price of the current digital driving license may be significantly inflated.

Reporters did not find evidence of illegal activity.

The Brokers

Semlex Group was no stranger to Africa when it set its sights on Kenya.

Semlex’s partners managed to get a two-week extension from the Ministry of Transport, giving the company time to apply. “Just shows how personal contact can make this happen,” wrote an employee of Datacard, a U.S.-company now called Entrust Datacard. A spokesperson for the company told OCCRP that the individual involved is no longer with the company, which “strives to act with integrity in everything we do.” Credit: OCCRP

Semlex’s partners managed to get a two-week extension from the Ministry of Transport, giving the company time to apply. “Just shows how personal contact can make this happen,” wrote an employee of Datacard, a U.S.-company now called Entrust Datacard. A spokesperson for the company told OCCRP that the individual involved is no longer with the company, which “strives to act with integrity in everything we do.” Credit: OCCRP

The Belgium-based company had already won tenders to provide biometric products in the Comoros Islands, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar, by making friends in high places. So, when it came to bidding for the contract to produce Kenya’s new digital driving licenses in 2008, Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan made sure he had his local brokers in place from the start.

Semlex and local partner CompuLynx were issued a letter of intent by the Ministry of Transport in December 2008. “Successful news today! We were ranked ahead in the technical valuation categories and came in lower on cost,” M'Mbijjewe wrote in an email to the partners a day before MOT issued the official letter. “A good way to begin Christmas,” she added. Credit: OCCRP

Semlex and local partner CompuLynx were issued a letter of intent by the Ministry of Transport in December 2008. “Successful news today! We were ranked ahead in the technical valuation categories and came in lower on cost,” M’Mbijjewe wrote in an email to the partners a day before MOT issued the official letter. “A good way to begin Christmas,” she added.
Credit: OCCRP

One of them was Sheila M’Mbijjewe, then a Central Bank of Kenya committee official and now the state bank’s deputy governor. At the same time she was also a director in two obscure Kenyan companies owned by the powerful Mombasa-based tycoon, Mohamed Jaffer, and his son Mujtaba Jaffer.

M’Mbijjewe was an effective fixer and coordinator, who appeared to work through unnamed connections in the Ministry of Transport to ensure that the ministry’s driving license tender was awarded to Semlex. Then Mujtaba Jaffer took a leading role as the broker between Kenyan officials and the Belgian company, emails indicate.

In addition to M’Mbijjewe, other Kenyan brokers involved in the tender were also directors in the Jaffers’ nominee companies, Computer Source Point Ltd. and Infocard Africa Ltd:

  • Brown Ondego, who was previously the head of Kenya Ports Authority and at the time executive chairman of the controversial Rift Valley Railways consortium. He is listed as a director of two other Jaffer companies, Grain Bulk Handlers Limited and African Gas and Oil Ltd.
  • Kung’u Gatabaki, a corporate director who appears on the board of over a dozen companies owned by the late politician Njenga Karume. Soon after the Semlex tender he became chairman of the powerful Capital Markets Authority. Gatabaki is still listed as marketing director at Grain Bulk Handlers Limited, though he told reporters he is retired and keeping a low profile.
  • Sailesh Savani, the CEO of CompuLynx, Semlex’s technical partner on the tender. Savani was also on the board of the supermarket chain Nakumatt as well as the Kenya Bureau of Standards technical committee.

M’Mbijjewe, Ondego, Gatabaki and Savani did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mujtaba Jaffer said Computer Source Point and Infocard Africa are no longer active.

Njenga Karume’s book details how he built his business empire while serving in public office. The businesses span the hospitality, real estate, land, and agriculture industries and, at the time of his death in 2012, were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The former minister and member of parliament was part of the inner circle of every Kenyan president since the country’s independence. Credit: OCCRP

Njenga Karume’s book details how he built his business empire while serving in public office. The businesses span the hospitality, real estate, land, and agriculture industries and, at the time of his death in 2012, were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The former minister and member of parliament was part of the inner circle of every Kenyan president since the country’s independence. Credit: OCCRP

In one email, Jaffer  — who regularly referred to the Semlex CEO as “brother” — referenced a late-night meeting with the Minister of Transport. In another, he gave Njenga Karume, one of Kenya’s longest-serving and most influential former MPs, his “blessing” to make decisions on his behalf about the contract.

Jaffer told Africa Uncensored that the powerful politician was “an acquaintance of the family,” and denied any improper influence in the procurement process.

“I cannot recall every meeting as some time has elapsed since these events but I can confirm that any meeting with state officials would have centred around technical consultations,” he wrote in an email.

All of the communications between the Kenyan brokers and the Belgian firm went through Grain Bulk Handlers Limited, the Jaffers’ flagship company known for its decades-long monopoly over Kenya’s bulk grain imports, allegedly with the assistance of friendly politicians. Another family company, African Gas and Oil Ltd. (AGOL), reportedly handles and stores three-quarters of the country’s Light Petroleum Gas imports.

Jaffer said the media’s characterization of his family as political financiers who benefit from lucrative government contracts in return is unfair. “We have not openly come out backing any political party or candidate. On the contrary our business concerns have been vital to the Kenyan economy and the ordinary mwananchi [citizen],” he wrote in an email.

Diplomat East Africa magazine ran a special report on Grain Bulk Handlers Ltd. celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary in 2010. The issue included a transcript of a speech by Mohamed Jaffer made at “a glittering event” reportedly attended by then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and industry leaders. In the opening of his speech, Jaffer singled out two guests by name: Odinga and “my dear friend the Hon. Njenga Karume.” Credit: Diplomat East Africa

Diplomat East Africa magazine ran a special report on Grain Bulk Handlers Ltd. celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary in 2010. The issue included a transcript of a speech by Mohamed Jaffer made at “a glittering event” reportedly attended by then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and industry leaders. In the opening of his speech, Jaffer singled out two guests by name: Odinga and “my dear friend the Hon. Njenga Karume.”
Credit: Diplomat East Africa

With Grain Bulk’s guidance, Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan sent letters to Kenyan officials complaining of delays. Credit: OCCRP

With Grain Bulk’s guidance, Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan sent letters to Kenyan officials complaining of delays.
Credit: OCCRP

When the Semlex driving license contract was derailed by an apparent rivalry between officials at the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Finance, it was Jaffer’s company that drafted a letter to then Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, for Semlex to send. At the time, the Finance Ministry, which refused to co-sign the contract, was headed by Odinga’s main political rival, the current President Uhuru Kenyatta.

This time, Semlex’s political connections weren’t enough. Internal documents show numerous attempts to force the Finance Ministry to add their signature to the contract, to no avail.

Semlex’s contract fell apart when the Ministry of Finance refused to sign

Semlex’s contract fell apart when the Ministry of Finance refused to sign


Media stories cited a mysterious dispute between the ministries of Transport and Finance. A 2010 article in Daily Nation framed the conflict as a struggle over which agency would run the lucrative contract. Credit: OCCRP

Media stories cited a mysterious dispute between the ministries of Transport and Finance. A 2010 article in Daily Nation framed the conflict as a struggle over which agency would run the lucrative contract. Credit: OCCRP

The Semlex consortium sued the Ministry of Transport for breach of contract in 2012, but the government argued that the contract was never finalised.

That year, the responsibility for issuing driving licenses was handed over to the newly-formed National Transport and Safety Authority. Kenyatta was elected president in 2013, and the tender was relisted through NTSA the following year.

The Breakdown

Leaked internal documents reveal the gap between what the biometrics company and its brokers expected to earn, well above the KSh 2.8 billion ($35 million) awarded by the government.

Documents show the company expected to produce 2.5 to 3 million digital driving licenses over five years, at a 15 percent profit. This means the cost of production for each driving license, profits included, would amount to $11-14 — less than half the fee being charged to drivers like Gikunda today.

Screenshot of an internal Semlex document in preparation for the bid. Credit: OCCRP

Screenshot of an internal Semlex document in preparation for the bid.
Credit: OCCRP

Despite this breakdown, a draft agreement between Semlex and the Ministry of Transport states the company actually expected to collect $20 for each card. With 2.5 to 3 million licenses issued, Semlex would have collected $50-60 million.

The same agreement states that Semlex would reimburse the government anything above $20 per card. With today’s licence fee — the Ministry of Transport would have collected $25-30 million from the arrangement.

But an internal profit-sharing agreement drafted in January 2009 revealed even higher expectations. It stated that the “actual costs” of the project would not exceed $17 million, and earmarked an additional $4.4 million for unnamed “consultants.” According to the agreement, Semlex CEO Karaziwan and Grain Bulk CEO Jaffer would split the remaining profit which, from the government award alone, would amount to $6.8 million each. The agreement stipulated that they would also split “any additional bonuses.”

A draft profit-sharing agreement indicated that “actual costs” would be kept to $17 million. Credit: OCCRP

A draft profit-sharing agreement indicated that “actual costs” would be kept to $17 million. Credit: OCCRP

The unexplained consultant fee is so substantial that a transparency expert who reviewed the terms of the deal, but requested not to be named, said it could have “no conceivable” legitimate justification.

