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The Economic Logic of Regime Change: Venezuela Today. Uganda Tomorrow?

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The US is supervising a coup in Venezuela. The pretext: Nicholas Maduro’s brutality, the state’s record of widespread human rights abuses, does not wash. In August 2018, appeals for similar US intervention when Museveni brutally suppressed the youth uprising led by Bobi Wine and his colleagues, were rebuffed. In Zimbabwe, the Mnangagwa government turns on anti-austerity protestors with impunity. Why the double-standards triply-distilled? It’s all about debt, the old Washington Consensus, and the incumbent Big Man’s ability to suppress his people’s right to economic self-determination. By MARY SERUMAGA.

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The Economic Logic of Regime Change: Venezuela Today. Uganda Tomorrow?
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The American engineered regime-change taking place in Venezuela should be of interest to Africa and especially those countries which like Venezuela have experienced sporadic episodes of social unrest over a protracted period. President Maduro, like Presidents Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe and Museveni of Uganda has responded with wanton brutality. The actions of all three countries featured in in-depth reports by Human Rights Watch in 2017 alone. Maduro is the only one of the three so far who has attracted the ultimate sanction of regime change.

The Ugandan regime, hopelessly in debt and facing growing disaffection, is vulnerable to a take-over similar to Maduro’s. So strong is the disaffection and so likely are the youth to succeed in displacing the National Resistance Movement in a fair election, the United States cannot afford to be complacent if it wants to maintain the status quo. The only potential barrier to a second phase of structural adjustment (SAP II) is the fact that support for the new and most popular opposition leader, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, is rooted in the most excluded and disaffected and not the elite who would benefit from the continuation of the status quo.

Going back to 20th-century history, Africa and Latin America formed part of the Tripartite set up in the sixties to represent the global interests of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The high point was the 1966 Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The bloc expanded the then existing alliance known in the United Nations as the Afro-Asian Bloc and solidified at the Bandung Conference of 1955. The bloc was considered a threat by the United States and Europe as it voted against American interests on matters such as allowing Communist China to sit in the General Assembly. The Afro-Asian bloc enjoyed at least the nominal support of the Soviet Union (the depth of that support was tested by the Congo crisis during which the Soviet Union did not in the end support Patrice Lumumba who was assassinated before the colonialisation of Congo resumed unabated).

In the following years, much of Latin Africa signed on for their first phase of IMF development assistance. The results of the austerity that followed have been much written about, and culminated in the ‘IMF riots’ of the 1980s and 90s. Recent austerity protests in Zimbabwe continue this trend. Enter Hugo Chavez and his socialist intervention. President Maduro’s mentor gained popular support from the poorest and most marginalised for his anti-imperialist platform, enough even to recover from being deposed in an earlier American coup d’état in 2002. As Craig Murray put it, “Hugo Chavez’ revolutionary politics were founded on two very simple tenets:

  • People ought not to be starving in dreadful slums in the world’s most oil-rich state
  • The CIA ought not to control Venezuela”

Murray was referring to the twelve Latin American coups organized by the CIA between 1954 and 2019. Neither Chavez nor Maduro were able to rise above corruption and autocracy. Neither has President Trump, but unlike Donald Trump’s America, Venezuela needs outside financial support.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union left African countries in the lurch, still in need of access to capital for development, under pressure to continue to supply primary commodities and yet no longer able to play one superpower off against the other. In addition, the 1980s debt crisis forced most of them to sign onto the IMF’s structural adjustment programme. Austerity-induced social unrest is the enduring result. Uprisings in all three, that is Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Uganda, are a response to extreme and worsening economic conditions of high unemployment, hunger and rising taxes. Endemic corruption and economic sanctions only worsened the situation (and were designed to do so) in Zimbabwe. There are no examples anywhere of the success of structural adjustment in achieving its stated goals of deeper democracy, greater rule of law, higher respect for human rights, good governance, civil service reform, improved service delivery, an enabling environment for FDI and a rising, prosperous middle class. On the contrary there are only examples of countries having to receive further assistance to achieve the unattained goals of the first phase of IMF and World Bank intervention, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya being a few.

There are no examples anywhere of the success of structural adjustment in achieving its stated goals…

Structural Adjustment did achieve the objective of liberalising economies. This ensured Western access to cheap primary commodities not otherwise available to major IMF shareholders. The removal of restrictions on exporting capital has meant foreign investors whose role was meant to inject capital into assisted economies, can now freely transfer profits illicitly earned. It is an indisputable fact that there is a net outflow of capital from Africa of $41 billion every year – that is, the difference between loans, grants and FDI received and the cost of tax evasion, repatriation of aid, environmental damage, land-grabs and other features of the SAPs.

The IMF as an organization ensured its own profitability by locking borrowing countries into unsustainable debt.

