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Of Politics Without Romance: Bandits, Tribal Chiefs, Warlords and Political Messiahs (Or the Lack Thereof)

7 min read.

At independence, all of post-colonial Africa promulgated democratic constitutions. In no time, all but one state had reverted to authoritarian rule. Why? In the market of public choice, it is the self-interest of the players, not their benevolence, that creates the rules. Thus the logic of the ethnic chief, the tribal baron – and the hostage voter electing them while lamenting their existence. So, wither democracy? DAVID NDII, on the calculus of power-sharing.

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Of Politics Without Romance: Bandits, Tribal Chiefs, Warlords and Political Messiahs (Or the Lack Thereof)
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“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” – Chinua Achebe

I think it is in one of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings, I don’t recall which, that I came across the question of whether statesmen come before the commonwealth, or vice versa. What is cause and what is effect? Do good leaders develop nations or is good leadership a reflection of a nation’s development?

There are few subjects with as expansive a literature as the subject of leadership. As expansive as it is unhelpful. First, it is all description and prescription. Great leaders do this and that. It has no predictive value. Why does Asia get progressive autocrats, while Africa and Latin America get mostly murderous kleptocrats? Critically, the literature does not distinguish between political and managerial leadership. This distinction is fundamental.

Corporate and NGO executives compete for jobs, for which they are hired, paid and fired based on performance. The pay packages of the CEOs of listed companies has been in the news lately. The top earner came in at Ksh 375m a year, 20 times more than the president. The lowest paid CEOs earn four to five times what MPs earn.

There are few subjects with as expansive a literature as the subject of leadership. As expansive as it is unhelpful. First, it is all description and prescription. Great leaders do this and that. It has no predictive value. Why does Asia get progressive autocrats, while Africa and Latin America get mostly murderous kleptocrats? Critically, the literature does not distinguish between political and managerial leadership. This distinction is fundamental.

In democracies, prospective leaders are expected to spend money to contest elections that they could lose. In some like ours, once elected, we expect them to spend their earnings on harambees and handouts. Then we get surprised that the people who put themselves up for this ordeal line their pockets.

We seem to expect the best and brightest people in society to fight their way so as to work for us at their expense. Just like there are few altruistic billionaires, there are a few visionary and selfless public spirited people, but they are the exception not the rule. The vast majority of human beings are not public-spirited, let alone selfless.

Public choice theory is the branch of economics that applies self-interest to politics. Public choice theorists treat the public realm as a marketplace where selfish voters, interest groups, bureaucrats and politicians pursue their own interests. Public choice theory contends, to paraphrase Adam Smith, that it is not from the benevolence of the politician and the bureaucrat that we owe our public goods, but from their regard to their own interest. James Buchanan one of the architects (for which he was awarded the 1986 Economics Nobel Prize) characterized public choice theory as “politics without romance.”

As in the economic market, the players—politicians, bureaucrats, interest groups, voters—are neither good or bad. They simply respond to the incentive structure of the market. If the rules of the game the political market delivers more public goods, if they are bad, it delivers more private goods i.e. corruption. Buchanan’s seminal 1962 book, co-authored with Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, is the bible of public choice theory.

Mancur Olson is another public choice luminary. His 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, is a must-read if you want to understand why we seem helpless against the garbage dumps on our street corners and death-trap PSVs, why corruption stumps honesty, and why the calculus of revolution that I hear youths yearning for does not compute. But I digress—somewhat.

As in the economic market, the players—politicians, bureaucrats, interest groups, voters—are neither good or bad. They simply respond to the incentive structure of the market. If the rules of the game the political market delivers more public goods, if they are bad, it delivers more private goods i.e. corruption.

In Dictatorship, Democracy and Development, published in the 1993 edition of American Political Science Review, Olson trains public choice theory on the leadership and development conundrum. Students of politics are well schooled in the social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, whose basic idea is that government is motivated by our self-preservation instinct. In this view, government is people of their volition, trading off some of their liberties for security.

Olson sets out to test the proposition whether the emergence of political order can be explained by greed. Olson posits stateless society as a gangland inhabited by decent folk and “roving bandits” who roam the land plundering and pillaging. In the social contract world, political order is decent folk organizing common defense against the bandits. We are left to ponder how people who have trouble organizing garbage collection overcome the collective action problem.