Semlex did not respond to requests for comment, and Jaffer denied that the payment was allocated for kickbacks. He declined to provide an explanation, however, saying he was “bound by confidentiality not to discuss certain matters.”

A draft profit-sharing agreement listed $4.4 million to be paid to unidentified consultants upon demand. Credit: OCCRP

A draft profit-sharing agreement listed $4.4 million to be paid to unidentified consultants upon demand. Credit: OCCRP

“Companies like Semlex that have been implicated in corruption around Africa work in deniable ways, through consultancy fees that cannot be explained and the like,” said Alvin Mosioma, head of Tax Justice Network Africa.

“The narrative of corruption reduces actions to individuals but the reality is that the entire government policy machinery has been captured by corrupt elites in collusion with private entities who see the public purse as the most lucrative avenue to loot and plunder. In Kenya, the network of corruptivity revolves around these ‘tenderprenuers’,” Mosioma added.

The New Players

The selection of the National Bank of Kenya as the winner of the NTSA’s re-listed digital driving licence tender in 2015 was unexpected, especially when its competitors included international biometric giants.

Even before the NTSA announced the winner, the bank’s selection as a finalist was challenged on the basis that it was both the bidder and its own financial guarantor, in potential violation of Kenya’s procurement regulations. The Commercial Bank of Africa — co-owned by President Kenyatta and his family — stepped in to guarantee the NBK bid and secure its contract.

Image of a court document identifying the tender finalists’ scores. Credit: OCCRP

Image of a court document identifying the tender finalists’ scores. Credit: OCCRP

There were questions about the bank’s qualifications to produce biometric documents, as well as its reputation. NBK was infamous for using taxpayer money to make up for unpaid loans handed out under shady circumstances. Regulators also cited the bank’s board members and senior managers for allegedly misrepresenting financial statements and embezzling funds.

NBK’s technical partner — a little-known startup called Pesa Print Ltd. — also had no experience in producing biometric documents. The company was started by two obscure Kenyan firms: EyeSeeYou Communications and Kenya Twelve Ventures.

Two individuals who appeared on EyeSeeYou registration documents had also worked for Njenga Karume, the late politician who appeared in the Semlex deal. According to the founders, EyeSeeYou and Pesa Print parted ways around the time of the driving license contract was won. The owner of both Kenya Twelve Ventures and Pesa Print, David Njane Ruiyi, said the contract was won competitively.

The finalists that NBK had beat out included the previous winner Semlex, French biometrics company Gemalto S.A., and the established Kenyan ICT provider Symphony Technologies, which lost to NBK by less than one percent.

Njane, Pesa Print’s co-owner, told Africa Uncensored that NBK’s qualifications came from the entire consortium, which included two European companies with technical expertise: X Infotech, headquartered in Latvia, and Austria Card, based in Vienna. Both companies cited Pesa Print as the primary contractor in the consortium.

Presa Print’s current office in Nairobi today. Credit: John-Allan Namu

Pesa Print’s current office in Nairobi today. Credit: John-Allan Namu

When NBK’s competitor, Symphony Technologies, launched a legal complaint against the government’s selection of the winner in the driving license tender, Pesa Print paid the company KSh104.5 million (about $1 million) to drop the challenge.

According to court documents, Pesa Print borrowed part of that money from companies reportedly owned by Meru County Senator Franklin Linturi. The senator reportedly borrowed the money from a bank patronized by his girlfriend, Marianne Kitany, who at the time was chief of staff to Deputy President William Ruto.

Pesa Print, the court documents said, was due to repay the loan within 48 hours of NBK receiving the first tender payment from the government. But things got messy and ended up in arbitration, where the documents were produced describing the payoff arrangement.

Symphony ceded the contentious contract to NBK. “We agreed to drop the case as a settlement was agreed and for public good (to avoid vendor issues that cause many government project delays and lengthy court processes),” Symphony told reporters in an emailed statement.

Pesa Print confirmed the payment, and said the financial arrangement with Linturi was purely transactional. The senator could not be reached for comment.

KCB Group featured Pesa Print and its COO Mark Maina in a May 2020 issue of The Venture magazine. According to the article, Pesa Print had set up a technology hub within the NTSA and was producing electronic driving license cards that “will eventually be used for payments, such as instant fines.” NBK was described as Pesa Print’s banking partner. Credit: KCB Group’s The Venture magazine

KCB Group featured Pesa Print and its COO Mark Maina in a May 2020 issue of The Venture magazine. According to the article, Pesa Print had set up a technology hub within the NTSA and was producing electronic driving license cards that “will eventually be used for payments, such as instant fines.” NBK was described as Pesa Print’s banking partner. Credit: KCB Group’s The Venture magazine

According to Njane, Pesa Print has already delivered the technology and base printed cards to the NTSA. However, one party in the consortium told reporters that card production had stalled even before government agencies shut down during COVID, and that the company was shopping around for new technical partners.

NBK did not respond to questions, but its parent company KCB Group told reporters in an emailed statement that “NBK, as the contracting party is executing its obligations and the covenants of the NTSA driving license contract as required.”

It’s unclear when the long, storied journey of Kenya’s digital driving license will be fulfilled. With the terms of the current KSh2.1 billion contract a secret, it’s also unclear exactly how much the government and the companies — as well as any politically connected brokers — stand to earn.

Meanwhile drivers like Gikunda will pay the price.

“I don’t know why the government had to come [up] with such a figure,” said Gikunda, lamenting the KSh 3000 cost of the digital license. “I don’t know what’s so special about the card.”

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Out of America or How I became a Marxist

Becoming a Marxist made me realise that there was a wider context for my existence, that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical.

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I went to study in the United States in the 1980s in the time of what was to me the inexplicable presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was an enigmatic presidency for me for two reasons. First, at my university and amongst the mostly left-leaning circles that I hang out with, I never came across anybody who had voted for him. The second reason was that, for me, Reagan was clearly challenged on the intellectual front. I could not believe that a nation with all that maendeleo, all that development we in Africa so covet, would tolerate some folksy guy who might have come from a darker and more ignorant century. Certainly, the cool left-leaning students at C University had no time for Reagan.

In my two years in the US the only person I came across who would publicly admit to having voted for Reagan was a 65-year-old black man in Albany, Georgia, my cousin’s father-in-law. Pops, as his children called him in that quintessential African American manner, would routinely loudly proclaim his love for President Reagan to people in the presence of his children. He showed me his Republican Party membership card, much to the mortification of his children who muttered that the old man was finally going senile. When he whipped out the letter from Reagan, they teased him saying that he had only received it because he was special, being the only black Republican on the planet.

Pops challenged two beliefs I had had held about voting patterns in America. First, that black people were not members of the Republican Party and, second, that they always voted for the Democratic Party.

War and America’s presidents

Eight months into America, I had imbibed the paranoid conspiracy theories of my Marxist circle and lost my African ease. Late one night I turned on the television to find President Reagan ranting and raving in the most alarming manner about the “evil empire”. He was referring to the former Soviet Union, America’s mortal enemy of the Cold War days. And you thought “Axis of evil” was original? Do you see a pattern here? This is clearly the language of America’s dumb dumb presidents.

There is a moment in the deep night when reality becomes suspended and we become susceptible to our original lurking primeval selves. In this night moment, assorted distorted demons and night creatures with names like Linani, banshees, ghosts and ghouls rule as reality twists and turns, changing shape and resonance. The howl of a dog conjures up a werewolf. On the Kenyan coast, that night moment brings with it all manner of djins and mermaids, prowling in their woman-shape to steal the souls of victim men. Mating cats evoke the screams of damned souls burning in a Christian hell. It is easy to believe the bizarre. (I am setting up my excuse for what happened next.)

It was at such a moment in the night that I found Reagan’s ranting so aggressive that as I listened I became convinced that I had only missed the first part of his speech, in which he had finally gone over the edge and declared war on the Soviet Union. That night I went to bed terrified, in the grip of my imaginary world war. Before I fell into erratic sleep, I obsessed about how I would not be able to get out of the US before the actual war started and that I would die alone in a foreign land. The next morning I was relieved and abashed to find that all was normal and there was no sign of impeding war.

Twenty years later, as I watched the elections that brought another dumb dumb, unfathomable US president to power, George W. Bush, I realised that my vantage point, with its emphasis on linear “development” or maendeleo, had warped my thinking. Until that instant, I had thought development also brings with it highly enlightened people who would not lie about the presence of weapons of mass destruction to bring pain and destruction to innocent women and children many miles away in another country. For what? For oil (I can’t believe that), to get revenge for daddy (that’s too weird), to get their way (what way, the American way in Baghdad?), to be right about a perspective? (Probably the only right answer, outrageous as it may seem).