When in Uganda political dissent was met by a massive and sustained wave of brutality by the state, in August 2018 Ugandans called on the United States to intervene by withdrawing their material, diplomatic and moral support from President Museveni. Uganda’s constitution like Venezuela’s provides for the removal of the president on various grounds of incapacity. The United States did not invoke the article against Museveni as they have done against Maduro.

The IMF as an organization ensured its own profitability by locking borrowing countries into unsustainable debt.

Washington did the opposite, effectively endorsing the NRM regime by placing the responsibility for the crisis on the opposition, and pressuring on its leadership to reach an agreement with what is ranked as East Africa’s second most corrupt government. They have been assisted in creating a façade of legitimacy for Museveni by organisations such as Transparency International whose global leader handed him an award for his ‘fight against corruption’ in 2018 – in the same week that he was being cited in a New York court for having taken a $500,000 bribe.

This unstinting support is useful in maintaining the economic status quo. Ironically, it is Museveni’s rash behaviour that is tipping the balance in favour of regime change. The United States has turned to Kenya for some of its security needs, transferring a lucrative military base from Entebbe to Kenya.

Washington has been assisted in creating a façade of legitimacy for Museveni by organisations such as Transparency International whose global leader handed him an award for his ‘fight against corruption’ in 2018 – in the same week that he was being cited in a New York court for having taken a $500,000 bribe.

In the first phase of the state’s brutality against its citizens, the regime allows the drama to be broadcast. This has the important function of instilling fear in the population. It is a signal to the world of the regime’s impunity. Later on, rumours circulate of house-to-house invasions by the armed forces in which young people are dragged out of their homes and beaten, ostensibly for supporting the uprisings.

Leaders of both countries have resorted to unconstitutional means to acquire and maintain power. There was the bloodless coup in Zimbabwe during which the uncooperative and China-embracing Robert Mugabe was ousted. President Museveni simply altered the constitution to allow him first to exceed the two-term limit to the presidency and later, the age-limit. Members of parliament were paid to support both constitutional amendments.

In the first phase of the state’s brutality against its citizens, the regime allows the drama to be broadcast. This has the important function of instilling fear… It is a signal to the world of the regime’s impunity.

This brings us to the reasons the United States, backed by the EU, is intervening in Venezuela – why it can justify its intervention of breaches of democratic principles in Venezuela but continue to support Museveni whose method of governance is similar. Officially it is to end President Maduro’s undeniably repressive rule and to prevent him from (further) embezzling and squandering Venezuela’s resources. There is little point in arguing a defense of President Maduro. However, the fact remains that his removal can only be sanctioned by a ruling of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice that the required constitutional ground/s have been met. There was no such ruling before Guaidò declared himself president. So much for the rule of law.

The answer is that Museveni’s continued domination of Uganda until recently met the economic objectives (often cast as security prerogatives) of the United States and Europe, the IMF and the World Bank. However, he is now struggling to remain relevant in global financial circles. The groundswell of opposition to NRM rule renders the enabling environment for extraction and extortion so risky as to be a bad investment. Should the opposition succeed in ousting Museveni and his cabal, there would be no guarantee the IMF’s regime would survive the transition.

In Venezuela’s case, Guaidò is already committed to the IMF and Western goals. His economic advisor, Ricardo Hausmann has been a political exile in the United States for years and has been in talks with the IMF. In January 2019 he made some of his proposals known. Although he has warned that an immediate resumption of debt servicing would not be possible, Hausmann does not call for a debt audit to determine whether lenders were duly diligent in lending to past regimes that he opposed on the basis of their alleged corruption, or whether the proceeds of the loans were injected in to the economy.

In Venezuela’s case, Guaidò is already committed to the IMF and Western goals. His economic advisor, Ricardo Hausmann…has been in talks with the IMF.

“For Hausmann, the key to any turnaround is a swift and massive injection of cash from the International Monetary Fund – to the tune of $60 billion or more.”

“Venezuela is the most over-indebted [sic] countr[ies] in the galaxy,” Hausmann said. “First, second and third priorities have to be the recovery of the country. There’s a humanitarian disaster. There are millions of Venezuelans flooding into other countries. If you want to fix the problem, you can’t take money out of the system to pay yourself back. It will take years to start servicing debt.” (Ben Bartenstein, Bloomberg January 30, 2019)

He does not say that illegal, unsustainable, illegitimate or odious debt should not be paid but merely proposes rolling payments over to a later date. If Venezuela agrees, she will become the new darling of the West.

In return Guaidò has received support unprecedented for a foreign opposition leader. On 24th January, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and the Treasury Department announced sanctions against any persons that continue to do business in Venezuela’s oil industry; on January 25th John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Advisor announced US intention to shift oil production in Venezuela to American companies. Ambassador John Bolton tweeted, “The United States will not let Maduro and his cronies continue to loot the assets of the Venezuelan people.” And finally, the rule of law in Venezuela was further flouted on 29 January when the United States sequestered Venezuelan bank accounts held there or insured by them, and put them at Guaidò’s disposal.

