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Why Closing Dadaab is a Bad Idea

11 min read.

The government’s recent announcement to close the Dadaab refugee camp, also known as Kenya’s fourth largest city, is motivated by all the wrong reasons, is a breach of international law and could, once again, very well lead to the ratcheting up of terror attacks in Kenya.

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Why Closing Dadaab is a Bad Idea
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In 2018, the United States carried out 45 air and drone strikes in Somalia, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based non-profit organisation. It is not clear how many Al Shabaab militants and civilians were killed in these attacks because, like most covert military operations, it is difficult to obtain and ascertain the veracity of information about casualties.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has in recent months intensified the US drone strike programme in Somalia, a disturbing decision that is likely to lead to more radicalisation and revenge attacks, both in Somalia and in neighbouring Kenya, which has borne the brunt of Al Shabaab’s terrorist attacks abroad.

Given that Somalia is pretty much still a war zone, why does the Kenyan government feel that it is safe for the 230,000 or so Somali refugees in the Dadaab refugee camp to return home?

In addition, there is a 20,000-strong presence of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops in Somalia. Ugandan, Burundian, Ethiopian, Djiboutian and some 4,000 Kenyan troops have their feet on the ground in parts of central and southern Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu. Even the Somali president is protected by AMISOM forces as the Somalia National Army is still not fully operational. Although there is a semblance of normalcy in Mogadishu, with new buildings and businesses coming up every day, much of the Somali capital still has the look and feel of a city under siege. Al Shabaab regularly wreaks havoc on the residents via IEDs and suicide bombers. In areas it controls, it also extracts “taxes” (protection money) from residents and imposes its own version of Sharia.

The last time Kenya threatened to close down Dadaab was in April 2015, shortly after the gruesome terrorist attack on Garissa University. Deputy President William Ruto claimed that the camp was a security threat. It was a clear case of scapegoating – Ruto failed to mention that all four terrorists who attacked Garissa University College were Kenyan citizens, not Somali nationals – and only one of them was an ethnic Somali.

Given that Somalia is pretty much still a war zone, why does the Kenyan government feel that it is safe for the 230,000 or so Somali refugees in the Dadaab refugee camp to return home? According to a leaked United Nations document dated 12 February, the Government of Kenya wants the Dadaab camp to be closed by August this year.

The last time Kenya threatened to close down the camp and send all the refugees to their home countries was in April 2015, shortly after the gruesome terrorist attack on Garissa University College, which is about 100 kilometres from the camp in Dadaab. Deputy President William Ruto claimed that the camp was a security threat to the country and that all refugees in the camp would be given three months to leave the country. He added that if the refugees did not leave voluntarily, the government would arrange for their forcible transfer across the border into Somalia. It was a clear case of scapegoating – Ruto failed to mention that all four terrorists who attacked Garissa University College were Kenyan citizens, not Somali nationals – and only one of them was an ethnic Somali.

The government of Mwai Kibaki initiated the first repatriation programme, which eventually forced the UNHCR and the Federal Government of Somalia to enter into an agreement with Kenya to facilitate the “voluntary and organised” repatriation of refugees to Somalia.

In May 2015, after terrorists attacked Kenyan soldiers in Yumbis, which is very near Dadaab, Haron Komen, the Commissioner for Refugee Affairs, called for a quicker closure of the camp, claiming that “footprints” of terrorism could be traced there. Meanwhile, the Interior Cabinet Secretary, the late Joseph Nkaissery, announced that a wall would be built along the porous 900-kilometre Kenya-Somalia border.

These declarations not only stunned the more than 350,000 “Dadaabians” living in the camp (more than half of whom were under the age of 18), but also shocked the international community, particularly the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and key donor countries, who made frantic efforts to reverse what amounted to an expulsion order. They argued that Somalia had no institutions or resettlement programmes dealing with refugees, including the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who still live in and around Mogadishu. Asking refugees to return to conditions where there are few or no services could lead to further tensions and could force them to flee again.

It is also important to note that many of these refugees were born in the camp and have known no other home. (In many countries, they would qualify for citizenship.) Their parents and surviving relatives have also probably lost all their land and homes in Somalia, so they have nowhere to return to.