For us in this part of the world, things like technological advancement, elimination of hunger, industrial development, foreign vacations, microwaves, one doctor per 100 people, four-lane highways, $30,000 per capita income, a new car every two years, pensions, social security, all of which come with development, also lead to progress, to maendeleo. And ultimately to enlightment, the cherry on top of the development cake. We think, surely in America or Europe there must be such enlightenment that people, ordinary people everywhere, must have become immune to the baser human urgings like fear, malice, jealousy, racism, intolerance, corruption, violence, the need to declare war for dubious reasons, religious fanaticism?

It is easy to believe that if we were to invent a machine that would test our level of enlightenment we would find that those with more development have more enlightenment. This would render them immune from making decisions driven by those unenlightened aspects of being human like uncertainty and fear of tomorrow, fear of the other, the dictates of their religion, what the Bible says, what the Koran says, what the mullahs say, what the priest says. But finally I understand that this is not the case; just because you have more stuff doesn’t mean you are more enlightened.

I now realise of course that although human beings may have made huge technological advances such that they can send men to the moon or invent the Internet, they will still rely on some form of magic, juju or alchemy to manage their lives. The advances have not created certainty. In fact, they create even more uncertainty which can drive people deeper into the bosom of their juju side.

From Nairobi to America

Before I went to America, I was a student of the biological sciences at the University of Nairobi. Someone had put the University of Nairobi on the then outskirts of town. But this had not been far enough. By the 1970s, the outskirts were already part of the central business district and students would make their grievances felt by literally pelting the central business district with sticks and stones. It was a rioting student’s paradise. During my time, there were numerous riots, demonstrations and campaigns, many with echoes of Marxism or some left-leaning ideology with students shouting slogans like “Down with the bourgeoisie! The proletariat rules!!!” as they battled the police in the streets.

Somehow, throughout these riots I was able to remain largely free of any ideological infection. Which is incredibly surprising because we were sent home on at least four occasions over three years because of some issue with ideological overtones. In total, we spent about seven months at home. The male students had to report to their local chief every week but the women were not perceived to be a threat so we did not have to.

The only time I was absolutely certain about what we were striking for was the time we went on strike over food. We were all tired of the strange cuisine. The final provocation came when even the minced meat had weevils in it. Weevils will infest beans, legumes, rice, maize, but none feed on meat. So I could never get it; how did the weevils get into the minced meat? We half-joked that they must have used them as seasoning.

Rioting students

It was always those unserious arts students at main campus who started the riots. With our 36 hours a week schedule, we science students had no time for such frivolous pursuits. Also, we had no ideology to spur us to action and were so out of touch with current issues that we had no idea that our politicians were up to no good and that we should care. No science lecturer was ever caught in the political crosshairs, at least not during my time.

With their 8 hours a week lecture schedule which we sneered at, the arts students had plenty of time for ideologies such as Marxism and for the political issues they cared about, and they had lecturers with a death wish to egg them on. To get us to join their strike the arts students had to use threat and force; when a strike started we would be the first target and rather than face the wrath of our fellow students we joined in. Soon we were caught up in the excitement of the moment and forgot our original reluctance.

We ran around town in our jeans and sneakers being chased by the police, stoning unsuspecting motorists in an orgy of anarchy that was surprisingly heady even when the consequences could be a beating or rape by the police and the paramilitary (at the time they did not use live ammunition) and expulsion from university. I took part in the running around town but I didn’t want to take part in the stoning of motorists in case one of those motorists was my mother or father or one of their friends.

Twenty years later, I almost became one of the nameless motorists we used to talk so casually about, the one who lost her eye, (“Oh, how sad”), the one who died (uncomfortable silence), the one whose car was set ablaze and had her leg broken when she tried to jump over a six-foot fence hotly pursued by angry students shouting “down with the bourgeoisie, workers unite!” (loud laughter at the image of the heavyset woman trying to jump a six-foot fence).

That scene from a long time ago came to me as I came face to face with a young man about to hurl a stone at my windscreen. Time stood still. I had driven into the midst of rioting university students. Have you ever had one of those moments of danger when your life hangs in the balance under the specter of deadly violence? I live in Africa so I have had several. For me these moments always come with a loud metallic screeching/whistling sound. A sound that crystallises danger itself.

Photo. Unsplash / Pawel Janiak

Photo. Unsplash / Pawel Janiak

From nowhere the moment was interrupted; a student stepped in and stopped the young man at the last possible moment, for no reason that I can fathom, except that my day had not yet come. “Drive away!” he shouted urgently at me. I reversed and drove like the devil escaping my moment.

Being cold in America

I arrived in America in the dead of winter never having experienced winter in my life. I also went to a Marxist university only having been vaguely aware of this ideology or the concept of ideologies for that matter, so I was green on many fronts. If my father had known, and then been able to believe, that he was sending me to America to a Marxist university, would he have so happily taken me to the airport with such pride, giving me one of his gems to take with me? I repeated it later to my new boyfriend, starry-eyed, in a “behold the wisdom of my father, I want to share it with you” moment, only to find that it was Confucius who originated it. You can guess the one: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. I remember laughing and not being embarrassed by the busting of my father’s “original” gem. You must understand that I had once believed that my father could speak Russian.

It was the cold that almost got me first. It was February, the dead of winter. On my sixth day there, I looked out of the window and the sun was shining off the pristine snow. I felt joyful at the prospect of warm sunshine on my skin. I dressed and walked the one kilometre to the university campus. Only I got colder and colder. Sunshine did not equal warmth here. The light coat and sweater I had put on were no defense against the bitter winter cold. Twenty minutes later I was sitting in the reception room of the University admission block, feeling sorry for myself, trying not to cry as my ears, toes and fingers painfully thawed. I would have gone back home that second if my ticket had not been one-way.

A party in America

I eventually settled in, made some friends and was soon invited to my first party. The word “party” should mean the same thing wherever you are, right? For me at that time it meant dressing up in something sexy and provocative, make-up, jewelry (I still secretly believe that it was I who introduced the whole bling concept to the US), high heels and looking forward to dancing and meeting gorgeous and dateable guys. I marvel today at how many eligible men there were to choose from back then at any party, I was always spoilt for choice.

So of course I arrive at the party Kenyan style, dressed to the nines and fashionably late, to make my entrance and to envelope myself in the “whose that girl” factor. The cachet in being remembered translated directly into the attention of at least three of the hottest guys at the party. And then the routine. Open the door of the crowded room, stop, framed by the door, hold pose as if looking for someone while what you are actually doing is allowing them to look at you, and then step into the room sure of the impression you have created.

Photo. Unsplash / Jonathan Simcoe

Photo. Unsplash / Jonathan Simcoe

I went into routine mode and nearly gagged as I realised just what an overdressed spectacle I was. One woman was still in the droopy old t-shirt that she had used when we went jogging that morning. The only difference now was that the widening sweat marks under her armpits were not because of the jogging but because of the heat in the room. I couldn’t believe it! The other students were similarly dressed in old jeans, t-shirts, sweats and ill-fitting sweaters. I was now embarrassed as all eyes turned on me just as I had intended but retreat would only have made me even more conspicuous. I held my head up and, deciding to brazen it, walked into the room. This was only the beginning of my introduction to party etiquette in America.

Did I mention that I was a geek from University of Nairobi? I soon learned a new definition of geek because a Nairobi University geek took time out to party and one of our rules was that you never talked about anything remotely related to the courses you were taking during party time. I don’t remember what we talked about but what we did at parties was dance like mad, and tune and be tuned. But here at university in the US life was one continuous seminar without end.

I joined a group of friends and my face lit up in a smile anticipating delicious banter with that cute guy I had the hots for. As I stood there awhile, I realised that I needed to quickly disappear the smile; it was clearly inappropriate during a discussion about historical materialism, Hegel, Marx, Gramsci… After 15 minutes looking for an opportunity to make an impression I gave up. I knew the language. English. But if you had held a gun to my head and asked, “Tell me what they are talking about or I shoot,” I would have had to let you shoot my brains out. I had no idea. I moved to another group of my friends and found them similarly engaged in what can only be referred to as deep intellectual discourse and again I could not understand them. My frustration was growing; you can understand what this was like for a loud and voluble person. This is my only point in mitigation for what happened next. The third group held some promise. There was a word I found familiar, and as I write what I said, my toes still curl up in embarrassment twenty years on. The word was “reactionary”. I had to seize the moment and make my intellectual mark. “Oh!” I said, “President Moi is a reactionary, he always reacts to everything.” I looked around at the upturned faces with pride at this insight.

And then I launched into a story about President Moi and his reactions, by way of illustration you understand. “One time when we were at the university, President Moi had gone to India on a state visit. By the time he returned it was a week before JM Day, the day on which a populist member of parliament called J.M. Kariuki had been assassinated 10 years before. The students always marked the day with demonstrations which soon deteriorated into riots and running battles with the police. The university was always closed after the fracas. This year though, we students had gone against the grain and decided that we would mark the day by doing good in the community. We had decided to establish a J.M. Kariuki Foundation and to clean up slum areas and donate to poor people. So when we heard the president’s declaration even before he set foot on Kenyan soil that all third-year students would be expelled and ‘the nation would feel nothing if we dared riot on this year’s J.M. Kariuki Day’, we were so outraged that we were simply provoked into action. We rioted. And funnily enough, for the first time he did not react for the first week. We then decided that we would riot until he sent us all home. So we did.”