On his part, President Mnangagwa signed up weeks after ousting Mugabe. He will enjoy continued support as long as he too remains committed to repaying Zimbabwe’s unsustainable debt. His problem is he is simply unable to implement structural adjustment austerity and obtain a new package of concessional loans. The reason being that although Zimbabwe’s outstanding dues to the IMF were paid in 2016, there are unpaid arrears to the World Bank, the African Development Bank and other international financial institutions and development partners. The rules require that these be paid before any further lending can be considered. As their spokesperson pointed out, the IMF “stands ready to help the authorities design a reform package that can help facilitate the clearance of external payment arrears to international development banks and bilateral official creditors and that then would open the way for fresh financing from the internal community including potentially the IMF. But, again, just to stress as we said before, potential financial support from the Fund is conditional on the clearance of those arrears to the World Bank, the AFDB and financing assurances from bilateral official creditors (emphasis mine).”

On his part, President Mnangagwa signed up weeks after ousting Mugabe. He will enjoy continued support as long as he too remains committed to repaying Zimbabwe’s unsustainable debt.

Clearance of those arrears which amount to just over US$5 billion would mean austerity even beyond the conditions Zimbabweans’ experiences today. This outcome is not acceptable either to opposition politicians or the general population. In 2017 when the government tried to arrange financing to clear the arrears, opposition politician Tendai Biti stated: “That will not help much or anything at all in reality. The biggest challenges facing Zimbabwe cannot and will not be addressed by paying off arrears on which we defaulted almost 20 years ago; what really needs to be addressed are structural economic issues, de-industrialisation and unemployment. That money could be better used to fund industry revival to create jobs and boost production, as well as increase exports and improve liquidity.”

Although Uganda has a track record of cooperation with Western financial institutions, it has reached a tipping point. The auditor-general points out that…in 2020, total debt repayment will require 65 percent of all revenues collected.

Similarly, although Uganda has a track record of cooperation with Western financial institutions, it has reached a tipping point. The auditor-general points out that when the principle for some loans becomes repayable in 2020, total debt repayment will require 65 percent of all revenues collected. Mass demonstrations against austerity are likely to escalate. By December 2018 the IMF had made it clear that no new concessional loans were forthcoming until certain steps are taken to rein in overspending, restore fiscal discipline and control corruption. SAP II requires the suspension of infrastructure projects financed by non- or partially concessional loans (mainly from China). Although Kenya agreed to this condition to its own SAP II package in 2018, Uganda still hopes to find alternative funding for the projects. It is unlikely to be found because the IMF works in tandem with bi-lateral lenders – acting as a debt collector for them, even in cases such as Mozambique where funds were borrowed illegally (without parliamentary approval) and subsequently stolen.

If support is withdrawn from either Museveni or Mnangagwa it will not be as punishment for their human rights abuses. It will be because their development partners calculate that their own objectives would be better achieved through alternative proxies.

If support is withdrawn from either Museveni or Mnangagwa it will not be as punishment for their abuses of human rights and democratic principles and public demand that they depart. It will be because their development partners calculate that their own objectives would be better achieved through alternative proxies. The United States and her acolytes will back any candidate that will agree to their terms. Self-proclaimed president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidò is a clear example of that.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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Tigray is Africa’s Ukraine: We Must Build Pan-African Solidarity

A genocide is taking place in Tigray. Why is there no mobilization of African civil society organizations, non-governmental bodies, religious institutions, and individuals in support of Tigrayan refugees?

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Tigray is Africa’s Ukraine: We Must Build Pan-African Solidarity
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Two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than  5 million Ukrainians fleeing the war have crossed the borders into other European countries. While this is largely a testament to the massive scale of the attack by Russian forces that has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes in all directions, it also has a lot to do with the warm welcome and sympathy extended to these refugees by European nations.

Europeans both individually and collectively stood in solidarity with and committed to supporting Ukrainian refugees in all ways. Member states of the European Union established reception centres and facilitated the right to travel, stay, and work for all Ukrainians within days of the war starting. Families across Europe (and in the United Kingdom) volunteered to host Ukrainian families, organizations raised funds, individuals donated basic necessities, and many even travelled to borders to personally welcome Ukrainian refugees.

While this “gold standard” welcome by European countries—who are generally accused of being hostile to other (particularly black and brown) refugees—has been the subject of heated discussion, a question that is yet to be thoroughly addressed is why such solidarity is not seen in other parts of the world. More particularly, using the experiences of refugees from the Tigray war as a case study, we would like to ask why the multiple conflicts ravaging the African continent fail to inspire such a response by African countries.