Increasing attacks on Kenyan and Ethiopian forces in Somalia have made the prospect of repatriation difficult. It appears that the top brass of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in the Jubbaland region that was supposedly “liberated” from the clutches of Al Shabaab have entered in a cosy relationship with the leadership of the Jubbaland administration…

This, however, was not the first time that Kenyan officials had expressed a desire to send Somali refugees back home and to close down the camp, which has been in existence for almost thirty years. The government of Mwai Kibaki initiated the repatriation programme, which eventually forced UNHCR and the Federal Government of Somalia to enter into a tripartite agreement with Kenya in November 2013 to facilitate the “voluntary and organised” repatriation of refugees to Somalia. The Kenyan government’s decision to close the camp was probably based on an overly optimistic assumption that once Kenyan forces “liberated” Al Shabaab-controlled areas in southern Somalia, all the refugees could safely go back home.

However, increasing attacks on Kenyan and Ethiopian forces in Somalia have made the prospect of repatriation difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, it appears that the top brass of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in the Jubbaland region that was supposedly “liberated” from the clutches of Al Shabaab have entered in a cosy relationship with the leadership of the Jubbaland administration, which has raised questions of conflict of interest. Several reports, including those by UN monitors, have accused KDF in Somalia of being “in bed” with not just leaders like Ahmed Madobe (KDF’s comrade-in-arms during Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011) but also with Al Shabaab via extortion and smuggling rackets where all parties collect “taxes” at check points and ports and share the loot. (See the report “Black and White: Kenya’s Criminal Racket in Somalia” published in 2016 by Journalists for Justice.)

Kenya’s fourth largest city

In 2015, when the announcement to send all refugees homes was made, Asad Hussein, a former “Dadaabian” who is currently a student on a fully-paid scholarship at the prestigious Princeton University in the United States, wrote in his blog “Diary of a Refugee Storyteller” that when he heard the statement, several questions flooded his mind: “Will they come with a big lorry and cart me to a country I’ve never seen before? Will police officers throw me into the back of a truck against my will? Will they ask my 80-year-old dad to get out of the mosque and quickly pack his stuff? Will my dad go back to his hometown Luuq in Somalia’s Gedo region? Will my mom insist on going to her birthplace in Negelle in Ethiopia? Will they settle in a completely different place?”

Hussein, an aspiring writer who I met at various literary events in Nairobi, was among many young refugees in Dadaab who wished that they could be integrated into Kenyan society and eventually acquire Kenyan citizenship, given that they had known no other home. But like Ilhan Omar, the dynamic US Congresswoman who once lived in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, it is likely that Hussein’s skills and talent will now benefit his host country, the United States, and Kenya will be the poorer for it.

Unlike in Uganda, where refugees are not just given land to till but are also allowed to work (which has earned Uganda a reputation for being among the most refugee-friendly countries in the world), refugees in Kenya are not allowed to work or to move about freely. In 1966, Kenya acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that recognises the right of refugees to choose their place of residence and the freedom of movement within the territories of the host countries. However, in the case of Dadaab, the Kenyan government has chosen to ignore this convention.

In 2014, the Kenyan MP for the area complained that deforestation was becoming a real problem and that the persistent drought in the area had forced his pastoralist constituents to pose as refugees so they could access free food and services in the camp.

Although Ifo camp, one of the oldest of the five camps that comprise the Dadaab complex, has the look of a dusty rural village, with goats and camels wandering around small shops that sell everything from mobile phones to camel milk, the donated plastic sheeting tents that residents call home and restrictions on movement, make it feel like a sprawling open prison. Most refugees in Dadaab live in makeshift shelters (because the Kenyan government does not allow them to build permanent houses) that do not provide adequate protection from the elements. UNHCR and humanitarian agencies provide water and rations, but do not consider other needs, such as fuel for cooking, with the result that refugees are forced to cut down trees for firewood. In 2014, the Kenyan MP for the area in which the Dadaab camp is located complained that deforestation was becoming a real problem and that the persistent drought in the area had forced his pastoralist constituents to pose as refugees so they could access free food and services in the camp. Sexual assaults on female refugees — both by male refugees and Kenya’s security forces — have also been reported.

There are schools, clinics, food distribution centres and boreholes set up by aid agencies, but as Raouf Mazou, UNHCR’s Kenya representative told me in 2015, the camp provides “a false sense of normality” in a highly abnormal environment.

And despite the inhospitable living conditions in what has been described as “Kenya’s fourth largest city”, business in Dadaab and its environs has been booming. Hanshi Palace, located opposite the Dadaab camp’s main office, earns millions of shillings every year leasing out Toyota Landcruisers to the more than 20 international NGOs that operate in Dadaab. It is estimated that Dadaab’s economy generates about $25 million a year and that the local host community around the camp earns approximately $14 million a year in trade and contracts.