Many years down the road, I am still grateful that they did not burst out laughing. Instead, someone politely said one word “yes, that’s an interesting perspective to the word reactionary, you are quite right President Moi is a reactionary”, and the conversation continued seamlessly.

Going home a feminist

I soon got used to the American party style, so much so that when I came back home I had a hard time adjusting to the Kenyan approach. More so because I had come back with a head full of ideologies that did not mix well with the oglefest that is the Kenyan party. I took years to get back on track, spending time at parties skulking in corners with one or two other like-minded people, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, both habits picked up in America and now used to camouflage my despair at the lack of opportunity for rigorous intellectual discourse at these Kenyan affairs.

Of all the ideologies I picked up abroad, the most incompatible with my country was my hardcore feminism. It was not just any ordinary feminism, but one that looked for converts with the fanaticism of a born-again Christian from the American Bible Belt out to capture souls in Africa. And I never missed a chance to advance my mission. I was a one-woman missionary determined to be martyred at the altar of feminism.

Photo. Unsplash / Marcus Winkler

Photo. Unsplash / Marcus Winkler

Like red flags to a bull, statements that would spur me into action were endless. “Oh you know women are like that” or “Oh you know women are their own worst enemy.” Back then my country was still so innocent that it did not know that it should hide its chauvinism from view, at least in public. There were many sexist and misogynist statements made in my hearing by men and women on a daily basis.

Just so that there would be no room for speculation, I would declare my feminism openly on introduction. It wasn’t quite, “Hi my name is Sitawa and I am a rabid feminist who is vigilant and looking for opportunities to spring into action in defense of women everywhere by lecturing you into submission for any anti-woman statement that I may detect”. But it might as well have been. How I actually introduced myself was “Hello my name is Sitawa and I am a feminist”, I said, looking them straight in the eye, daring them to make a joke of my declaration.

Just in case you might be misled into thinking that there was any irony here and maybe laugh out loud because you found the introduction funny, the clothing and demeanor completed the picture. I wore a uniform of black jeans, shapeless t-shirts and sneakers, the drab universal uniform of feminists — in the US at least. “Appreciate my mind not my behind” is what I meant to say with my whole presentation to protect myself from another little trait I had picked up in the US, an aversion for unsolicited male attention.

All my friends were innocents. After I had lectured three or four of them for half an hour each on separate occasions I soon found myself alone. I wore my aloneness like a badge of honour, seeing it as the inevitable price paid by any champion of a cause who sticks their neck out. Thank goodness I had seen the film “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner”; I could use the image conjured by the title to console myself when I felt like giving up.

In an act of rebellion against my society, I smoked openly even in front of my father. This particular statement was especially effective in establishing my rebel credentials to no one in particular. When my friends gasped and questioned this particular act as going too far, I had another lecture prepared for them. “My aunts,” I would say from my imaginary soapbox. “Upcountry, in the rural areas, women smoke and drink so why shouldn’t I?” In the western part of Kenya women can smoke cigarettes. Some of my aunts smoke cigarettes but with the lit end inside their mouths. I have never seen a man smoke in this fashion and I don’t know why. I have one particular aunt who is hard-smoking and hard-drinking, who has always gone drinking with her husband, so I just don’t understand the sanctions levied against the so-called modern African woman, the city woman.

I have long since quit all those habits I picked up in America. I gave up picking on everybody around me because I realised that I had mistaken being constantly angry and fighting with people who did not agree with my opinion with championing a cause. Besides, it was alienating and exhausting and no one wanted to hang out with me because I was so intense. When my friends could talk to me again they told me that they had run away from me because I was just plain boring.

Impressions of the American South 

I went to visit my cousin’s in-laws in the American south in Albany, Georgia for a week and discovered I could not hear so I took to endless grinning and nodding my head. I left those people thinking I was simple in the head. But I couldn’t understand them and I soon got tired of asking them to repeat themselves so I withdrew into an African grin of protection and lost my reputation in the process. They speak English in the south so it wasn’t the language, but there was still a language barrier. The long dragged out words that go on seemingly forever lost my short attention span. I found that my mind had wondered before the end so I never heard the finish. “Caaaahhhn aaaaah speeeek to Eyyyyd Coooook” is what I thought I overheard a woman in a bank asking. It was shocking to hear, like somebody caricaturing an American. I tried not to laugh and asked my cousin-in-law what the woman was saying. And she translated, “Can I speak to Ed Cook?”

I visited my first flea market during that visit to the south. A large African-like market selling what we call mitumba in Kenya; old clothes and shoes, kitchenware, furniture, as well as more specialised things like vintage clothing (read very old mitumba) and stuff that was ordinary people’s artistic expressions of themselves. My cousin-in-law introduced me to a little old black woman at a stall selling miscellaneous mitumba as her cousin from Africa.

“What!” proclaimed the little old black woman, “But you real pretty, I thought Africans were dark black with kinky hair and big fat noses and mouths but you real fine,” she declared in amazement.

I was equally astonished at the casual black-on-black racist stereotype that she spewed, blithely unaware that she should hide it or at least not say it straight to my face. But she was simply the first of many to air such views. During my two-week sojourn in the south, I soon grew accustomed to hearing from black people similar guileless declarations about some African stereotype that I didn’t fit. From questions about where I learnt to dance like that (I can dance!), to where I had learnt to speak “so proper”, to my dress sense and on and on.

Virtual segregation in the American South

The other big thing that I experienced for the first time in the US was hardwired virtual segregation. There were no signs designating white and black zones anywhere in Albany that I saw. Indeed, on the surface all seemed well in terms of race relations. But even my cousin’s Republican father-in-law made sure he hid his de-segregated business to keep up appearances. He was in business with a white person because the partnership allowed him to get white business. But to keep that lucrative white business he had to keep his partnership hidden and so he passed himself off as a worker in the business. I realise the logic is challenging.

The two groups occupied the same physical spaces, they ate at the same restaurants, entered all buildings and transport from the same entrance, sat anywhere on buses. And yet my foreigner’s eyes quickly saw through this façade and identified the fault lines of virtual segregation. The new apartheid still did not allow the twain to commune freely even as they congregated. I could feel the barriers as soon as I stepped into those spaces. There was a sense of forced togetherness. If the gap between the two races could speak it would say, “Ok, we have to share this same physical space but we are not giving up our right to be separate. They can take away our right to segregation but they can’t take segregation out of our hearts”. It was in what was missing in the interaction between black and white. There was no ease, peacefulness, insignificance, silence, freedom, love.

What existed in that gap was tension, a hateful watchfulness and worst of all an embryonic violence that was always ready to grow into fully-fledged adulthood. You could feel it. This violence ebbed and flowed and hung around like a dark threat. When I was amongst black people everyone was relaxed, very laid back, but in the presence of a group of white people in the segregated spaces there was an all round tensing alertness, an expectation of something unpleasant.

Black and white people occupied those common public spaces differently too. White people seemed to strut and begrudge black people’s presence. It was white people who still seemed to be the bona fide owners of the space. Black people were the interlopers, but they had no choice, they had to occupy the spaces, otherwise they risked recreating segregation by their absence. But the sense of threat in those spaces implied that black people occupied those spaces at their peril. Desegregation had been about pulling down the limits placed on the existence of black people. It was not white people who were fighting to sit in the seats reserved for black people on buses or to use the blacks-only entrances. Desegregation demands that white people cede the space and privileges that define their superior place in society.

Race in the north

My experience of race in the American north was not one of absence but rather that the north was racially clandestine, a state I much preferred. It gave me freedom to spend many more hours in a day being just another human being. The colour of my skin was not a constant conscious presence foisted on me by open racial hostility. Thank you but I am not black, I really am just a person. I am an African living in Africa so although I have many identities, being black is not my premier identity. That is the advantage of growing up black in Africa.

When I brought this to the attention of my southern black relatives-in-law they made that claim that always bemuses me. “I like the south,” they said, “the boundaries are clear, people here are not hypocrites like in the north. I know where I stand with them here”.

“I know where I stand?” What the hell is that? What I understand from that telling statement is an admission on the part of black people that it’s OK for there to be limits on a black person’s existence. I never heard a white person say things like that, only black people. For a person to know where he or she could go and what he or she could expect from their world simply because of the hue of their skin. In other words there was a limit of possibility which means that there was no possibility at all. And it was fine for white people to have veto powers over the dreams, the scope of existence of black people. You can dream so much and no more. You can aspire so far and no further, these are the limits on your movement. And black people accepted this proscribed world and were happy that they knew their place in this controlled world. That world was a banned dream which they passed on to their children and this was done with the active connivance of black people.