The Tigray war, characterized as the world’s deadliest war, has been ongoing for seventeen months. Thus far, more than 500,000 people are reported to have died. Terrible atrocities amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including scores of massacres, weaponized sexual violence, and a total humanitarian blockade have all contributed to creating conditions aptly described by the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) as “hell”.  Despite the length and brutality of this conflict, however, the number of Tigrayans who have managed to escape into neighbouring African countries is relatively minuscule.

As far as we are able to establish, about 70,000 Tigrayans crossed into Sudan during the first few days of the war. We can add to these the thousands of Tigrayans who worked and lived in Djibouti before the war and the few hundreds that managed to flee to Kenya following the ethnic profiling and mass arrests they faced in Ethiopia. It is possible to argue that the number of refugees from Tigray has remained low mainly because the borders have been blocked by the Ethiopian regime and its allies. This draconian blockade has indeed been used as a tool of war by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to completely cut off Tigray from the rest of the world in order to hide atrocities and control the narrative. It is also believed to have the approval of key members of the international community seeking to mitigate the impact of the war on the broader Horn of Africa region and its potential contribution to the migration crisis in Europe.

Even so, taking into account the precarious situation of the millions of Tigrayans in the region itself and in the rest of Ethiopia along with well-known patterns of illicit migration from conflict areas, it is reasonable to wonder if the low number of Tigrayan refugees is due to the receptiveness—or lack thereof—of neighbouring countries as well as the blockade. With this in mind let’s look more closely at some policies and practices in the region that can be perceived as obvious deterrents to those seeking refuge.

Political and diplomatic support given by African countries to the regime in Addis Ababa 

The Tigray war is happening in the host country of the African Union (AU) and the second-most populous country on the continent. However, this conflict has not been included as an agenda item in any of the meetings of the AU heads of states that have been convened since its onset in November 2020. The only significant statement that was made regarding this conflict by the Chairperson of the AU, Moussa Faki Mahamat, was one that endorsed the war. Since this early statement, the AU has assiduously ignored the overwhelming evidence of the gruesome atrocities and violations of human rights and humanitarian laws perpetrated during this conflict. Nor has the AU acknowledged the direct involvement of Eritrea and Somalia—both members of the AU—who deployed troops into Tigray and have been credibly accused of committing grave atrocities.

Diplomatically, African countries have given cover to the Ethiopian regime in all multilateral forums including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The passionate and well-received speech by Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, in opposition to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, makes one wonder why the same passion is absent for crises nearer home, including Tigray. Sadly, however, not only do the so-called A3 countries on the UNSC continue to frustrate action against the Ethiopian regime, African countries have voted against measures to establish investigative mechanisms into the atrocities committed in Tigray. Even more disappointingly, on the 31st of March, Kenya voted in support of a bill introduced by the Ethiopian regime to halt funding for the International Commission of Human Rights Experts set up to investigate the crimes and human rights abuses that took place in Tigray.

The AU has assiduously ignored the overwhelming evidence of the gruesome atrocities and violations of human rights and humanitarian laws perpetrated during this conflict.

These actions indicate that the AU and its member states have either failed to recognize the gravity of the human rights and humanitarian violations in Tigray or are unwilling to address violations by other member states, however grave, as a matter of policy.

Forced Repatriation to Ethiopia

This policy and the attendant practices in turn mean that Tigrayans or other minorities seeking refuge from state-sanctioned violence in the region are denied official welcome and feel insecure even when they are sheltered there as refugees under UN protection. Tigrayan refugees in the region are under continuous threat from Ethiopian and Eritrean intelligence and security officials that are fully capable of crossing borders to harm or forcibly repatriate them. Just to look a bit more closely at the experience of Tigrayan refugees in the region, in Sudan, senior Ethiopian officials and supporters of the regime have on several occasions threatened to forcefully repatriate Tigrayan refugees from the Sudanese refugee camps that are under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In Djibouti, the threat of forced repatriation was realized when several Tigrayans, who had committed no known crime, were apprehended and returned to Ethiopia. This clear breach of the principle of non-refoulement has excited no response from other African governments or African Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). 

Tigrayans also live in fear of forced repatriation even in the relatively more friendly Kenya. The December 2021 abduction of Tigrayan businessman Samson Teklemichael in Nairobi in broad daylight is a prominent example of the insecurity of Tigrayan refugees in Kenya. In addition, personal accounts from Kenya suggest that newly arriving refugees can fall victim to immoral actors demanding large sums of money to facilitate registration. Tigrayans who have been unable to obtain proper documentation for this and other reasons risk being thrown in jail. The lucky few that are registered are coerced to relocate to remote and inhospitable camps. As a result of this, and due to the increased insecurity created by the presence of Ethiopian and Eritrean intelligence officers operating in Nairobi, Tigrayans in Kenya are increasingly opting to remain hidden. This means that the actual number of Tigrayan refugees in Kenya is unknown.