Nonetheless, for many of the refugees living in Dadaab, camp life is preferable to life in war-torn Somalia, where basic services are broken or non-existent in many parts, and where the risk of being killed, through clan warfare, drone strikes or Al Shabaab, is much higher. While madrassas (Islamic schools) tend to be the only formal education Somali children receive, in Dadaab children are able to attend the 20 secular free primary and seven secondary schools and can even sit for the Kenya national examinations. Scholarships are also available and some of the brightest children have earned places in universities abroad, including in Canada and the United States. In 2013, Kenyatta University even opened a satellite campus in the town of Dadaab and reserved two-thirds of the slots for refugees. These are opportunities that few Somalis enjoy back home.

And despite the inhospitable living conditions in what has been described as “Kenya’s fourth largest city”, business in Dadaab and its environs has been booming. A UNHCR-commissioned study in 2013 found that business owners in and around Dadaab earn their income by selling goods and services to the hundreds of aid workers and refugees who live in or near the camp site. For example, Hanshi Palace, a business that is located opposite the Dadaab camp’s main office, earns millions of shillings every year leasing out Toyota Landcruisers to the more than 20 international NGOs that operate in Dadaab. More than 50 trucks carrying supplies from Nairobi and Mombasa enter the camp every week, earning truck owners millions of shillings. The World Food Programme spends millions of dollars every month buying, shipping and distributing tonnes of food to Dadaab. The now defunct Kenya Department of Refugee Affairs (that stopped processing refugees after the tripartite agreement) has been quoted as saying that Dadaab is not an ordinary refugee camp but “a big business centre” and that Kenya risks losing billions of shillings if the camp is closed. It is estimated that Dadaab’s economy generates about $25 million a year and that the local host community around the camp earns approximately $14 million a year in trade and contracts.

UNHCR says that the majority of the refugees in Dadaab view local integration as the most favourable solution to their plight, but the Kenyan government will not allow it. On the contrary, the Kenyan government’s position on refugees has become even more hardline, with ever more strident calls for the camps to be shut down permanently. Officials at the UN refugee agency say that given the political, social and economic implications of integrating hundreds of thousands of refugees into Kenyan society, the government’s position is understandable, but refugees’ rights under international laws must also be respected — and that repatriation must be voluntary, not forced. The tripartite agreement that aims to bring about the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees is being implemented, but had not yielded significant results. The camp’s population has not decreased significantly since 2015 — it has decreased by only about one-third since then, which suggests that a majority of the refugees in Dadaab are still not comfortable about returning to Somalia.

Why close the camp now?

So what could lie behind the latest threat to expel the refugees? I can speculate on four possible reasons.

Powerful politicians from Garissa, such as Aden Duale, have a vested interest in having the camp closed and sending the refugees home as the multi-clan composition of the refugee population in Dadaab could threaten the power and clan balance in the region.

One, this Kenyan government, with its anti-ICC antecedents, would not find difficulty trying to ape neo-fascist governments in places like Hungary and the United States, which are becoming increasingly intolerant of refugees and migrants. By showing that it can be tough on refugees — particularly Somali refugees — it would be scoring points with the Trump administration. Kenya is, after all, a key ally of the US and its “war on terror” and has benefited militarily from US government assistance, particularly in the area of counterterrorism. Depicting the camp as a dangerous place that breeds terrorists only adds to Trump’s narrative of migrants and refugees being criminals harbouring ill intent for the populations of the host countries, a narrative that Kenya is happy to parrot. (Wasn’t Kenya one of a handful of shameless countries that was represented at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem?)

Two, powerful politicians from Garissa, such as Aden Duale, have a vested interest in having the camp closed and sending the refugees home as the multi-clan composition of the refugee population in Dadaab could threaten the power and clan balance in the region. It is estimated that the refugees in the camp outnumber the host community population by a ratio of three to one. The Ogaden clan is predominant in Garissa County, and Kenyan Somali politicians (most of whom are Ogaden) would like it to remain that way.

The latest declaration to repatriate refugees to Somalia is simply an arm-twisting tactic to force the international community, including the United Nations, to continue funding KDF operations in Somalia.

On a slightly different but related tangent, many economic activities have grown around the camp, and it is possible that local politicians and businessmen in Garissa want a piece of the action. What they don’t realise is that once the camp is closed, many of these activities will also die. Aid agencies will abandon the camp and the businesses that serviced them will also collapse or move elsewhere. One UNHCR official told me when I visited Dadaab that if there was no refugee camp, there would be no town in Dadaab. “Dadaab exists because we exist,” he said.