In Olson’s model, it’s the self-interest of rational bandits that brings about political order. How so?

“In a world of roving banditry, there is little or no incentive for anyone to produce or accumulate anything that may be stolen, and thus, little for bandits to steal. [But] if a bandit successfully monopolizes theft in his domain, then his victims do not need to worry about theft by others. With the rational monopolization of theft—in contrast to uncoordinated competitive theft—the victims of the theft can expect to retain whatever capital they accumulate out of after-tax income and therefore have an incentive to save and to invest, thereby increasing future income and tax receipts. Since the warlord takes a part of total production in the form of tax theft, it will also pay him to provide other public goods whenever the provision of these goods increases the taxable income sufficiently. Bandit rationality, accordingly induces the bandit leader to seize a given domain, to make himself the ruler of that domain, and to provide peaceful order and other public goods for its inhabitants, therefore obtaining more in tax theft than he could have obtained from migratory plunder. The rational, self-interested leader of a band of roving bandits is led, as though by an invisible hand, to settle down, wear a crown and replace anarchy with government.”

Once political order is established, society will realize benefits quite quickly. But autocracy presents the problems of credibility and succession. The bandit-turned-autocrat can undertake not to expropriate property, but once the investment is done, what is to stop him from doing so? And there is no assurance that political order will outlive the strongman who has established it. So both the ruler and the ruled will realize that to reap the benefits of political order requires more. Olson:

“Dictatorships are by their nature especially susceptible to succession crises and uncertainty about the future. It may be advantageous to a society if a consensus emerges about who the next ruler will probably be, since this reduces the social losses arising from the absence in an autocracy of any independent power that could ensure a smooth succession. Given autocracy, then, dynastic succession can be socially desirable, both because it may reduce the likelihood of succession crises and because it may give monarchs more concern for the long run and the productivity of their societies.”

Dynasties are rational. This logic extends to tribal politics. There are few things that are more lamented by our liberal-minded elites than tribal politics. Tribal voting is seen as a primordial instinct, devoid of issues, implying that it is irrational. How can democracy grow if people vote for their tribesmen and women instead of voting on issues?

In economics, we learn not to jump to conclusions unless we know which calculus is involved in the outcomes we observe. Implicit in the laments about tribal voting are assumptions that (a) the state is benign; and (b) that people vote to maximize benefits i.e. public services and “development.” What if the voters don’t buy this? What if the voters see a “banditstan” in which tribal chiefs and warlords are fighting it out to monopolize plunder? The voters’ calculus might be that zimwi likujualo halikuli likakwisha (the ogre that knows you does not finish you) – simply, better the devil you know.

What about democracy? When we look around the world, not only does autocracy seem to give way to democracy quite often, democracy when it takes root, becomes a more successful political order—more powerful, durable and prosperous. The theoretical problem here is the following: since absolute power is the most profitable system of government, why do we see autocracies giving way to democracy?

Olson, again: “It is relatively easy to see how autocratic government emerges and why it has been the predominant form of government since the development of settled agriculture: there is never a shortage of strong men who enjoy getting a fortune from tax receipts. It is much harder to see how democratic government can emerge out of autocracy. The task is to explain why a leader who organized the overthrow of an autocrat would not make himself the next dictator, or why any group of conspirators who overthrew an autocrat would not form a governing junta.”

Democracy, Olson contends, is not a preference. It is the unintended consequence of stalemates. Two circumstances may give rise to it. The stalemate where no warlord is able to dominate others. But even then, the best option for the competing warlords would be to divide the contested territory amongst themselves. Consequently, the second condition is a situation where fragmentation of the territory is not feasible either because potential dominions would be too small and weak, or because the contending groups are too integrated to divide geographically. In this case, the only viable political order is power sharing:

“Democracy would be most likely to emerge spontaneously when the individual or individuals or group leaders who orchestrated the overthrow of an autocracy could not establish another autocracy, much as they would gain from doing so. We can deduce from the theory offered here that autocracy is prevented and democracy permitted by the accidents of history that leave a balance of power or stalemate a dispersion of force and resources that makes it impossible for any one leader or group to overpower all of the others.”