The December 2021 abduction of Tigrayan businessman Samson Teklemichael in Nairobi in broad daylight is a prominent example of the insecurity of Tigrayan refugees in Kenya.

It also bears noting that in response to the war in Tigray, the Kenyan government tightened its borders with Ethiopia, essentially closing the only avenue open for Tigrayans fleeing conflict and ethnic-based persecution by land. Moreover, Tigrayan refugees who have been stopped at Kenyan border controls in Moyale have at different times been apprehended and returned by agents of the Ethiopian regime.

Harsh conditions facing Tigrayan refugees

Sudan hosts the largest number of documented Tigrayan refugees. An estimated 70,000 Tigrayans fled to Sudan to escape the brutal invasion and occupation of Western Tigray. While these people were welcomed with extraordinary kindness by the people of Eastern Sudan, the refugee camps to which they were relegated are located in remote and inhospitable regions with almost no basic infrastructure. As a result, international organizations have been unable to provide adequate support and Tigrayan refugees have fallen victim to extreme weather and fires.

Similarly, Tigrayans remaining in Djibouti are kept in remote camps under unbearable conditions, facing maltreatment and abuses such as rape and sexual violence including by security forces. The whereabouts of the thousands of refugees who escaped from abuses and starvation at Holhol, one of Djibouti’s remote refugee camps where over 1,000 Tigrayans remain, are unknown.

The disinterest of African media and society

Arguably, the above realities describe the failings of African governments in terms of welcoming and protecting refugees fleeing conflict. But what of other sections of African society? Why are there no responses akin to the mobilization of European civil society organizations, non-governmental bodies, religious institutions, and individuals to support Ukrainian refugees? Even taking into full account economic limitations likely to affect responses to such crises, this could potentially speak to a larger failure in terms of building pan-African solidarity, not just as a political concept but as a grassroots reality. In the specific case of the Tigray war, this is further reflected and augmented by the minimal coverage of the war in African media outlets relative, for example, to the extensive daily coverage given to the Ukraine war. Moreover, African intellectuals and intercontinental forums have shown little to no interest to address an ongoing genocide that is quickly paralleling the worst examples of mass atrocities on the continent thus far.

What can we learn from the European Response to the Ukraine crisis?

In many ways, the European response to the Ukraine crisis has been unprecedented and arguably sets a new standard for welcoming refugees from all regions including Europe itself. In the African context, the Tigrayan experience of policies and practices that endanger and harm the most vulnerable seeking safety reveals an urgent need to take these lessons on board.  With this in mind, we can tentatively outline the following suggestions.

First, we as Africans should find mechanisms for building pan-African solidarity amongst citizens that are not contingent upon the will of our governments. This can only be achieved if African media, civil society organisations, thought leaders, and other influencers commit to prioritizing what is happening on the continent. In this interconnected and highly digital age, it is no longer acceptable that an African anywhere on the continent does not know about what is happening in Tigray as much as, or more than, they know about what is occurring in Ukraine.

We as Africans should find mechanisms of building pan-African solidarity amongst citizens that are not contingent upon the will of our governments.

Second, African citizens should protest policies and practices by African governments that favour state-sanctioned violence and support regimes over vulnerable communities. We all, as Africans, are prone to fall victim to state violence and violations of human rights in our countries and this necessitates pan-African reflection on human rights for all, indigenous communities as well as refugees and migrants.

Third, refugees and migrants are rarely a burden on the host countries and communities. Those fleeing the Tigray war, for example, are generally highly educated and carry unique skills that could contribute to societies wherever they land. Harnessing these resources on the continent should be a priority. Moreover, refugees enrich host communities and facilitate regional and continental integration which the AU and its member states continue to discuss, but never materialize.

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UK-Rwanda Refugee Deal: A Stain on President Kagame

Rwanda’s proposed refugee deal with Britain is another strike against President Paul Kagame’s claim that he is an authentic and fearless pan-Africanist who advocates for the less fortunate.

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UK-Rwanda Refugee Deal: A Stain on President Kagame
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In mid-April 2022, Rwanda and Britain unveiled a pilot scheme in which the latter will ship off asylum seekers who arrive in Britain “illegally” to the former for the whopping sum of £120 million. Although full details of the deal remain sketchy, it is believed that it will target mainly young male refugees who apply for political asylum in Britain. Anyone who entered the UK illegally since January 1, 2022, is liable to be transferred. Each migrant sent to Rwanda is expected to cost British taxpayers between £20,000 to £30,000. This will cover accommodation before departure, a seat on a chartered plane and their first three months of accommodation in Rwanda. Their asylum application will be processed in Rwanda and if they are successful, they will have the right to remain in Rwanda. Those whose applications fail will be deported from Rwanda to countries where they have a right to live. The plan is contingent on the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill currently before the British Parliament. Britain is planning to send the first set of asylum seekers in May 2022, but this is highly unlikely as human rights groups will almost likely challenge this deal in court and, as a result, delay the implementation.

Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, Vincent Biruta, and Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, present the initiative as a remedy to what they deem a malfunctioning refugee and asylum system, “(T)he global asylum system is broken. Around the world, it is collapsing under the strain of real humanitarian crises, and because people traffickers exploit the current system for their own gain… This can’t go on. We need innovative solutions to put a stop to this deadly trade.” In a jointly written editorial for the UK’s Times newspaper, they portray the agreement as a humanitarian measure that would disrupt the business model of organized criminal gangs and deter migrants from putting their lives at risk.

Back in Rwanda, the pro-Kagame newspaper, The New Times of Rwanda, highlighted Rwanda’s experience in hosting refugees: “Rwanda is home to nearly 130,000 refugees from around the region.” The New Times claims that “… even those who arrived in Rwanda as refugees fleeing violence have since been integrated in the community and enjoy access to education, healthcare and financial services. This friendly policy toward refugees and migrants is in part linked to the country’s history.” It concludes by noting that “Kigali’s decision to extend a helping hand to migrants and asylum seekers in the UK who’re unable to secure residence there is very much in keeping with this longstanding policy on migrants and moral obligation to provide protection to anyone in need of safety. It is, therefore, shocking that this act of generosity has come under severe attack by some people, including sections of the media.”

Reaction in the UK has been mostly negative, ranging from the Anglican ChurchAmnesty International. A broad range of 150 organizations, including Liberty and the Refugee Council, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Home Secretary (the UK immigration minister).  Even some MPs from Johnson’s ruling Conservative party condemned the deal. Dozens of Home Office staff have criticized the policy and are threatening to strike because of it.

Deals of this kind between Britain and Rwanda are not new. Britain tried to enter a similar agreement with Ghana and Kenya, but both rejected it, fearing a backlash from citizens. Rwanda has done similar deals before. Israel offshored several thousands of asylum-seekers, many of them Eritreans and Sudanese, to Rwanda and Uganda between 2014 and 2017. A public outcry forced Israel to abandon the scheme when evidence emerged that most of them ended up in the hands of people smugglers and were subjected to slavery when traveling back to Europe. Under a deal funded by the European Union, Rwanda has taken in evacuees from Libya. Denmark has a similar agreement with Rwanda, but it has not yet been implemented.

In 2016, Australia signed a similar deal with Nauru, a tiny island country northeast of Australia. In May 2016, Australia held 1,193 people on Nauru at the cost of $45,347 a month per person – about $1,460 a day or $534,000 a year. That same year, the EU signed a deal with Turkey under which Turkey agreed to take back “irregular migrants,” mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, in exchange for reduced visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, €6 billion in aid to Turkey, update the EU’s customs union with Turkey, and re-energize stalled talks regarding Turkey’s accession to the European Union.

If these failed deals did not deter Britain, Rwanda’s human rights record should have. Even Kagame’s supporters concede that his human rights record is deplorable. At the 37th session of the Universal Periodic Review (a regular, formal review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States), Britain recommended that Rwanda “conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture, and bring perpetrators to justice.” A Rwandan refugee in London told The Guardian that, “Rwanda is a good country for image, but not for freedom of speech…Those who oppose Kagame end up in prison. The Rwandan government use[s] torture and violence against their opponents.”

The deal between Rwanda and Britain also contravenes international law. The principle of non-refoulement “… prohibits States from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction or effective control when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return, including persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that Britain has a duty under international law to ensure that those seeking asylum are protected. UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards. Such arrangements simply shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations, and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention . . . [P]eople fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.

Rwanda is the single most densely populated state in Africa, with more than 1,000 people per square mile. It already has its fair share of refugees from neighboring countries. (Biruta told the Financial Times last month: “This program [the deal with Britain] will be dedicated to asylum seekers who are already in the UK … we’d prefer not to receive people from neighboring countries, immediate neighbors like DRC, like Burundi, Uganda or Tanzania.”

Although it has done well economically compared to many other African countries, it remains a poor nation that needs to prioritize addressing its internal economic issues rather than allowing Britain to dump its refugees on them. It is unlikely that the economic benefits of this deal will help get the average Rwandan out of poverty. If Rwanda needs more refugees, it needs to look no further than its neighbors. Many of those who will end up in Rwanda will likely be genuine refugees who would have a right to remain in Britain and white supremacists in the UK do not want them there because they do not have the right skin color.

With this deal, Johnson and Patel are pandering to the racists simply to get more votes. If this deal was in place in 1972, when Idi Amin deported Ugandans of Asian descent to the UK, Patel’s family might likely have been shipped off to Rwanda. For his part, Kagame is pandering for influence and money from Western nations. It undermines his claim that he is an authentic and fearless pan-Africanist who advocates for the less fortunate. What happened to speaking the truth to Western powers? Let us hope a judge in the UK stops this terrible deal.

