Early this month, dozens of people gathered outside the Claridge’s Hotel in central London to protest against the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS)’s decision to award oil exploration licences to foreign companies later this year. The hotel was the venue for the International Conference on Somalia Oil and Gas that was hosted by Spectrum, a leading seismic data processing company. The conference was aimed at showcasing possible locations in Somalia where crude oil reserves can be exploited.
Last year, the FGS announced a first round of bidding on 206 offshore oil blocks, mainly in southern Somalia. The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo’s government to put Somalia’s oil reserves on the predatory oil and extractive industries’ market is being viewed by many as a recipe for disaster in a country that has suffered from more than two decades of civil war and which has few or no regulatory frameworks or laws in place to manage its oil in the interest of the Somali state and its people.
Jamal Kassim Mursal, who was the permanent secretary in Somalia’s petroleum ministry until last month, when he resigned, told the Voice of America that Somalia was not yet ready for any oil exploration because “nothing has changed – petroleum law is not passed, tax law is not ready, capacity has not changed, institutions have not been built”.
The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo’s government to put Somalia’s oil reserves on the predatory oil and extractive industries’ market is being viewed by many as a recipe for disaster in a country that has suffered from more than two decades of civil war
A study published in 2014 by the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute of Policy Studies cautioned that it was still too early for Somalia to be venturing into the oil industry because the country faces a host of challenges and obstacles that need to be addressed before any viable oil exploration and production can start. These challenges and obstacles include scant infrastructure for the transport and processing of oil, political volatility, institutional fragility, physical insecurity and ambiguous property rights.
If not handled with caution, warned the report, Somalia’s oil could prove to be a curse. Given the high levels corruption within the Somali government, and in light of the country’s fledgling state institutions, the absence of checks and balances, as well as nascent democratic structures, the hydrocarbon sector’s economic spoils are likely to also ruin politics, said the study’s author Dominik Balthasar. Lack of oversight and transparency could lead to conflict as competing forces seek to control the lucrative, but highly opaque, sector. “The problem arises in light of the fact that Somalia not only needs to counter the standard challenges arising from the resource curse, but must do so in the context of fragility.”
A study published in 2014 by the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute of Policy Studies cautioned that it was still too early for Somalia to be venturing into the oil industry because the country faces a host of challenges and obstacles that need to be addressed before any viable oil exploration and production can start.
In his book, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth, Tom Burgis describes how the discovery and exploitation of oil and other resources by foreign companies have left many African countries poorer and more conflict-ridden than they were before. From Nigeria to the Congo and South Sudan, the “resource curse” has left populations embroiled in violent conflicts and/or in debilitating poverty. Resources such as oil also distort economies, breed corruption and foster poor governance. Burgis explains:
“More often than not, some unpleasant things happen in countries where the extractive industries, as the oil and mining businesses are known, dominate the economy. The rest of the economy gets distorted, as dollars pour in to buy resources. The revenue that governments receive from their nations’ resources is unearned: states simply license foreign companies to pump crude or dig up ores. This kind of income is called ‘economic rent’ and does not make for good management. It creates a pot of money at the disposal of those who control the state. At extreme levels the contract between the rulers and the ruled breaks down because the ruling class does not need to tax the people to fund the government – so it has no need for their consent.”
Burgis shows how resource-funded regimes are “hard-wired for corruption” and that an economy based on just one pot of resources leads to “Big Man” dictatorial politics, as has been witnessed in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. And whereas before, Africa’s resources were often extracted at gunpoint or through violent colonisation, today “the looting machine has been modernized” through “phalanxes of lawyers representing oil and mineral companies” who “impose miserly terms on African governments and employ tax dodges to bleed profit from destitute nations”.
In his book, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth, Tom Burgis describes how the discovery and exploitation of oil and other resources by foreign companies have left many African countries poorer and more conflict-ridden than they were before
Mursal, the former petroleum permanent secretary, is also against an agreement that gives the first choice for exploration blocks to Soma Oil and Gas, one of the companies that has been embroiled in several controversies with regard to Somalia in the past. The agreement allegedly gives Soma Oil and Gas 12 blocks to conduct oil exploration.
The controversy around Soma Oil began around the tenure of Yussur Abrar, Somalia’s first female Central Bank Governor. Abrar resigned in November 2013 after just seven weeks in the job on the grounds that she was being continuously asked to sanction deals and transactions that violated her responsibilities as governor.
In her resignation letter, Abrar stated that she had “vehemently refused to sanction the contract with the law firm Schulman & Rogers regarding the recovery of the Somali financial institutions’ assets frozen since the fall of Siad Barre’s regime”. She said that the contract did not “serve the interest of the Somali nation” and “put the frozen assets at risk” while opening the door to corruption. She also stated that the Central Bank she had been assigned to manage was in a poor state, with payroll processing being the only semi-functioning unit.