Democracy, Olson contends, is not a preference. It is the unintended consequence of stalemates. Two circumstances may give rise to it. The stalemate where no warlord is able to dominate others. But even then, the best option for the competing warlords would be to divide the contested territory amongst themselves. Consequently, the second condition is a situation where fragmentation of the territory is not feasible either because potential dominions would be too small and weak, or because the contending groups are too integrated to divide geographically. In this case, the only viable political order is power sharing

This proposition is consistent with the observation that democracy often emerges from civil war situations—indeed, constitutions are often referred to as ceasefire documents. It also provides insights as to why democracy failed to take root in post-colonial Africa and elsewhere. All of post-colonial Africa promulgated democratic constitutions, such as our Lancaster House one. All but one (ethnically homogenous Botswana), reverted to authoritarian rule in no time. Coups, counter-coups and civil wars became the norm as aspiring autocrats fought to monopolize power.

In economic parlance, we would say that in a stalemate situation, there are only two stable equilibria, roving banditry (state failure) and power sharing (democracy). But that of course does not preclude disequilibrium (instability) as the norm.

“Constant experience” wrote Montesquieu, the foremost champion of the doctrine of separation of powers, “shows that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it and to carry his authority as far as it will go.”

Politics without romance.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Lava Jato: The CIA’s Poisoned Gift to Brazil

Recently leaked conversations show shocking levels of US involvement in Brazil’s Lava Jato corruption case against former president Lula da Silva.

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Lava Jato: The CIA’s Poisoned Gift to Brazil
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“I’m going to celebrate today.”— Laura Tessler

“A gift from the CIA.”— Deltan Dallagnol

These recently leaked quotes refer to the arrest and jailing of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva in April 2018 that changed the course of the country’s history. It opened the door to far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power with the support of the United States and powerful corporate interests.

Although US involvement in the once heralded anti-corruption investigation operation Lava Jato has been publicly known for some time, leaked conversations between its prosecutors like Tessler and Dallagnol and Judge Sergio Moro have revealed a level of collusion that has shocked even the keenest observers.

A petition filed with the Federal Supreme Court (STF) by the defence of ex-president Lula presents such new evidence that ex-judge Sergio Moro colluded with foreign authorities in conducting the process which led to the arrest of the Workers Party leader, and his subsequent barring from a run for the presidency in 2018.

In the latest leaked Telegram conversations, which are now official court documents, the level of illegal collaboration visible between the Lava Jato task force and the internationally promoted judge is the most flagrant yet, and more valuable for Lula’s defence than chats first published by the Intercept in 2019.

The latest excerpts could result in the politically motivated case against Lula being annulled.

Ex-judge Sergio Moro and head of the Lava Jato task force Deltan Dallagnol have been accused of “treason” for their illegal collusion with United States authorities. In 2017, deputy US attorney general Kenneth Blanco boasted at an Atlantic Council event of informal (illegal) collaboration with Brazilian prosecutors on the Lula case, citing it as a success story. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Justice attempted to pay the Lava Jato task force a $682 million dollar kickback, ostensibly for them to set up a “private foundation to fight corruption”.

On April 5, 2018, the day Lula was arrested by Moro, prosecutor Isabel Grobba revealed the news: “Moro orders Lula to be arrested,” and Deltan Dallagnol replied: “Before MA (Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio) screws everything up.” Dallagnol was referring to what Marco Aurélio was then preparing; a Supreme Court vote which would potentially see defendants such as Lula freed from jail pending their second appeal.

Had this passed, it would’ve enabled Lula to run for president at the 2018 election. Polling at that point showed him twenty points ahead of nearest rival, U.S. backed far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

After coming to power, Jair Bolsonaro and Sergio Moro — who had been appointed as Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister — made an unprecedented visit to CIA headquarters in Langleywith the backing of Wall Street. The FBI has also massively increased its reach in Brazil since the election and was in direct, legal and illegal collaboration with Lava Jato task force since its inception, with its main liaison and now head of FBI’s international corruption unit, Leslie Backschies, boasting that it had “toppled Presidents in Brazil”.

Cooperation between Brazilian and United States authorities, including the use of FBI hackers to break encrypted files, had become clear long before the arrest of the ex-president. Messages from August 31, 2016, when Dilma Rousseff faced her final impeachment hearing, already prove this.