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

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Road to 9/8: What Is at Stake?

This is the first of a series of articles that will discuss some of the major issues at stake, and the roles played by various institutions in safeguarding the integrity of the August 2022 general election.

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Road to 9/8: What Is at Stake?
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The past few months have witnessed political activity that is reaching fever pitch ahead of the general elections which are slated for August 9th. Public officers intending to contest in the forthcoming elections have resigned from office and political parties have either held party primaries or issued direct nominations. Already, parties have shared with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) the final list of candidates they intend to field for the elections, and campaigns officially begin by the end of May.

In reality, the campaigns commenced years ago; immediately following the 2017 general election when the president and the leader of the opposition made amends and embarked on the constitutional reform process that was the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), the drumbeat of electioneering became ubiquitous. Since then, the political class has largely been in a preparatory mood, with various outfits coming together in anticipation of forming the next government. Despite the attempted BBI constitutional reform being halted by successive courts including the Supreme Court, the effect it has had on political campaigning has persisted, with broad coalitions being formed in apparent anticipation of power-sharing arrangements akin to those proposed under the BBI Bill.

Based on recent developments, the forthcoming elections are shaping up to be highly unprecedented and unique. This is primarily due to the make-up of the competing factions. In an unsurprising but also unprecedented turn of events, the incumbent has thrown his weight behind the opposition leader against his own deputy. The last time we saw this in Africa was in Malawi when Salous Chilima (current and immediate former vice-president of Malawi), was in direct confrontation with President Peter Mutharika.

Evidence suggests that the president intends to remain in active politics beyond his term. For example, he recently revitalised his Jubilee Party, now a member of the Azimio-One Kenya Alliance Coalition that will be fielding Raila Odinga as its presidential candidate. Further, he was appointed Chairperson of the Council of the Azimio-OKA Coalition. More recently, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance omitted allocations for the president’s retirement in his budget statement apparently out of caution to avoid violating the legal restrictions on retirees enjoying perks while involved in active party politics. “Walking into the sunset” does not seem to be on the president’s agenda.

The president’s involvement complicates attempts to forecast the outcome of the elections. For one, it is presumed that the incumbency advantage will operate in favour of the opposition leader with the president’s backing. Already, Raila Odinga has stated he intends to “walk in Uhuru’s footsteps” to benefit from the president’s achievements and inherit his support base. Unfortunately, this puts him in the difficult position of being unable to wholly distance himself from the blemishes in the president’s record. It also undermines one of Odinga’s hallmarks: being an anti-establishment figure. In addition, one need only recall—especially now following the death of President Mwai Kibaki—that the power of President Daniel arap Moi’s incumbency was in fact a poisoned chalice for candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, who was crushed at the polls, wining just 31 per cent of the vote compared to Mwai Kibaki’s 62 per cent.  Some claim that Raila Odinga was the “king maker” since he backed President Kibaki. There may be some truth to this, but it is also true that Raila Odinga made a political and not an altruistic decision: he read the mood of the country and surmised that he had to distance himself from the establishment that President Moi and then candidate Uhuru Kenyatta represented. So, in a sense, Deputy President William Ruto is today’s Mwai Kibaki, President Kenyatta is today’s Moi and, irony of all ironies, Raila Odinga is today’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. Don’t ever be told that musical chairs is a children’s game.

The president’s involvement also raises questions around the use of state machinery to boost Odinga’s candidacy. A supplementary budget estimate tabled in parliament saw an increase in the president’s budgetary allocation for new vehicles from KSh10 million to KSh300 million. In a campaign season where the president has made clear his level of involvement, it is clear that, with the assistance of the National Treasury, the president has elided the lines between state and political candidate.

In a sense, Deputy President William Ruto is today’s Mwai Kibaki, President Kenyatta is today’s Moi and, irony of all ironies, Raila Odinga is today’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta.

On the other hand, the deputy president is walking an intellectual tight-rope, taking credit for the achievements of the last 10 years and distancing himself from the blemishes. This is an altogether self-serving strategy but, were it not for the resonance of the “hustler” narrative, one would have thought that its transparent hypocrisy would be its own condemnation.

Bearing in mind Kenya’s unique history with election-related fraud, there exists a tangible risk of either side engaging in fraud, but this is more plausible where the state has a vested interest (such as the president’s). While speaking in the US, the deputy president stated that Kenya’s democracy is under threat and further alluded to a plot by several political actors to manipulate the outcome of the election. In his research, Walter Mebane has shown that fraud was prevalent in both the 2013 and 2017 general elections. The vice president was a beneficiary of both results. It is always hard to speak from both sides of your mouth; except if you are a politician, it seems. Without commenting on the accuracy of the deputy president’s assertions, it is clear that the IEBC, election observers, civil society and the judiciary will have to remain vigilant for any signs of fraud. Already, the deputy president’s party—the United Democratic Alliance—has faced allegations of rigging following its recently concluded primaries.