Three, the latest declaration to repatriate refugees to Somalia is simply an arm-twisting tactic to force the international community, including the United Nations, to continue funding KDF operations in Somalia. The African Union and the UN Security Council have agreed to withdraw AMISOM troops from Somalia by 2020 but Kenya has asked for a delayed exit. Perhaps the Kenyan government feels that it can use the refugees as a bargaining chip to maintain its troop presence in Somalia as long as it is financially and strategically beneficial for it to do so.

Keeping KDF in Somalia for as long as is possible could also be a ploy by some in government to protect KDF’s illicit activities. These elements would be afraid that once KDF pulls out of Somalia, the truth about what KDF generals did there might come out. If Kenya’s military is found to have financially benefitted from Somalia’s war economy, its credibility as a trustworthy partner in the war against terrorism and in peace-building will be severely eroded.

Four, the expulsion order could also be seen in the light of Somalia’s dispute with Kenya over a section of the Indian Ocean that Somalia claims as maritime territory. Kenya may just be taking revenge on Somalia for taking the dispute to an international court in a childish game that is unfairly targeting Somali refugees.

Whatever the case, sending helpless refugees back to the dire situation they escaped from is not only unethical, but also against international law. Kenya must not rush into a situation that will tarnish its reputation internationally and put thousands of innocent lives in danger.

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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What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward

There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a buffoon. What happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way?

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What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward
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Consider something for a second: how severe could things have gotten, both in America and globally, if Trump weren’t an utter coward?

I can already hear the murmurs of dissent: “How can he be a coward? Trump just tried to overthrow the US government on live television!” Yes, that is entirely true — and yet he didn’t. The entire tenure of his administration seems to have been a series of near misses; flirting with dangerous ideas and flitting back under the umbrella of normalcy just before the precipice. Every disaster that he helped to foist on the world could have been exponentially worse — if only he had been as committed to being the strongman he always boasted to be.

He isn’t. He’s a little daddy’s boy, a frightened man-child who doesn’t have the courage to follow through on the bull he himself spouts in front of adoring supporters. He’s an entitled, rich, spoilt moron and always has been. For all the bluster, when the chips are down, he’s quick to back off. Remember that boastful kid in primary school who was probably dropped off in his family’s C-Class Mercedes and looked down on everyone within insulting distance? He’d puff himself up and spit on others, until one day someone slapped the hell out of him. Upon getting struck, and family power no longer mattering, it became apparent that he didn’t even know how to throw a punch. That’s Trump in a nutshell. But Trump was also the gleeful little sociopath who led the charge in starting a fire only to have it pointed out there could be consequences without Daddy around. Learning of possible repercussions, he was the type to throw others quickly under the bus and backtrack from his own fomented chaos.

To be clear, in the last year especially, Trump absolutely could have gone horrifyingly further than he did. Could you imagine if Trump, the wannabe little dictator that he is, had the convictions (terrible though they are) of a Museveni or an Uhuru? It was within his power to do so, but he kept pulling back. Take for instance the Black Lives Matter movement across the United States in the summer of 2020. Yes, there was horrible police violence, clashes amongst protesters, chaos and destitution. In the midst of all of those charred buildings and the all-pervasive sense of loss in Minneapolis (the city where George Floyd was executed by police), I had a feeling I could not quite shake off as masked marchers swarmed in the streets around me: couldn’t this have been so much worse? To be clear, there absolutely could have been martial law declared but all those Trumpian threats of militarising entire cities never fully materialised beyond a handful of arrests by unidentified officers of questionable loyalties.

Sure, all these things are a horror and an affront to “Western society”. We get it. But all things are relative in politics so imagine if Uhuru had been in Trump’s shoes. Kagame calling the shots. Museveni. What would have happened? Experience tells me that those ugly bruises and lost eyes from rubber bullets would have needed body bags; the amount of live ammunition used would have been innumerable, and the scale of the tragedy would have been of unheard of proportions. Ask a Kenyan university student how their protests tend to wind up; talk to a random Kampala youth about how things shook out a couple weeks after the presidential election. If you can manage to find one, talk to an opposition leader in Rwanda. If there are any brave enough to filter back into Burundi, ask anyone involved in the coup attempt against Nkurunziza a few years back. The point here isn’t to give undue credit to tyrants, but merely to point out that things can always be drastically worse.

What happened in November of 2020 in Kampala? Protests at the arrest of Bobi Wine were met with such utter brutality it was incredible that anyone would dare stick their head out. Officially 54 people were killed but there are claims that the real death toll is in fact far higher. Take the days after the Kenyan re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta back in 2017, when there seemed to be a sort of suspension of what was to come next as the election drama unfolded and the cops came down hard on Kawangware and Kibera. That’s what being a totalitarian looks like. It is cops firing on crowds, social media shutdowns and mass power cuts. Looking back years from now, the reality will prevail that Trump could easily have gone there but didn’t.