Abrar’s woes also had something to do with the fact that the then President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was at the time making secretive deals with foreign oil companies. Barely a year after President Mohamud took office, stories began to emerge that the FGS had entered into a deal with Soma Oil. Apparently the Somali government had also held talks with Shell, Exxon, Mobil Corp and BP to revive pre-1991 oil contracts that were put on hold when the civil war broke out and when the government of Siad Barre collapsed. Observers were surprised that President Mohamud in the first year of his term agreed to an oil exploration deal after having earlier expressed fears that the country was too fragile to risk further conflict. Many observers warned that these oil deals would ignite further divisions and civil strife in oil-producing regions of the country, especially in the absence of legislative and regulatory provisions.
There were also concerns that oil deals would pave the way for more corruption in a country that has already gained the reputation of being amongst the most corrupt countries in the world. These concerns were so widespread that in July 2015 the UK’s Serious Fraud Office opened an investigation on Soma Oil’s dealings with the Somali government. Soma Oil, which was chaired by the former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, dismissed the investigation, claiming that the British company’s conduct with the Somali government was “completely lawful and ethical”. Through its PR agency FTI Consulting, Soma Oil insisted that “broad terms” of the deal had been made public. (Interestingly, FTI Consulting is the same firm that was given a contract to “unfreeze” Somali assets abroad, the very contract that led to the resignation of Abrar.)
UN monitors reported that the deal would give Soma Oil the right to apply for up to 12 oil licences, covering a maximum of 60,000 square kilometres. In May 2015, Bloomberg Business revealed a draft production-sharing agreement between Soma Oil & Gas and the Somali government that indicated that Somalia could end up paying up to 90 per cent of its oil revenue to the British company, thereby conferring unusually high benefits to the latter. Barnaby Pace, a campaigner with the watchdog Global Witness, described the agreement as a “terrible deal for the Somali people”. In a private conversation with yours truly, a Somali MP asked, “How can you sign a deal with a patient who is in ICU? Does an ICU patient have the capacity to sign anything?”
Although there has been more funding in the recent years, from the World Bank and the European Union to introduce public finance reforms and to provide budget support to the FGS, these efforts have not yet borne fruit. The FGS still has little authority over large chunks of Somalia where clan-based fiefdoms and Al Shabaab rule with impunity and even collect “taxes” from the local population.
In May 2015, Bloomberg Business revealed a draft production-sharing agreement between Soma Oil & Gas and the Somali government that indicated that Somalia could end up paying up to 90 per cent of its oil revenue to the British company, thereby conferring unusually high benefits to the latter. Barnaby Pace, a campaigner with the watchdog Global Witness, described the agreement as a “terrible deal for the Somali people”
And despite attempts by Kenyan columnists like Peter Kagwanja to depict Somalia as “the poster child of an ‘Africa rising from the ashes of civil war’”, most analysts would agree that the FGS is ill-equipped to govern and that most state institutions in the country are not only severely degraded, but in many cases are completely absent. The idea of a Somalia being run from the capital Mogadishu is a myth that only comforts the international community that created the FGS. The FGS simply does not have the capacity to manage the entire country or to enforce its will and laws on the various clan-based federal states and the majority of the Somali people.
The auctioning off of Somalia’s oil could also lead to feuds with neighbouring countries like Kenya, which has a dispute with Somalia over a maritime boundary along its border – a triangular chunk of sea in the Indian Ocean of about 100,000 square kilometres
It is estimated that there could be as many as 110 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves in Somalia – equal to Kuwait’s reserves and nearly half of those of Saudi Arabia. It is no wonder that Britain, along with Norway, Australia, Qatar and Turkey, among other countries, have been eyeing Somalia’s oil and gas reserves for some time.
However, exploiting natural resources in an environment of fragility and near-anarchy can spell doom for a country that barely has functioning ministries and other public institutions and which does not have the regulatory frameworks that could protect the country from local and foreign predatory forces. In addition, the looting spree precipitated by oil could lead to further in-fighting between factions and clan-based rivalries and competition could be further aggravated in regions where oil reserves are found. Al Shabaab could also find another reason to rally its troops against the FGS in regions it controls.
The auctioning off of Somalia’s oil could also lead to feuds with neighbouring countries like Kenya, which has a dispute with Somalia over a maritime boundary along its border – a triangular chunk of sea in the Indian Ocean of about 100,000 square kilometres. Kenya has already recalled its ambassador to Somalia because since the dispute remains unsettled at the International Court of Justice, Somalia has no right to auction off the territory, which is believed to have vast amounts of oil and gas reserves.
The heavy presence of oil exploration teams and infrastructure in the Indian Ocean could also lead to more piracy, especially if coastal communities feel disenfranchised and left out of the deal. This could reverse all the gains made by the international community in stopping piracy along Somalia’s coastline, which at 3,300 kilometres, is the longest in Africa.
The heavy presence of oil exploration teams and infrastructure in the Indian Ocean could also lead to more piracy, especially if coastal communities feel disenfranchised and left out of the deal.
Somalia is simply not ready to enter into any oil agreements with foreign companies; the costs are simply too great and any economic benefits derived will most likely accrue to individual politicians and businesspeople rather than to the majority of the Somali people who have suffered from poverty, underdevelopment, lack of basic services and poor governance for nearly thirty years.
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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.
“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 Langley, with 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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