Why Closing Dadaab is a Bad Idea11 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.
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.
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The Blind Spot: A Graphic Novel on Food Security and Farmers’ Rights
Chief Nyamweya shines a light on the central issues of food security and the welfare of smallholder farmers in Kenya.
Some time back in May 2020, an incident occurred in Mombasa that stunned the nation. The Daily Nation reported a story of a Kisauni widow who was forced to boil stones to give her children false hope that she had some food for them. The story sent shockwaves across the country and ignited a conversation about the magnitude of the hunger plaguing Kenyan households.
The story of Peninah Kitsao is not an isolated incident. All over the country, ordinary Kenyans are struggling to put food on the table due to biting inflation that has seen commodity prices soar to nearly unaffordable levels. Failed rains and a drought of a severity never witnessed before in the history of the country, especially in northern Kenya, have worsened a dire situation.
Interventions by state and non-state actors have arguably not been enough as there have been reports from certain parts, such as Samburu, of people drinking dirty water and eating dog meat to survive. The country is essentially in a deep hole. Coupled with the drying up of the rivers and lakes that used to serve vulnerable communities, it is safe to say that the government and other agencies have had blind spots in dealing with the situation.
Route to Food Initiative’s graphic novel The Blind Spot, which is written and illustrated by Chief Nyamweya, should be read against the backdrop of some of these startling developments. The work of committed art is to expose the ills in society, not just by dropping popular catchphrases and revolutionary slogans, but by disturbing the conscience of the nation. Such works of art are expected to put us on track for what needs to be done to set things right.
That’s exactly what Nyamweya’s comic offering is all about.
Worrying policy gaps
The central issues of food security and the welfare of smallholder farmers shine throughout the slim graphic novel, bringing into sharp focus policy gaps and a lack of commitment from leaders to correct the mistakes of the past.
The visual narrative opens with a protest by Kajibora residents and farmers at the Kajibora County Hall. Chanting outside the county governor’s residence, the agitated crowd demands justice for one of their own, Karisa, who has committed suicide after auctioneers sell his land to recover an unpaid debt.
The protest also provides the space and opportunity for the residents and farmers to demand “lower prices on food, better quality food and enhanced protection of Kenya’s ecosystems [and] land reforms.” Demonstrations are not new in the country; with livelihoods threatened by forces beyond their control even as the national and county governments drag their feet to alleviate the suffering, it is inevitable that ordinary people would take such drastic measures.
The Mzee Maona-led Jembe Revolution calls on Governor Nyoni to deal with food insecurity as a human rights issue and to protect smallholder farmers from predatory multinationals. The corporations are often accused of exploitation through the introduction of harmful production methods and industrial processes that threaten biodiversity.
The fictionalised revolution echoes the vigorous pushback by various stakeholders, including farmers, politicians and ordinary Kenyans, who have questioned the government’s proposal to introduce genetically modified foods.
While those in support of the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the country have a valid argument that Kenya and the continent at large are dealing with a serious food crisis that needs never-before-tested solutions, those against them argue that farmers and consumers are likely to suffer. This is because there are growing fears that the multinationals that distribute GM seeds will have the monopoly to dictate to farmers which seeds to use, and the scenario is likely to deny them the agency to produce food on their own terms and according to their preferences.
Putting Western interests first
In other words, the prioritisation of Western interests, as it often emerges in Nyamweya’s narrative, where the governor is accused of focusing on “the large scale production of a few food crops and protecting the interests of big agribusiness”, is a reality that policymakers will have to contend with to effectively address the issue of food security in the country.
A DW documentary titled Africa, GMOs and Western Interests, which aired two months ago, revealed the hidden hand of philanthropists such as Bill Gates, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in pushing for the introduction of GMOs in select African countries to benefit private businesses in the West. Therefore, when Kajibora farmers and residents, through their Chama cha Wakulima (CCW) party, wave a placard reading SAVE OUR SEEDS, they are not expressing a grievance coming from without but a genuine fear born out of the reality that, on the one hand, the forces of globalisation are unavoidable (food production systems and the overall supply chain can never only be local) and on the other, the reality of the weak political system that hardly prioritises the interests of its citizens, least of all smallholder farmers.
To give credit where it is due, President William Ruto’s introduction of the fertiliser subsidy is likely to be a game changer for a majority of farmers who are unable to afford the essential commodity. The subsidised fertiliser is retailing at KSh3,500 for a 50kg bag, down from KSh6,000. The use of technology for registration (farmers use their phones) will also help eliminate red tape and corruption and thus improve efficiency in distribution, which is key to the timely use of the fertiliser to boost yields.