I understand how dangerous the world in which black people live in the south is. I imbibed a small part of that fear many thousands of miles away from movies and media reports of the Ku Klux Klan. So much so that I arrived in America terrified. For four days I refused to leave my sister’s apartment because I was sure the Ku Klux Klan were going to gun me down. Living with that dreadful history can skew anyone and the wonder is that black people have lived to step out of the shadow of such terrors and nightmares. The journey has had its negative impact such that sometimes their ability to see beyond the boundaries of their terror has been compromised.

This is where Africans can lend their sight when dreams have been extinguished. We have the same racial reality because our existence in the world gives us the same reference points. Yet we live in our own homes largely amongst our own people. We are not vested only in a racial reality. Our human reality predominates. We can fly above “black person negatives” and separate fact from damaging fiction.

A person exposed to these negatives on a daily basis for most of their life will lose their perspective. Such an environment can beat down the most thick-skinned, sanguine, optimist man and woman and create an oversensitive “defensive human” who can no longer see the forest for the trees and perceives racism under every bush. Such an environment can leave people severely embattled and debilitated. The centuries of actual and virtual lynching that black people have been subjected to in the US will do that.

Psychologically I am rather sensitive. I found the race issue to be intrusive enough in the north where it was not so in-your-face.. I found myself engaged from time to time in what manifested as flash-back-filled bouts of mother-less-child weeping. The kind of crying that was inconsolable, with heaving and copious tears. The kind that is only done in hiding. The first time it happened I did not understand what was going on. From nowhere came floods of tears. At first they were quite frequent, every three months or so. Soon the stretch between one bout and another grew and they finally stopped. I had stopped expecting more out of this country.

What were they? They were silent tears of rage and despair at the seemingly unseen-with-the-naked-eye accumulation of incidents of racism that I encountered on a daily basis. My mother has always told me that I am too thin-skinned, I let things get too easily under my skin. And it’s true. I just let the incidents seep into my subconscious. I never could speak out at them. I had no skills to deal with them in the moment. The moment of action would be long past before I recognised what had happened. And some were subtle, only discernable in the pattern my subconscious registered as I remained preoccupied with the hunt for that cut price designer shoe that I desired and could afford on my student stipend only if I bought it in a bargain basement-type store. It wasn’t until it had long happened, again and again, from store to store, in a single day, that I finally recognised what had been going on. The only black person in the group of friends being singled out for kindly help, again and again.

So what about the Marxism?

So what about the Marxism itself? I know that many people will find it surprising that I became a Marxist in America but it was common knowledge back then that you were likely to become Marxist, or at the very least end up leaning way to the left ,if you did your studies in the US. The reverse held true if you went to study in the USSR, you turned irrevocably capitalist and probably ended up holding some extreme rightwing perspectives. Certainly, I found many of my friends and relatives who went to study in the USSR ideologically bereft. For both groups it was shopping that did it. According to my friends who went to the USSR, the empty shelves turned them to the right.

In the US the shopping experience couldn’t have been more different. Walk into a supermarket, any old supermarket, not even some hypermarket, and there were shelves and shelves of different brands of detergents. Twenty different brands of dog food. Try buying toothpaste and you had to choose from a row of thirty brands. I was confused about what parameters to base my choice on, and offended at the waste. As a consumer, I had to ask myself why would I need thirty varieties of toothpaste to choose from? What’s funny is that back home the thought of such a long list of western goodies had always sounded delicious. Back then, western goodies were in short supply and some were not available in real time. You did not expect to keep up with trends in music or fashion in real time for example. There was a genuine difference between the third and first worlds largely based on time.

This time difference meant that at home there was a premium to being ahead of the pack. I still remember the cachet of being one of the first to own those skin-tight Jordache jeans that were not going to hit the Nairobi streets for another two years at least, the first to wear the latest lip gloss, the really glossy kind. This particular trend might become extinguished before it’s existence is even heard of in Nairobi, and there I was wearing it because I had made a trip to New York city. With some of these more transient trends there was always the danger that no one ever got to even hear about them and decide that they were a “must have” fashion item. The extreme third world trendoid ran the risk of simply looking strange and eccentric rather than enviably trendy. Sometimes I thought that it would have been useful to wear a T-shirt reading, “This thing that I am wearing really is the latest trend in London, New York, Milan.”

The road to my becoming a Marxist was littered with hardship though, and I almost didn’t make it. First, it was clear that I had a problem, I was the problem. When I stepped into the graduate class at C University, I was the first African for over ten years. And I was the first African woman in more years than that. I am Kenyan, which back then had a baffling specialness. I still remember the whispers as I walked past fellow students during the first few weeks. Later, when I made friends, I found out that my arrival had been announced and was anticipated, “Class we will have a real Kenyan woman”. I was used to being taken for granted much more at home. For a while I basked in this adulation. Soon enough it was rudely interrupted. Apparently it had come to everyone’s attention that I was bourgeois. This according to the Marxists made me a criminal. It was my political class in Africa that kept the peasants downtrodden while my economic class exploited the workers. I was held personally culpable for the ills of the continent. I kid you not; when the lecturers talked about the problem the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie presented in Africa, my fellow classmates turned round and looked at me with accusing eyes.

And it gets worse; I had servants. This particular thing was treated like some sort of character flaw. A friend of mine captures the dangers of being found out as an employer of servants by left-leaning elements in the US at that time. She was doing the bleeding-heart liberal thing, working in one of those poorly paid jobs while learning at the feet of some feminist guru. One day she was called into the boardroom where the head feminists were meeting. The interrogation revolved around questions of whether she had servants at home. She turned red (she is a Kenyan of a hue that can blush) and fidgeted violently, giving her discomfort away. She realised she was on the horns of a dilemma. What was she to do? If she admitted that she had servants she could be fired. But she realised her behaviour had given her away so an outright lie was out of the question. She chose to limit the potential damage by making a partial admission.

“Yes we have servants”, she admitted with her fingers crossed, “But only part-time.” Many years later we roared with laughter at how much we lay down at the feet of little tyrants just because they were supposed to be ideologically sound.

To be honest, although I would have chewed razorblades before I admitted this back then, the logic of my fellow students escaped me, but I was still intimidated into silence. This is what I would have told them had I been able to speak up. “Any African attending university is by definition no longer a peasant, a worker or a proletariat even if they are a direct descendent of any of these preferred classes. A real worker is out there being just that, a worker, not attending graduate school in the USA. Not all Africans are guilty of oppressing their brothers and sisters back home. Heck, Africans have the right to not be poor, peasants or workers. We can be anything.” This is what has always been so intriguing for me. The attitudes of my fellow students were not strange. Africans are allowed only to be poor. It seems to me that the logic that follows is that then they can be saved or rescued from their conditions by kindly Westerners. There is no place for Africans who can look after themselves in the psyche of the West. And interestingly, there appears to be no scenario for what happens when the “helping” has worked. The logic seems to suggest that for Africans there must be no rainbow.

News of a coup

In 1982 news of a coup in my country was met with all round gloating. A fellow student whom I considered a friend broke the news of the coup with words to this effect:

“You Kenyans have been the darlings of the West and now finally you have fallen!” he announced with glee.

He was not simply being mean, he was just being a Marxist. Others joined in, expressing joy at the collapse of this false citadel that was often touted as a capitalist success story by the West much to the chagrin of the leftist elements in the same West. Today that Kenya seems too good to be true. A few years earlier, in 1975, a World Bank report had noted that “Kenya is now in the second year of its second decade as an independent nation. Behind it lies a record of sustained growth in production and income that has rarely been surpassed by countries in Kenya’s stage of development”. These are some of the statistics that offended people: In 1975 27 per cent of Kenya’s population was living below the poverty line. GDP grew at a rate of 6.6 per cent. It is true that by 1982 things were beginning to collapse as the post-Kenyatta regime that we like to call the “Moi error” began to slash at the progress made in the first decade of the country’s independence.

Today Kenya is very different; World Bank statistics reveal a country deeply mired in poverty. Poverty levels are at 57 per cent and, between 1997 and 2002 GDP has reached a low of 1.1 per cent. Although it is doing much better now, it is literally digging itself out from a deep hole. Is Kenya today a Marxist’s wet dream? I don’t know, all I can say that it is uncomfortable to live in the midst of all this poverty. And now, many years later, we know that extreme poverty does not a revolution make. From examples everywhere, it can lead to a total implosion as a country sinks into civil war or worse.

My response to the coup

Whilst my fellow students celebrated back then, all I could think of was the safety and security of my family and friends. Beyond that I didn’t know what else to think. We Kenyans had grown used to the idea that we were special, not like other African countries which we saw as prone to coups and other forms of violent unrest and crazy despotic leaders. Our leaders were mild in comparison. With this mindset, I was simply unprepared. Over the next four days, my alarm grew when I was unable to get through to my parents when I tried to reach them by phone. I eventually got through and confirmed that all my family were safe. One of the symbols of our success was an efficient telephone system. I could always get through. What is amazing is the accuracy of some of the stories I heard about what happened to people I knew thousands of miles away. I heard about a guy whom I knew getting shot while looking at the unfolding coup through the window of a second-floor apartment and I came home to find this story to be true; he had indeed died in exactly the way it had been described to me.