Further context

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the highly consequential nature of this election is the context in which it is taking place. Last year, the president and the leader of the opposition attempted to orchestrate a constitutional reform process that was finally halted by the Supreme Court. Seemingly motivated by a desire to remedy the winner-takes-all nature of elections to which they attribute the violence that always accompanies electoral processes, the president and the opposition leader proposed to expand the executive and to make a raft of other changes to the constitution through the BBI. In contortions only possible when the pursuit of power is the organising principle for decision making rather than any sense of principle, both the president and Odinga were supporters of the constitution but led the BBI movement which would have dismembered that constitution. Deputy President Ruto was a virulent critic of the constitution but has portrayed himself as its chief defender with his opposition to the BBI.  Like Saint Paul, both camps seem to have experienced a moment of conversion, but it is unclear who is on the road to Damascus. To a section of Kenyans, this entire process was an affront to the spirit of the constitution and constituted an elite power-sharing scheme. Some even viewed it as an attempt by the president to stage-manage his succession. As noted, whilst the BBI was overturned by the courts, the broader political aims sought by its promoters are currently being pursued.

The high stakes nature of the election is not lost on the various political factions in formation. Already, parallels are being drawn between the upcoming election and the 2002 general election, which is widely believed to be one of the more credible elections in Kenya’s history. This is in part due to the broad range of support Raila Odinga has been receiving from political actors who were involved in the 2002 NARC Grand Coalition. However, such a comparison immediately fails as John Githongo rightly explains: the upcoming elections seem to be about nothing. This is despite attempts by both sides to centre economic reform in campaign discourse. Without a clear impetus to go to the polls, voter apathy is high.

Whilst the BBI was overturned by the courts, the broader political aims sought by its promoters are currently being pursued.

Kenya is in the middle of a biting economic crisis. As of June 2021, the country’s public debt stood at KSh7.7 trillion—a 300 per cent increase in the country’s debt stock from 2013. As it stands, a significant portion of the country’s revenue is used to service debt. According to the Institute of Economic Affairs, the debt service to tax revenue ratio is currently 49 per cent—a 19 per cent increase from 2013/14. These trends seem to have brought the economic agendas of the various candidates into sharper focus. For example, the deputy president has proposed a “bottom up” economic model that pits “hustlers” against “dynasties”. On the other hand, his opponent has floated the idea of a social welfare programme involving the distribution of a monthly stipend to certain sectors of the population. These economic agendas seem not to have taken root, with significant political commentary focusing on tribal demographics and the candidates’ support bases in various regions. This is a concerning reality as the next administration will be saddled with the enormous burden of economic recovery.  And while the politicians politic, northern Kenya is the grip of a growing famine.

Aside from the state of the economy, these elections come against a backdrop of declining relations between the executive and the judiciary. In recent years, the country has witnessed the flouting of court orders, the interference with the independence of the judiciary, a worrying increase in the rate and normalisation of corruption, and the use of criminal law enforcement agencies for the settlement of commercial disputes.  While the courts have in many ways held the executive to account and stood firmly on the side of constitutional order, in the context of commercial and criminal law, the courts are riven with corruption and this has badly dented the judiciary’s credibility. Besides reducing investor confidence and jeopardising the state of the economy, these trends threaten people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. The further they are entrenched, the less likely we as a country are able to backtrack and rebuild.

Risks 

The upcoming elections are likely to be highly polarising. Election related violence stemming from political division is not new to Kenya; thus far, both sides’ party primaries have been rocked by violence. In what is an unfortunately ironic turn of events, the attempt by the president and Raila Odinga to remedy the “winner-take-all” nature of elections to which they ascribe election-related violence, seems to have had the opposite effect. The broad nature of the coalitions forming only serves to raise the stakes, increasing the likelihood of tensions running high. Take for example the political primaries: the positioning of the two coalitions within their strongholds is such that candidates needed to secure a ticket to maintain a chance at winning in the elections. As a result, some have turned to unscrupulous tactics to do so, and faced with unfavourable outcomes, have resorted to violence.

The broad nature of the coalitions forming only serves to raise the stakes, increasing the likelihood of tensions running high.

The increased digitisation of political campaigning continues to muddy the waters. This election cycle has seen a significant amount of mis- and disinformation. Some of the content tends towards spreading inciteful messages. However, social media platforms have largely remained complacent, jeopardising Kenyans’ access to civic information online, and undermining healthy democratic debate.

Between Kenya’s election history which is fraught with division and violence, and the current state of the economy and the rule of law, the coming elections are likely to be instrumental in shaping the future trajectory of the country and, to an extent, the region, especially at a time when there is increased regional instability. This is further compounded by the changing nature of elections in the digital age.

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