FBI use of hackers in Brazil dates back to 2012 when they encouraged a group from ‘Anonymous’ to attack Brazilian government and corporate institutions and online infrastructure, in a staged protest against “corruption”. Sérgio Bruno revealed: “Janot (Prosecutor General) was with people from the US Embassy last week and it seems that he commented on this [breaking into files via illegal means], without going into details (sic)”.

On the same day, Brazilian prosecutor Roberson Pozzobon also mentions the task force’s cooperation with FBI hackers: “We asked to see if the FBI has the expertise to break (into encrypted files)”.

The following year, Janot toured the world promoting Operation Lava Jato at investor events, both in the United States, and at the World Economic Forum in Davos, describing the now-disgraced anti-corruption operation as “pro-market”, a political position it was not supposed to have. Cooperation with Swiss and Swedish authorities is also evident from the leaked conversations.

A recent announcement has stated that Lava Jato, or Car Wash, as it was relentlessly promoted in the English-speaking media, will be shut down completely later this year, having helped wreck Brazil’s economy and eviscerate its democracy.

Editorial note: The following is an edited version of the article originally published by Brasil Wire. It has been amended to provide context for the recent developments in the Lava Jato corruption case. You can find all of Brasil Wire’s articles on operation Lava Jato here.

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Is Balkanisation the Solution to Somalia’s Governance Woes?

Thirty years after the civil war of 1991, Somalia has still not been able to develop a functional governance structure that delivers services to the people. Federalism has also not delivered political stability. Is it time for Somalia to break up into independent clan-based states?

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Is Balkanisation the Solution to Somalia’s Governance Woes?
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When former prime minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo was elected president of the Federal Government of Somalia in 2017, many lauded his victory. Unlike his predecessors, Farmaajo was viewed as a leader who would unite the country because he had a nationalistic mindset and was someone who was not influenced by clan interests. Many believed that, unlike his predecessor, Hassan Sheikh, whose tenure was marred by corruption allegations and in-fighting, he would bring together a country that has remained fragmented along clan lines and endured internal conflicts for decades. He was also perceived to be someone who would address corruption that has been endemic in every Somali government since the days of President Siad Barre.

Sadly, Farmaajo’s tenure did not result in significant transformation of Somali governance structures or politics. On the contrary, his open hostility towards leaders of federal states – notably Jubbaland, where he is said to have interfered in elections by imposing his own candidate – and claims that corruption in his government had increased, not decreased, left many wondering if he had perhaps been over-rated. Now opposition groups have said that they will not recognise him as the head of state as he has failed to organise the much anticipated one-person-one-vote election that was due this month, which would have either extended or ended his term. This apparent power vacuum has caused some jitters in the international community, whose backing Farmaajo has enjoyed.

However, it would be naïve to assume that Farmaajo’s exit is a critical destabilising factor in Somalia, because, frankly, the president in present-day Somalia is merely a figurehead; he does not wield real power. The government in Mogadishu has had little control over the rest of the country, where clan-based fiefdoms and federal states do pretty much what they want, with little reference go Mogadishu. National security is largely in the hands of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, not the Somalia National Army.

The concept of a state that delivers services to citizens has also remained a mirage for most Somalis who are governed either by customary law known as xeer or the Sharia.  Some have even argued that with its strict codes and hold over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab actually offers a semblance of “governance” in the areas it controls – even if these taxes are collected through extortion or threats of violence.

In much of Somalia, services, such as health and education, are largely provided by foreign faith-based foundations, non-governmental organisations or the private sector, not the state. Many hospitals and schools are funded by foreign (mostly Arab) governments or religious institutions. This means that the state remains largely absent in people’s lives. And because NGOs and foundations can only do so much, much of the country remains unserviced, with the result that Somalia continues to remain one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, with high levels of illiteracy (estimates indicate that the literacy rate is as low as 20 per cent). State institutions, such as the Central Bank and revenue collection authorities, are also either non-existent or dysfunctional.