This meanness not withstanding, Marxism gave me a huge measure of freedom by giving my mind options to go beyond. It gave me alternatives to understanding how life works. I came to appreciate that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical and that there was a wider context for my existence. As for Ronald Reagan, he unwittingly played his part in expanding my mind and making sure that I had to step out of the shadow of ideas of America as the land of salvation for myself or my continent. For two years, I watched this man behave as if he had come from a village in the dark ages and I gave up all my notions of the West as the source of wisdom, hope and help for my continent.

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Kenya Should Get Out of Somalia and Negotiate With Al Shabaab

For decades, Somalia regarded Kenya as a neutral arbiter, unlike Ethiopia, where long-standing resentments against Somalia have endured. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia in 2011 and its meddling in the country’s internal affairs have ruined Kenya-Somalia relations and emboldened Al Shabaab.

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Kenya Should Get Out of Somalia and Negotiate With Al Shabaab
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Kenya’s military should leave Somalia. The 2011 intervention was billed as quick and short, but instead, it has metastasised into an almost decade-long occupation.

Kenya should depart Somalia for three specific reasons. One, the military campaign designed to “destroy” and “defeat” Al Shabaab, and keep Kenya and Kenyans safe has instead increased the group’s attacks on Kenya and Kenyans. Two, the need for a more robust domestic counterterrorism response to Al Shabaab’s attacks has led to egregious violations of human rights, and in the process, torpedoed the nascent police reform project. Three, the intervention also upended Kenya’s relations with Ethiopia, a vital partner in the Horn of Africa. It eviscerated soft power with Somalia, severely hamstringing Kenya’s diplomatic leverage in the region.

I. Operation Lindi Nchi

Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia took many Horn watchers and me by surprise because this was the first time Kenya undertook an independent military operation outside the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation. Intriguingly, the government provided little public information regarding Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Defend the Country).

But to any discerning person with a passing interest in the Horn of Africa’s history and politics, Kenya’s strategy, operation, the tactic, and geopolitical goal of the mission was at best foggy.

I was a young Horn of Africa analyst when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) crossed the border and entered Somalia in November 2011. To make sense of the intervention, I sought the views of three individuals. The first was the then military spokesperson, Major Emmanuel Chirchir. I sat down with him, not to understand the precise reason for the intervention, but to tap into the thought process that preceded it and the exit strategy.

The meeting left me deeply worried. The useful major failed to provide coherent answers to my questions. Later, his press briefings and Twitter engagements fortified my worries. His meetings descended into a series of amateur performances. In one incident, Major Chirchir shared these photos on his Twitter handle.

Posts from Major Chirchir's Twitter account.

Posts from Major Chirchir’s Twitter account.

The Associated Press published these photos, which were later published in the Daily Mail on Dec. 15, 2009. Major Chirchir was roundly pilloried for using the report to criticise Al Shabaab. This confirmed that public information management, a critical component of any military campaign, was being done on the fly, or not taken seriously. The lack of general information and ill-thought out communications campaign remained features of the army.

The second person whose insight I sought was Bethwel Kiplagat. The late ambassador was Kenya’s envoy during the 30-months marathon Somalia peace process in Kenya from 2003 to 2005. I was keen to glean any insight he could share. Kenya had to intervene to stop Al Shabaab because they posed a security threat to Kenya, Kiplagat told me. He said the political process could not go ahead if Al Shabaab threatened the fragile government in Mogadishu.

Next, I looked for Retired General Lazarus Sumebiyo, the IGAD’s special envoy for the South Sudan Peace Process. The general told me that entering Somalia was the “dumbest thing” the government could have done; shorter, well-calibrated strikes targeting Al Shabaab, rather than a protracted ground intervention, could have done the job better. He alluded that the invasion marked a deviation from Kenya’s policy of regional diplomacy that has served the country so well in the past.

The general told me that entering Somalia was the “dumbest thing” the government could have done; shorter, well-calibrated strikes targeting Al Shabaab, rather than a protracted ground intervention, could have done the job better.

Almost a decade into the intervention, the “dumbest thing” continues with no end in sight. Instead of defeating and destroying Al Shabaab, the campaign has ruptured relations with Ethiopia, for decades, the nation’s most significant partner in the region.

II. Botched Military Campaign

Major Chirchir’s failure to answer some of the fundamental questions spoke to a much larger problem with the intervention: the military intervention was never approved by the National Assembly as required by the Constitution. Article 95(6) of the Constitution states: “The National Assembly approves declarations of war and extensions of states of emergency.” The Somalia intervention was announced by the Minister for Internal Affairs, George Saitoti, instead of the Minister for Defence, Yusuf Haji.

As a measure of how little strategic thinking went into the military campaign, the intervention was launched in October, a rainy season in Somalia, like in other countries in the Horn and East Africa region. Immediately after the attack started, most of the mechanised units got stuck in mud.

Asymmetrical warfare

History is littered with significant and powerful armies humbled in battlefields by weaker opponents, especially in low-intensity conflicts. Fighting an unconventional militant group using a conventional method was always bound to fail in the long run. Al Shabaab has time on its side while a traditional army must go by the clock. They can outwait any traditional command, and forgetting this basic principle comes with a steep cost. But the Kenyan military seems to have learned little from their Somalia experience. The KDF has also maintained a domestic military operation against Al Shabaab in Lamu’s Boni Forest. This operation, like the operation in Somalia, has predictably stalled.

The Kenyan military’s initial media briefing was full of the bravado indicative of a short military campaign. It did not take long for assumed quick victory to recede from view; by June, less than eight months after the intervention, Kenya’s military ‘rehatted by joining the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Resigned cynicism has long replaced the early days of jingoism. The campaign has faded into background noise except for occasional media mention when the military suffers casualties. Its low priority in the collective Kenyan consciousness has insulated the leadership, including Parliament, from any form of accountability.

Although Kenya’s military intervention was during retired President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, President Uhuru Kenyatta has been an enthusiastic supporter. President Kenyatta, speaking about the intervention, said, “And in pursuance of this objective and that of the international community, our troops will continue being part of AMISOM until such time that our objective has been achieved.” However, there is little ground to suggest AMISOM, first deployed on 9 January 2007, is anywhere near achieving its goal. In military campaigns, an open-ended campaign without clear military and political goals invariably leads to mission creep.

III. Kenya and Terrorism

Kenya has been a target of international terrorist groups, but the attacks focused primarily on Western interests in Kenya because of the country’s perceived close alliance with the West. The first major terrorist attack on Kenyan soil occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1980, retribution for Kenya’s assistance to Israeli Defence Forces in Operation Entebbe. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine bombed the Norfolk Hotel, an upscale hotel frequented by foreign diplomats and in the past by the occasional head of state, such as Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. Most of the twenty fatalities and nearly 100 injured were not Kenyan.

On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda in East Africa attacked the United States embassy in Nairobi, killing 213 and injuring more than 4,000 people. A simultaneous attack on the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 11 and wounded more than 100. Somalia’s connections to Al Qaeda were instrumental in planning and carrying out these attacks.

Four years later, on December 28, 2002, Al Qaeda in East Africa attacked the Paradise Hotel, an Israeli- owned hotel in Kikambala, Kenya, killing 15 and injuring 80. The same day, the group attempted but failed to bring down Arkia Airline’s flight 582 from Mombasa’s Moi International Airport to Tel Aviv.

Domestic blowback

Following Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, Al Shabaab launched an unprecedented number of attacks on Kenyan soil, with most of their attacks focused on Kenyan interests and Kenyan citizens. These attacks occurred throughout the country, forming an arc across Northern Kenya, the Kenyan coast, and Nairobi. The violent response visited upon local communities in the name of counterterrorism complicated the problem.

The region has always been susceptible to spillovers from Somalia’s internal conflicts due to the long shared borders with Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenya’s ethnic Somali and other Muslim minorities experience festering contemporary disenfranchisement and historical marginalisation. The marginalisation is despite the decentralisation of power and resources in 2010 under the new constitution. Al-Shabaab took full advantage of Kenya’s vulnerabilities and porous border to tap into these grievances.

Al Shabaab also started attacking international aid workers, government officials, and military targets, while fueling tensions by specifically killing non-Muslim civilians. The most significant Al Shabaab attack to date in Kenya occurred on April 2, 2015, in Garissa County when shooters stormed Garissa University. During the attack, 147 Kenyans, mostly students, died and 79 were wounded. Five hundred people escaped the attacks, which witnesses say singled out Christians before shooting.

Kenyan Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) man their position at El-Adde in the southwestern Gedo region of Somalia on January 22, 2016. AMISOM Photo/ Abdisalan Omar

Kenyan Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) man their position at El-Adde in the southwestern Gedo region of Somalia on January 22, 2016. AMISOM Photo/ Abdisalan Omar

Inside Somalia, the KDF was not safe either. On the morning of January 15, 2016, Al Shabaab fighters attacked and overran an AMISOM forward operating base garrisoned by KDF troops from the 9th Rifle Battalion in the Battle of El Adde. By the end of the day, an estimated 141 Kenyan soldiers were dead. That figure would make the single most considerable loss for Kenya’s military since independence. Slightly over one year after the El Adde attack, on 27 January 2017, Al Shabaab took KDF’s military base briefly before being dislodged. In both incidents, the Kenyan government did not release the exact number of casualties; instead it played catch-up while disputing figures released by Al Shabaab.

