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Love, Death, Sponsors and Taxes: A Survivor’s Manifesto

7 min read.

A governor, accused of murdering his mistress, calls a press conference to admit to the affair, accompanied by his wife and children. The media obsesses on the murder and celebrates a culture of transactional love. In other news, a notoriously corrupt government raises taxes to pay for its profligacy; politicians urge the citizenry to tighten their belts to pay for development. In a nation of looters and grabbers, only the mad will survive. By RASNA WARAH

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Love, Death, Sponsors and Taxes: A Survivor’s Manifesto
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Hum apse beimani thodi karenge”. (Translation: I cannot be dishonest with you/I cannot betray you.) This is what a disabled hawker in New Delhi’s Connaught Place told me when he handed me the correct change for a Buddha sculpture I had just bought from him. Unlike a typical Delhi resident, I had not haggled with him about the price of the sculpture – on the contrary, he had himself volunteered to give me a discount. As I was walking away after making the purchase, he stopped me, saying that he had not given me the correct change and that he was not the type of person who could be dishonest.

I thought about this incident later and wondered what might have prompted a poor hawker to say these words to me. Why was it important for him to establish his honesty? The change he handed over to me was worth about $4, hardly an amount that I would have missed. So why did giving the money back to me matter to him? (It’s good when Kenyans travel abroad – they get to see how other people go about their daily business.)

It’s possible that this hawker was not particularly honest and that I had paid much more for the sculpture than it was actually worth, and so he was creating the perception that, in fact, I had got a bargain. It’s possible that in the Indian entrepreneurial tradition of establishing trust when conducting business, he saw in me a potential future customer, and therefore, wanted to confirm to me that he could be relied upon to be honest. It’s also possible that he was just a con artist who used nice words to make his customers feel good.

Upon further reflection I realised that this particular hawker was operating within a context and culture that valued integrity – if not in everyday practice (India is, after all, one of the most corrupt countries in the world) then at least in intention. People want to feel trusted and want to be able to trust other people, and this trust is what makes all kinds of transactions – both personal and in business – possible. The announcement by a hawker who I will probably never meet again that he cannot betray me reflects a culture where relationships are held together by an implicit or explicit understanding that trust should not be broken.

I have been thinking a lot about trust and betrayal in the wake of the Sharon Otieno murder case, which has generated knee-jerk reactions from Kenyans, ranging from “She was an immoral woman whose actions led to her death” to “She is a victim of a patriarchal culture that exploits young women”. While salacious details of her affair with the Migori governor, Okoth Obado, were being published in the daily newspapers (which seem to have borrowed a leaf from the UK’s sleazy tabloids), no one seemed interested in asking why it has become acceptable in our society for young women to have “sponsors” in the first place. Al Jazeera and BBC did programmes on this phenomenon, but the local media seem to have accepted it as a way of life. One Kenyan newspaper even went as far as interviewing “sponsees” whose rags-to-riches stories were probably a source of inspiration to thousands of other young struggling women. One female politician had the audacity to say that it is perfectly okay for young women to look for wealthy older men to pay for their lifestyles because life is difficult and a woman has to do what a woman has to do to survive. So much for women’s empowerment!

I have been thinking a lot about trust and betrayal in the wake of the Sharon Otieno murder case, which has generated knee-jerk reactions from Kenyans, ranging from “She was an immoral woman whose actions led to her death” to “She is a victim of a patriarchal culture that exploits young women”.

We live in the “Magical Kenya” that Christine Mungai describes so well in a recent article. Sharon Otieno and Okoth Obado epitomise this Kenya where betrayal and dishonesty have come to define relationships, where all human activity is reduced, in Mungai’s words, to “a form of economic calculation, dismissing love, empathy and care as powerful but unfortunate delusions”. This is not a Kenya where a hawker will give back money to a customer because his integrity matters to him more than the extra money he might obtain through deception. It is a country where a governor calls a press conference with his wife and grown-up children in tow and admits to an illicit affair without feeling an iota of shame or guilt. It is a country where a young woman who has three children with another man feels that she can extort money from her new rich lover (also known as “sponsor” in Kenyan parlance) even while claiming that he is the father of her unborn child.

The media’s obsessive focus on the murder itself and not on the society that created a Sharon Otieno and an Okoth Obado also leaves a lot to be desired. The public reaction to the murder and the subsequent arrest of the Migori governor – a suspect in the case – have left many perplexed. For instance, Migori residents protested against their governor’s arrest, even after it was revealed that he and his wife might have siphoned millions of shillings from Migori County’s budget for their personal use. Kenyans clearly suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, a condition that causes hostages to develop emotional alliances with their captors (a term that was coined in 1973 when four hostages taken by bank robbers in Stockholm defended those who had held them captive and refused to testify against them.) Kenyans identify with their oppressors to the point where they can no longer see what is in their best interest.