Efforts by the United Nations and the international community to bring a semblance of governance by supporting governments that are heavily funded by Western and Arab countries have not helped to establish the institutions necessary for the government to run efficiently.  On the contrary, some might argue that that foreign aid has been counter-productive as it has entrenched corruption in government (as much of the aid is stolen by corrupt officials) and slowed down Somalia’s recovery.

Foreign governments have also been blamed for destabilising Somalia. The US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, which succeeded in ousting the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – which had successfully brought about a semblance of governance in Somalia through a coalition of Muslim clerics and businessmen –  spawned radical groups like Al Shabaab, which have wreaked havoc in Somalia ever since.  Kenya’s misguided “incursion” into Somalia in 2011, had a similar effect: Al Shabaab unleashed its terror on Kenyan soil, and Kenya lost its standing as a neutral country that does not intervene militarily in neighbouring countries. Certain Arab countries, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have also been accused of interfering in Somalia’s elections by sponsoring favoured candidates.

All of Somalia’s governments since 2004, when a transitional government was established, have thus failed to re-build state institutions that were destroyed during the civil war or to deliver services to the Somali people. In its entire eight-year tenure, from October 2004 to August 2012, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) did not have the capacity to become a fully functioning government, with a fully-fledged revenue collecting authority and robust ministries.  Ministers had no portfolios and ministries had skeletal staff. The national army was weak and under-funded, and since 2007, the government has relied almost exclusively on African Union soldiers for security, though some donors, notably Turkey, have attempted to revive the Somalia National Army.

Somalia’s first post-transition government was elected in 2012 under a United Nations-brokered constitution. Hassan Sheikh was elected as president with much enthusiasm and in the belief that things would be different under a government that had the goodwill of the people. In his first year in office, President Hassan Sheikh was named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus called his election “a seismic event” that “electrified Somalis and both surprised and relieved the international community”. However, it would not be long before his government would also be marred by corruption allegations.

What governance model should Somalia adopt? 

There has been some debate about which type of governance model is most suitable for a country that is not just divided along clan/regional lines, but where lack of functioning secular institutions threaten nation-building.

Federalism, that is, regional autonomy within a single political system, has been proposed by the international community as the most suitable system for Somalia as it caters for deep clan divisions by allocating the major clans semi-autonomous regional territories.  The 4.5 formula for government representation proposed by the constitution based on the four largest clans (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyne) and 0.5 positions for minorities does acknowledge the reality of a clan-based society, but as Somalia’s recent history has shown, clan can be, and has been, manipulated for personal gain by politicians.  As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is also the danger that the new federal states will mimic the corruption and dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict.

Several experts have also proposed a building block approach, whereby the country is divided into six local administrative structures that would eventually resemble a patchwork of semi-autonomous territories defined in whole or in part by clan affiliation.. In one such proposal, the Isaaq clan would dominate Somaliland in the northwest; the Majerteen in present-day Puntland would dominate the northeast; the heterogeneous Jubbaland and Gedo regions bordering Kenya would have a mixture of clans (though there are now fears that the Ogaden, who are politically influential along the Kenya border, would eventually control the region); a Hawiye-dominated polity would dominate central Somalia; the Digil-Mirifle would centre around Bay and Bakol; and Mogadishu would remain a cosmopolitan administrative centre.

Somaliland offers important lessons on the governance models that could work in a strife-torn society divided along clan lines and where radical Islamist factions have taken root. Since it declared independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has remained relatively peaceful and has had its own government and institutions that have worked quite well and brought a semblance of normality in this troubled region.

After Siad Barre ordered an attack on Hargeisa following opposition to his rule there, Somaliland decided to forge its own path and disassociate from the dysfunction that marked both the latter part of Barre’s regime and the warlordism that replaced it during the civil war. It then adopted a unique hybrid system of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional customary law, Sharia law and modern secular institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, an army and a police force.  The Guurti, the upper house of Somaliland’s legislature, comprises traditional clan elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from various professions who are selected by their respective clans. The Guurti wields enormous decision-making powers and is considered one of the stabilising factors in Somaliland’s inclusive governance model. Michael Walls, the author of A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture and Somaliland’s Political Transition, has described Somaliland’s governance model as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy.

However, Somaliland’s governance model is far from perfect: the consensual clan-based politics has hindered issue-based politics, eroded individual rights and led to the perception that some clans, such as the dominant Isaaq clan, are favoured over others. Tensions across its eastern border with Puntland also threaten its future stability.