Domestic attacks spurred the government to launch a strong response. Unfortunately, the choice of action came at a critical transitional moment. After decades of human rights violations, the Kenya police were finally undergoing structural transformation buttressed by provisions in the 2010 Constitution.

IV. Police Reform and Counterterrorism

As a response to deteriorating internal security, Kenya instituted a raft of legal, policy, and administrative moves. Parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), established a new Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU), and launched counterterrorism operations across Eastleigh, coastal Kenya, and North- Eastern, all areas where Al Shabaab is active. These operations led to egregious human rights violations, disregard for due process of law, and resulted in extrajudicial executions and disappearances of suspected Al Shabaab members.

Several human rights organisations and the media have documented these violations. It is not just suspected Al Shabaab members who were targeted, human rights groups documenting government agencies’ violations were also targeted through legal and bureaucratic suffocation that paralysed their daily operations. This included closing their offices, taking away their computers, using Kenya Revenue Authorities to question their tax compliance, and freezing their bank accounts.

Domestic attacks spurred the government to launch a strong response. Unfortunately, the choice of action came at a critical transitional moment. After decades of human rights violations, the Kenya police were finally undergoing structural transformation buttressed by provisions in the 2010 Constitution.

However, the Kenya Police’s human rights violations documented by the media and human rights organisations within the context of counterterrorism operations are not an exception but rather a continuation of an established trajectory. The Kenya Police has a documented history of human rights violations and impunity. The Executive’s appointment of senior police leadership without oversight from the state’s arms before the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution made the Kenya Police malleable to the Executive’s demands. It conferred the impunity to intimidate political opponents.

There have been sustained efforts to reform the police in the past. The latest followed the eruption of violence following the 2007-2008 national elections. As part of the mediation process, the African Union (AU), under the auspices of a Panel of Eminent African Personalities, established a mediation team led by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.   As part of the diagnosis, the panel advocated that the government undertake security sector and other reforms to rein in the police.

As part of the mediation, the panel formed the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV), also known as the Waki Commission (named after the chairman of the commission, Justice Philip Waki). According to the Waki’s Commission, a total of 1,133 people died as a result of post-election violence, and gunshots accounted for 962 casualties and 405 deaths. This represented 35.7% of the fatalities, making gunshot the single most frequent cause of deaths during the post-election violence.

The Waki Commission recommended that “the Parties shall initiate urgent and comprehensive reform of the Kenya Police and the Administration Police. A panel of policing experts shall undertake such reforms”.

President Mwai Kibaki, in May 2009, established the National Task Force on Police Reform, also known as the Ransley Task Force (named after the chair of the commission, Justice Philip Ransley).

Chapter 14 of the 2010 Constitution further codified police reforms. The reforms sought to create a “visible” change to the police leadership in three ways. The law established: (1) the position of Inspector General of the Police (IGP) who is appointed by the President with Parliament’s approval; (2) a civilian oversight mechanism through the Independent Policing Authority (IPOA) and National Police Service Commission (NPSC); and, (3) bring the administration police and the regular police under a single IGP and two separate Deputy IGPs – the latter designed to enhance a clear line of command, control, and communications.

Collectively, these changes meant greater independence of the police from the Executive. But the invasion and the insurgents’ response to it created an environment that was not conducive for implementing the reforms. The need for a robust domestic response against Al Shabaab’s attacks on Kenyan soil saw the Kenya Police commit multiple human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions during counterterrorism operations in Muslim majority regions inside Kenya. The Police resorted to the tried and tested collective responsibility and intimidation methods in the form of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

These violations were enabled via the loosening of legal safeguards against police violations. The upshot of the Kenyan police’s human rights violations was not only derailing the police reforms but was also providing Al Shabaab with propaganda material that they used to recruit further.

Those supporting the police’s response advance three main arguments.

One, terrorism is an extraordinary crime, and thus requires an exceptional response. This argument privileges security over liberty, creating a false, if not simplistic, choice. While not perfect, the Prevention of Terrorism Act provides a legal framework within which to fight terrorism. Additionally, there is no empirical evidence that policing that violates human rights leads to a decline in crime. On the contrary, it engenders distrust in the police among the affected community, thus making policing more difficult.

The second argument is the “a few rotten apples” theory – that there are only a few police officers committing human rights violations. The problem with this argument is that even if a few police officers engage in human rights violations, it is still too many. According to an online portal that tracks police violations by human rights groups, since 2007, Kenya Police have killed 689 people. These are figures that human rights groups have verified since the police do not keep the data. These figures could be higher because some cases go unreported.

Such statistics only provide a glimpse, and while helpful in understanding the depth of the crisis, miss the human element. Those who disproportionately bear the brunt of the police’s violations are young men living in slums in Kenya’s major urban areas.

The third defence is that whenever accused of violating human rights, the police ask, “Don’t the police also have human rights? Why don’t the human rights groups advocate for the police’s human rights as well?” This is a valid argument; however, the two issues are not mutually exclusive. One can advocate for police’s human rights while simultaneously asking for police’s accountability.

V. From Counterterrorism to Countering Violence Extremism

The police’s human rights violations are part of the reason behind the move away from counterterrorism to broader policies for countering violent extremism (CVE). CVE is anchored in a global shift in counterterrorism.

Policy trends in the West have a way of becoming mainstream and fashionable elsewhere because Western countries provide much of the funding to support research for policies that then end up being tested in a local setting like Kenya. Even when these policies are discredited in Western countries where they originate, they end up being adopted and accepted uncritically in the Global South.

Hence, Kenya and other countries pivot to CVE away from counterterrorism. This is in line with the global shift in the discourse regarding the utility of counterterrorism as a tool for fighting the rising tide of domestic terrorism, displacing the conventional focus on threats emanating from far-off countries. CVE is one such trend that has grown into a cottage industry that has generated new CVE “experts” overnight.

Policy trends in the West have a way of becoming mainstream and fashionable elsewhere because Western countries provide much of the funding to support research for policies that then end up being tested in a local setting like Kenya. Even when these policies are discredited in Western countries where they originate, they end up being adopted and accepted uncritically in the Global South.

While CVE initially emerged as a response to counterproductive consequences of counterterrorism, it has morphed into a banality hollowed out of its utility, meaning, and potency in time.

The remarkable aspect of CVE’s “trendiness” is that the diagnoses are hardly original, but rather, repackage a laundry list of solutions, some of which are borrowed from Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR). One of the overarching aspects of the CVE is the Danish or the Aarhus Model.

The Danish Model

Prevention of terrorism became a top item in Denmark’s political agenda in 2005 in the wake of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, the train bomb attacks in Madrid in 2004, and the bomb attacks in London in 2005. This, combined with the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten’s printing of twelve cartoons of Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, lit a fuse.

Kwale, Lamu and Mombasa counties’ CVE plans were heavily borrowed from the Danish Aarhus Model, named after the Aarhus region. The model was developed when in 2009, the Danish Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs was given European Union approval for a three-year pilot project on de-radicalisation. The project was launched in cooperation with the municipalities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, East Jutland Police District, and the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET).

The model also works at three levels: a) General – this level is principally about raising awareness through public information programmes; b) Specific – this level involves those who have been identified as individuals or groups who are planning to travel to join extremist groups; and c) Targeted – this intervention is designed for individuals and groups who are considered “imminent risk”. Activities at this level involve exit and mentoring programmes.

Further, the Danish CVE plan is a multi-agency affair involving the Danish Security and Intelligence Service Centre for Prevention, Ministry of Immigration, Integration, and Housing, and the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration. The Danish approach draws on decades of experience with similar collaboration with other areas and benefits from existing structures and initiatives developed for other purposes than specifically preventing extremism and radicalisation.

However, adopting the model wholesale without considering the local peculiarities of Kenya misses the point that what works for Denmark does not necessarily work for Lamu, Kwale, and Mombasa. The biggest challenge in adopting the model in Kenya is that there is no national legal-policy framework regarding disengagement and reintegration of returnees, a third element of the Aarhus model.

VI. Amnesty for Al Shabaab

Following the Al-Shabaab attacks on Garissa University in which 147 people died, Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary, Joseph Nkaissery, declared an amnesty for members of the group aiming to return to Kenya. According to Nkaissery, the amnesty was to “encourage those disillusioned with the group that wanted to come back“.

Under the amnesty, the returnees would receive protection, as well as rehabilitation and counseling. The programme claimed that it would support training and alternative livelihood methods through work with different governmental ministries.

In 2015, the amnesty was announced initially for an initial ten-day period. It was later extended by two weeks. In May 2015, the government stated that 85 youths had so far surrendered under the amnesty programme and that “the government had put an elaborate comprehensive integration programme to absorb those who had surrendered. A year and a half later, in October 2016, the government made the amnesty indefinite.