Betrayal and dishonesty have come to define relationships, where all human activity is reduced…to “a form of economic calculation, dismissing love, empathy and care as powerful but unfortunate delusions”.

The debate on the ridiculously punitive taxes being imposed on Kenyans also reflects a society that has become completely captive to politicians. MPs from both sides of the political divide (that is, assuming that we still have two political sides in a post-handshake era) were making the most asinine arguments in favour of the raised taxes, which generally followed this argument: “We have to tighten our belts to pay for development.” I am no economist but even I know that when you suck money out of the economy, individuals and businesses have less money for purchasing goods or for investing. Businesses close down, people lose jobs, and in the end there is less “development” because there are less people who are paying taxes.

In addition, these austerity measures are being imposed at a time when Kenyans are being sold an ambitious and expensive “Big Four” infrastructure and development agenda. Who is the government kidding? There was no discussion or debate (public participation) on how Kenya got to a place where the government is imposing austerity measures on a people who are already over-burdened by the high cost of living and who are already being over-taxed for everything from electricity to books, which were previously zero-rated. Few ask why Kenyan taxpayers have to pay for the irresponsible massive borrowing – from Eurobond to SGR – that the government indulged in the last five years and which has brought us to a place where the government has us by the throat and there is nothing we can do about it.

I recently had a discussion with someone on the comatose state of Kenya’s citizens. When did we stop feeling anything? When did we shut down? Why is it that people in other countries appear more animated and alive? Was it when we realised in 2007/2008 that we were capable of committing mass murder and rape in the name of politicians? Or was in 2013 when Kenyans decided that people indicted for crimes against humanity should lead us? Or maybe it was in March this year when the man in whose name so many people have been killed decided that shaking hands with his opponent was in his personal, rather than the national, interest? Or when Eva Msando, the wife of murdered IEBC official Chris Msando, was appointed on the EPZ board by a government that may have had a hand in the killing of her husband? Or when known crooks in the opposition were given plum jobs in parastatals as a reward for the “handshake”. Or when soldiers deployed to the Westgate mall on 21 September 2013 to handle an Al Shabaab terrorism situation and to save lives ended up looting the mall’s shops instead? Or when Miguna Miguna was denied entry into the country, forced to board a plane and deported like a common criminal? Or when a man who was photographed eating githeri while waiting to vote for President Uhuru Kenyatta last year was given a state award but world-renowned Kenyan athletes who make the country proud were robbed of their allowances and sports gear by government officials during the Rio Olympics? Or maybe it was that time long ago when Kamlesh Pattni, the leading architect of Kenya’s economic decline in the 1990s, was treated like a rock star at a public inquiry, with people even asking him for autographs? (Most of these people, I might add, are avid church- or mosque-goers.) Stockholm syndrome? Dead men and women walking?

It is easy to shut down in Kenya – if we didn’t, we’d go stark raving mad. Blogger Owaahh says Kenyans suffer from unprocessed trauma – because we have not confronted our trauma, we are still not healed. The trauma of the 2007 election and its violent aftermath, the trauma of being led by people who have acquired or inherited wealth through stolen public resources, the trauma of not knowing which bizarre or tragic situation we may have to confront next, the trauma of knowing that many of your friends and family died psychologically and spiritually a long time ago yet no one came to their funeral or wrote an obituary. And because they are emotionally dead or numb, they cannot function like normal human beings.

It is easy to shut down in Kenya – if we didn’t, we’d go stark raving mad.

But how does one confront trauma when we cannot – and are not even allowed to – name it as such? When we are told at every opportunity that this is how life is, grin and bear it. When a preventable tragedy or a corruption scandal elicits a few tweets but does not change society. When a story stating that most of the food we consume in Kenya might be contaminated or poisonous because corrupt cartels allowed it into the country barely makes it to Page 17 of a newspaper but the story of a politician donating millions of ill-gotten shillings to a church makes front-page news.

Joe Khamisi calls us a nation of “looters and grabbers”. In his most recent book by this title, the US-based Kenyan author explains how 50 years of corruption and plunder have made wanton greed and deception the hallmarks of Kenyan political, economic and social life. Those who question this state of affairs are quickly sidelined, made to feel mad, stupid, naïve, irrational, unpatriotic, deranged, losing it.

50 years of corruption and plunder have made wanton greed and deception the hallmarks of Kenyan political, economic and social life. Those who question this state of affairs are quickly sidelined, made to feel mad, stupid, naïve, irrational, unpatriotic, deranged, losing it.

But as Jack Kerouac, author of the semi-autobiographical 1950s novel On the Road wrote: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww’.”

But as Jack Kerouac, author of the…1950s novel, On the Road wrote: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time…

It is time for Kenyans to get mad, really mad.

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Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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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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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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