That is the essence of Trump, absolutely having the power to be a world-class dictator, but lacking the organisational skills, intelligence, or conviction to jump in all the way. He always dips his toe in at the deep end, but never dives. The waters of reality are always a bit too cold for him, the soup just a bit too hot for his liking. His legacy will be one of having half-assed it in all aspects of his administration, from fascism to COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. I don’t think that it is any real stretch to look at him and state plainly that he’s just too cowardly to really accomplish anything that he aspires to. While Sevo cranks out press-ups on state television, Trump has spent his time cranking out tweets in between bites of “quarter-pounder” cheeseburgers from the comfort of his own bed.

Of course, the Western media will not countenance such comparisons, let alone acknowledge how much worse the situation could have easily become at the US Capitol last January 6th. For the American media, this is (rightly) a major blow to US democracy, but (wrongly) the single worst thing that could have happened. For instance, what if just two more of the thousands of protesters had discharged the firearms they were carrying inside that crowded Capitol Building? What if the pipe bombs planted near the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee buildings had exploded? What if the mob had wedged its way into the chambers of the Senate and the House quickly enough to get their hands on members of congress? And what if Trump himself had not backed off and sent out a tepid message to his supporters at the 11th hour?

Think about this: in coup d’état terms, the Trump mob had pulled it off. They had taken the single most important government building in the US and had done so quite easily. Their flags were draped from balconies and their cronies were climbing the ramparts to continue streaming through the doors. They took the seat of government and, for a brief period during the process of transitioning power, successfully interrupted the proceedings and forced all the democratically elected members of congress to scurry into the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels below the Capitol Building to save their very lives. That is a coup. A successful one at that. For one committed to following through on his calls to overthrow the government, this would be a crowning achievement.

Picture this: if three years ago Raila Odinga had called on his supporters to storm State House, and they had successfully done so while Uhuru’s re-election  was being certified, forcing members of parliament to flee in their government-issue Prados, what would that be called? I know what the Western media would have said about it, that it is another sad story of a developing country in Africa that just could not get over the hump of real democracy. There probably would have been some backroom deals with international powers, and an intervention from all those British troops that hold the base up on Mount Kenya may not have been entirely out of the question. Perhaps Raila is the most eloquent example as he does have a bit of a track record of stirring up his supporters after controversial elections then backing down “for the sake of the country” after chaos has already erupted.

The coup was complete but Trump pulled out of it quicker than from his marriage to a wife turning 40. Why? Could it be that it is only when his advisors managed to get his ear during cable news commercial breaks that he realised that he might drown in the madness? I for one certainly think so. When he realised that there would be consequences for his little civil war charade, Trump felt what he always feels — fear. Trump didn’t realise there could be ramifications for what he was doing until someone (not named Mike Pence) put the fear deep into him. He backed off, and American democracy continues shakily on into an uncertain future

Now there actually might be consequences — legal ones at that. Banks are cutting ties and media partnerships are being snuffed out in rapid succession. Some Republicans are now actively jumping ship, others have deflected blame or finally acknowledged that there is a central symptom to the American political condition. It is too little, too late of course, and the task of getting Americans locked in a tribal political death embrace to try not to strangle each other is now firmly in the hands of centrist Democrats who may not actually follow through on the massive economic recovery needed for the citizens of the US to survive the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic disaster. Is the US still the preeminent superpower as the Trump administration takes the exit? Yes, unfortunately it is. Imperialism is still alive and well, and frankly could have weighed way more heavily on the global community over the last four years.

A lingering question remains, one that hangs like a suspended piano over the heads of the Democratic establishment: what or who will come along next? It is obvious that the cat has been let out of the dark ethers of conservatism for a while now; just how much has that cohort been emboldened? It is a question that I have asked before, but now as flags were draped on the smoldering fences that were brought down around the US Capitol, the core of the issue remains; what happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way? There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a showman; he evoked something amongst a huge swath of the public consciousness, only for it to prove illusory for Trump never understood what he had within his grasp in the first place.

Whoever comes next might just push the boundaries further out, might commit to striking Iran, take concentration camps for immigrants to a greater extreme, declare martial law and put armed troops in the streets with a standing “shoot to kill” order. Someone who might take measures to outlaw efforts to combat global warming and do all of this without batting an eyelid or seeing any reason to back down. The part of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic wasn’t what was visible, but the larger mass just below the surface and out of sight. To put it bluntly, next time the United States might not be pulled back from the brink by cowardice.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive
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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others
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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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