Reports claim that anywhere from 700 to 1,000 fighters have returned from Somalia, but the amnesty has not had any impact in terms of rehabilitation, and that these alleged programmes were non-existent. Consequently, the counties have increased their involvement (an approrpiate development), as the state response has been inadequate, and left mainly to civil society, but without government support. The mistrust of returnees from within the communities is an equally significant problem, along with livelihood issues.

Sound diagnosis

Because of the diversity of the stakeholders involved and consulted, the county CVE plans provide a sound analysis of what predisposes young men and women to radicalisation and eventually joining violent extremist groups. The fact that discussions regarding the development of CVE plans were spearheaded by local civil society organisations also enhanced taking on board nuanced local realities. This also engendered legitimacy and trust from the communities.

The two aspects that have not been fully fleshed out in most of the plans are, first, the source of money in implementing the policies (for instance, the Mombasa County Action Plan budgeted for KSh430,223,000 for January- December 2018). However, the available funds were Sh128,000,600, or only 29.77 per cent of the allocation. Second, the importance of women, while mentioned, has not been addressed in detail.

Fighting violent extremism is an extremely challenging undertaking, but uncritically exporting solutions without customising them for local realities does not help. Besides, in the UK and the US, CVE has been discredited because it was primarily used as a surveillance tool on communities on an industrial scale.

VII. Geopolitics of the Horn of Africa

Besides failing to keep Kenyans safe and rendering police reform stillborn, Kenya’s intervention in Somalia damaged the country’s regional diplomatic clout and leverage, especially with Ethiopia, a key ally in the Horn of Africa. The Kenyatta government’s management of relations with Somalia has been even more problematic.

Despite being in a region bedeviled with constant conflict due to Cold War proxy relationships, Kenya remained unscathed by the Cold War’s vagaries. This enduring legacy survived despite the fact that Kenya, effectively an ally of the US, is surrounded by Ethiopia and Somalia, who were clients of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and Cuba at different times.

Kenya’s president, Daniel Arap Moi, aware of the challenges of being sucked into any conflict, firewalled Kenya from being mired in regional conflicts by remaining ideologically ambivalent, at least in public. Kenya remained neither a friend nor a foe of any of these countries. Moi was making a virtue out of necessity considering his tenuous hold on power domestically.

Moi instead made Kenya a site for peace negotiations amongst warring groups in the region. Kenya was the venue for peace negotiations between the warring parties in South Sudan and Somalia. The Nairobi Agreement, a peace deal between the Ugandan government of Tito Okello and the National Resistance Army (NRA), a rebel group led by Yoweri Museveni, was signed in Nairobi in December 1985. Kenya carried the culture of hosting peace talks even after the end of the Cold War. The Sudan and South Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Kenya.

Moi also appointed competent foreign affairs ministers, such as Dr. Robert Ouko, Dr. Bonaya Godana, and Dr. Zachary Onyoka, just to mention a few. Post-Moi, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not distinguished itself in conducting Kenya’s diplomacy.

Somalia

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia was formed in 2004 in Nairobi after many months of negotiations. The TFG was the 14th attempt at creating a functioning government in Somalia since the collapse of Muhammad Siad Barre’s government in 1991. Formed late in 2004, the TFG governed from Kenya until June 2005. The late Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat led the negotiations.

Despite the Kenyan government’s treatment of Kenyan Somalis as a second-class citizens, bilateral relations between Kenya and Somalia were warm and cordial. Currently, relations between Kenya and Somalia are arguably the lowest in decades.

At the heart of the Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia dispute is the question of who will control the semi-autonomous region of Jubaland. The central player in that dispute is Mohamed Madobe, the President of Jubaland. His militia, the Ras Kamboni Brigade, fought alongside the Kenya Defence Forces when Kenya intervened in Somalia.

Kenyan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inspect a destroyed vehicle belonging to Al Qaeda-affliated extremist group Al Shabaab at Kismayo Airport in southern Somalia, 22 August, 2013. AU-UN IST Photo / Ramadaan Mohamed.

Kenyan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inspect a destroyed vehicle belonging to Al Qaeda-affliated extremist group Al Shabaab at Kismayo Airport in southern Somalia, 22 August, 2013. AU-UN IST Photo / Ramadaan Mohamed.

When Kenya first intervened in Somalia in 2011, Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia since intervening unilaterally in 2006 to stop the ascent of the Union of Islamic Courts. But Kenya’s intervention was in Jubaland, a region predominantly occupied by the Ogaden, who have been fighting the Ethiopian government for decades in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. There was no way Ethiopia could countenance that happening without them having a say. Besides, being Somalia’s breadbasket, the port of Kismaayo is also in Jubaland.

Since the collapse of Siad Barre in 1991, Ethiopia and Kenya maintained a united policy. But Kenya’s intervention changed that. While both countries are in Somalia with the primary purpose of defeating Al Shabaab, they are both now pursuing a different route. Ahmed Abiy’s coming to power in April 2018 gave this a further ascent. Until that point, Ethiopia principally supported the semi-autonomous regions under the guise of decentralisation. To many Somalis, Ethiopia was not interested in the emergence of a central government in Somalia. Since Abiy became the Prime Minister, Addis and Mogadishu have grown closer, shifting decades-long Ethiopia policy, and leaving Kenya and Ethiopia at loggerheads.

These differences were on full display during the Jubaland presidential election when Kenya supported Madobe, and Mogadishu and Ethiopia supported the opposition candidate. The Kenya-Ethiopia’s dispute continues to stymie AMISOM operations. The only actor benefiting from such open hostility is Al Shabaab.

The maritime dispute

For decades, Somalia regarded Kenya as a neutral arbiter, unlike Ethiopia, where long-standing resentments against Somalia have endured. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia and its meddling in the country’s internal affairs have ruined Kenya-Somalia relations.

The150,000 sq.km maritime dispute with Somalia exacerbated the conflict. The disagreement, which came to the surface in 2004, could have been resolved amicably had officials at the Kenya International Boundaries Office (KIBO) taken the negotiations seriously. During the negotiations, Kenyan officials regarded their Somalia counterparts with disrespect, assuming that as a “failed state”, Somalia cannot negotiate on an equal footing. Kenyan officials also failed to show up for a meeting with Somalia without explanation. The case eventually ended up at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Instead of correcting earlier mistakes, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officers dug in their heels. It started engaging in reactionary moves like denying Somali diplomats entry visas and reintroducing flight stopovers in Wajir, thus substituting petulance for diplomacy.

VIII. The political settlement with Al Shabaab

Since 2011, Al Shabaab has been dislodged from many of its territorial strongholds, thanks to the 22,000-strong AMISOM troops and the Somali National Army. Yet Al Shabaab continues to control parts of south-central Somalia. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has also significantly increased drone attacks.

More significant is the fact that, according to AMISOM’s Transition Plan, AMISOM will be winding down in Somalia in December 2021. The departure is despite a lack of demonstrable improvement in the Somalia National Army’s capacity to take over. If Al Shabaab continues to pose security threats inside and outside Somalia despite these investments, what will that mean after AMISOM leaves Somalia?

One of the significant and fatal gaps in addressing the Somalia crisis is the singular and disproportionate focus of using the terrorism lens. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” became the overarching slogan, becoming almost an article of faith, foreclosing any model of thinking, planning, and programming to address the crisis in Somalia.

Expanding the focus of analysis and therefore suggesting potential solutions to include other models would help to negotiate a post-AMISOM reality. That should be helpful even if AMISOM stays in Somalia because there cannot be a never-ending mission. It must have an end date.

More significant is the fact that, according to AMISOM’s Transition Plan, AMISOM will be winding down in Somalia in December 2021. The departure is despite a lack of demonstrable improvement in the Somalia National Army’s capacity to take over.

Conflicts end either through total defeat, a stalemate, or a negotiated political settlement. In Somalia’s case, the complete collapse of Al Shabaab is highly unlikely. The group has developed a sophisticated mechanism of continuing to generate revenue, including taxation and recruitment, and continues to operate as an urban/rural guerrilla outfit capable of launching violent attacks with lethal outcomes. As a result, Somalia and Al Shabaab are engaged in a “mutually destructive stalemate”.

Kenya negotiated the Somalia process that eventually led to the Transitional National Government’s formation, the first government formed since the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991. It took several attempts of delicate negotiations. Kenya also played a significant role in resolving decades of civil conflict in Sudan that led to the formation of South Sudan. While negotiating with Al Shabaab is entirely different from the Sudan and Somalia negotiations, quite frankly, the only reasonable way of ending the present crisis is by a political settlement leading to Al Shabaab being part of the future Somalia government.

Some senior Al Shabaab figures would consider negotiating with the TFG if offered positions, while others would want to have their names removed from the UN and US terror lists. Still others, eager to rejoin society, seek general amnesty, and many would like to be resettled in a third country. All these incentives are a price not too high for peace in a country shattered by a civil war since 1991.

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