In addition, because it is still not recognised internationally as a sovereign state, Somaliland is denied many of the opportunities that come with statehood. It cannot easily enter into bilateral agreements with other countries, get multinational companies to invest there or obtain loans from international financial institutions, though in recent years it has been able to overcome some of these obstacles.

Somaliland is also not recognised by the Federal Government of Somalia, which believes that Somaliland will eventually relent and unite with Somalia, which seems highly unrealistic at this time.  This is one reason why the Somali government gets so upset when Kenyan leaders engage with Somaliland leaders, as happened recently when Mogadishu withdrew its ambassador from Nairobi after President Uhuru Kenyatta met with the Somaliland leader Musa Bihi Abdi at State House. Raila Odinga’s recent call to the international community to recognise Somaliland as an independent state has been welcomed by Somalilanders, but is viewed with suspicion by the federal government in Mogadishu

Nonetheless, there has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, is perhaps the best governance model for Somalia. Is the current Western- and internationally-supported political dispensation in Somalia that has emerged after three decades of anarchy a “fake democracy”?  Can Somalia be salvaged through more home-grown solutions, like the one in Somaliland? Should Somalia break up into small autonomous states that are better able to govern themselves?

Balkanisation is usually a deprecated political term referring to, according to Wikipedia, the “disorderly or unpredictable fragmentation, or sub-fragmentation, of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states, which may be hostile or uncooperative with one another”. While usually associated with increasing instability and conflict, balkanisation could nonetheless still be the only solution for a country that has been unable to unite or to offer hope to its disillusioned citizens for more than three decades.

As Guled Ahmed of the Middle East Institute notes, “the 1995 Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian war, paved the way for ethnic balkanisation of former Yugoslavia into six countries. This resulted in peace and stability and prosperity. So if Eastern European countries can separate along ethnicism, why not balkanise Somalia with multi-ethnicism just like the former Yugoslavia to achieve peace and stability and fair elections based on one person one vote?”, he said.

Ahmed told me that balkanisation would also eliminate Al Shabaab (which has been fighting the government in Mogadishu for the last 14 years) as the independent states created would be more vigilant about who controls their territories and also because people will have more ownership of their government. Somali refugees languishing in Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere might also be tempted to finally return home.

Balkanisation can, however, be messy – and bloody. But Somalia need not go down that route. A negotiated separation could still be arrived at peacefully with the blessing of the international community. If the international community is serious about peace and stability in Somalia, it should pave the way for these discussions. Sometimes divorce is preferable to an acrimonious marriage.

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The Danger of the Single Story and Africa’s Refugee Equilibrium

Africans’ lack of knowledge about our own shared refugee experiences continues to fuel hate and discrimination on the continent.

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The Danger of the Single Story and Africa’s Refugee Equilibrium
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For far too long, the global refugee situation has been misconstrued as static, with certain parts of the globe generating disproportionate numbers of refugees and others perpetually faced with the burden of hosting displaced peoples. In particular, Africa is seen as a producer rather than a receiver of refugees. To be clear, Africa is not a continent that feeds the world with refugees any less than it hosts them. Although Africa is seen as exceptional in terms of global refugee networks, the factors accounting for refugee crises can bedevil any region at any point in time. These factors include war, natural disasters, political upheavals, military coups, civil strife, religious or cultural persecutions, personal circumstances, economic hardship, terrorist activities, and many more.

African countries, as much as any other, have taken turns in both generating and hosting refugees, and if history is any measuring rod, will continue to do so. It is the African refugee equilibrium, a phenomenon whereby a country that at one moment in its history is feeding its neighbors with refugees can become, at another moment, the receiver of refugees from those same neighbors. Africa isn’t just feeding the world with migrants and refugees but is top on the list of hosts. As per the UNHCR statistics of 2018, 30% of the world’s 25.9 million registered refugees were being hosted in Africa. Yet, the numbers of Africans who make their way to the West as refugees and migrants occupy the headlines of international news, painting the continent and the people as a miserable “sea of humanity,” perpetually flooding the rest of the world, especially North America and Europe.

Examples of how Africa has been mutually hosting its own refugees and taking turns are unlimited. The regions of Central and West Africa have particularly exemplified the concept of the African refugee equilibrium, with many nations taking turns in generating and hosting refugees. Even in the days when it suffered refugee and migrant crises, few Equatorial Guineans left the continent; the vast majority fled to nearby Cameroon, Gabon, and Nigeria. During the First World War, the German colony of Kamerun fed the Spanish colony of Guinea with tens of thousands of refugees. But in the 1970s, Cameroon, in turn, hosted about 30,000 refugees from Equatorial Guinea. During the Nigerian Civil War, Nigeria fed several of its West and Central African neighbors with tens of thousands of refugees, including children, who ended up in countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast. The post-civil war era has seen Nigeria host hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from its neighbors, even while Nigeria itself simultaneously feeds some of those neighbors with a new category of refugees.

West and Central Africa are not unique in this exchange. Since the 1960s, nations in East and Southern Africa have taken turns between hosting and generating refugees. In East Africa, the Kakuma refugee camp in the northwest of Kenya currently hosts about 200,000 refugees from more than 20  neighboring countries, including refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi, to name but a few. Uganda, which has sent refugees to its neighbors, including Kenya, hosts its own refugees and refugees from others. Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee camp currently ranks the second largest in the world.

Perhaps more interestingly is the fact that besides mutually hosting its own refugees, Africa has hosted refugees from other continents, including from Europe. While examples abound, a few here will suffice. During the late 19th century and the 20th century in the midst of anti-Semitism, a significant number of European Jews entered North and Eastern Africa as refugees, with some settling in as far as South Africa. On the eve of the First World War, there were already more than 40,000 Jewish migrants and refugees settled in South Africa. In the 1930s, South Africa again received more than 6,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, in excess of 20,000 Polish refugees, who had been evicted from Russia and Eastern Europe following German invasion, were received and hosted in East and Southern Africa, including in modern day Tanzania, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, the crisis of war and decolonization in the Congo caused the flight of several thousand whites from the Congo. They were hosted as refugees in a number of African countries, including South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, the Central African Republic, Tanganyika, Rwanda, and Burundi.

The examples provided here only scratch the surface of the African refugee equilibrium, but they each demonstrate that we must pay attention to historical antecedents in refugee studies. In other words, we need to historicize African refugee studies. Only by so doing can we fully appreciate the important and diverse role that Africa plays. This approach clearly shows that if our neighbors are currently facing a refugee crisis and turn to us for assistance, we must view them with respect and compassion; it could soon be our turn and we could need them.

There are constant examples across Africa where our lack of knowledge of our own shared refugee experiences or sometimes outright denial of history continues to inform the way we treat fellow Africans with disdain and hostility. Xenophobia (better known as Afrophobia) in South Africa is just one example. The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) has carefully documented xenophobic attacks against other African refugees and migrants in South Africa since 1994, establishing several cases where in many South African towns and cities, South Africans attacked, injured or even killed African refugees and migrants. If only an average South African knew that not too long ago many African countries were safe havens to many of their countrymen and women during the anti-Apartheid struggle, they would think twice before unleashing xenophobic attacks against other Africans. Even across West and Central Africa, there have been several instances of both civilian African populations and their governments treating other African refugees in their countries with unbelievable hostility. When oil was suddenly discovered in Equatorial Guinea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Equatoguineans and the government alike, quickly forgot their shared refugee and migrant history with Cameroon, and began a series of hostilities against Cameroonian refugees and migrants who came to Equatorial Guinea for “greener pastures.” An informed knowledge about our collective refugee and migrant experiences would go miles in ensuring that Africans and African governments treat other African refugees and migrants in their countries in a friendlier and more accommodative fashion.

There is, however, hope on the horizon. Africanists are increasingly turning their attention to refugee studies and the African refugee equilibrium. Two special issues are forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of African Studies and in Africa Today, both of which showcase Africa’s shared and diverse refugee and migrant experiences. These issues are part of the efforts to redress the image of Africa and the misconceptions surrounding the continent regarding migrants and refugee movements.

What all of these means is that it is only a matter of time before the static image of African refugee dynamics and the African refugee equilibrium will displace these ahistorical ideas.

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

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