The cries and anxieties of the Kajibora farmers take a dramatic twist following the death of Mzee Maona when CCW is wracked by fissures as various members pull in different directions. As is characteristic of Kenyan political parties not founded on a solid vision and ideology, the core issues—such as sustainable agriculture for the farmers—that define the party’s agenda become a footnote. Instead, the so-called ideological differences (a euphemism for selfish interests) erupt during the requiem mass for Maona when party members engage in a vicious fistfight before the bereaved mourners.
Enter the scions of Mzee Maona, Sifa and Yona—highly educated, exposed and polished but with contrastingly opposing views on how to reimagine the patriarch’s vision of putting the farmers’ agenda first—and the narrative is set for a fascinating climax.
What emerges from the troubled relationship between Sifa, a professor, and Yona, now an aspiring Kajibora governor, are the intra-generational tensions of how to approach the pressures and complicated issues that have become synonymous with modern living. This is especially true when it comes to championing the rights of ordinary people such as farmers.
As is characteristic of Kenyan political parties not founded on a solid vision and ideology, the core issues that defined the party’s agenda become a footnote.
Sifa is distrustful of the political process for fixing societal issues. She is an advocate of fighting for human rights from outside the political process since, in politics, you “promise the people paradise while only delivering paperwork”. While her worldview is sometimes abstract and detached and elitist, she deserves credit for not losing focus on the immediate priorities that should be urgently addressed to make life better for small-scale farmers.
Yona, on the other hand, styles himself as a pragmatist and realist who is in touch with what is happening on the ground but comes across as vain, selfish and arrogant. He is a perfect representative of Kenya’s political class for whom governance is about foreign investment, rather than the people. He says that “a key part [of his] job as governor will be to attract investment to Kajibora”. This includes doing the bidding of multinationals like Green Shots Corporation, which is accused of controlling the food prices and the supply chains that are vital to farmers and consumers.
The role of the youth
However, what is poignant in the clash between Mzee Maona’s two grandchildren is the involvement of the youth—whether for good or bad—in debating the issues of food security and fair agricultural policies. While their approaches are often different, there is a genuine concern and passion that, in real life, should be encouraged and even rewarded.
Statistics indicate that the average age of the Kenyan farmer is 61 years. A revival of the 4K Clubs that were the craze in the 1990s under the 8-4-4 education system has been mooted as a way to entice young people to return to the soil. These are noble interventions that are likely to boost agricultural output since the youthful population is not just energetic enough to take up the challenge but also because modern farming involves access to the right information which a tech-savvy generation can exploit in this digital age.
When Dalili, a member of the CCW and a former close ally of Mzee Maona, encourages Sifa to join them on the anniversary of Jembe Day commemorating the revolt of Kajibora farmers and residents, she is essentially signalling a new way of addressing food insecurity. She tells Sifa that “our youth need to see where it all started”. The statement is profound because it acknowledges both the complexity and enormity of the task of streamlining food systems and the urgent need to bring diverse groups of people on board.
More importantly, sustainable agriculture has the potential to create jobs for thousands of jobless youth unable to secure the increasingly elusive white-collar jobs. According to the November 2022 Agriculture Sector Survey, the industry “employs over 40 percent of the total population and more than 70 percent of the rural populace”. This is a significant figure that is likely to increase even more if the youth are given the incentive to join forces in the overall agricultural production process.
Nyamweya’s only shortcoming is the exclusion of the voices of ordinary farmers from the entire narrative. As is characteristic of top-down policies, and unlike the bottom-up approach, there is a tendency to speak on behalf of the masses, to pretend to know what is best for them. A majority of the characters in the text speak of the “right” agricultural policies and approaches that need to be adopted to boost yields and food security. However, ironically, they behave like the multinationals that often impose their decisions on farmers without taking their views.
The approach is fraught with its own blind spots, not just because it is condescending to the farmers—those who are directly affected—but also because it poses the risk of aggravating an already bad situation. Talking about revolutions and uprisings is not enough to effectively transform the agricultural sector, even if the calls are to rid it of the cartels and the brokers present along the production chain.
Also, an erudite knowledge of the politics of food and the manipulation by multinationals cannot replace the basic principle that the farmer has to, first and foremost, speak for himself or herself. Does the farmer want to experiment with other seeds? Is the farmer only interested in the large-scale cultivation of staple foods? Is the farmer comfortable with the multinationals? What exactly is in the farmer’s mind? It is not always necessary that all foreign players that intervene in formulating agricultural policies have ulterior motives. One Acre Fund, an organisation founded by a non-Kenyan, has significantly helped smallholder farmers in western Kenya boost their farm output through the use of the right seeds and agricultural techniques and methods. I have seen this first-hand.
The statement is profound because it acknowledges both the complexity and enormity of the task of streamlining food systems and the urgent need to bring diverse groups of people on board.
However, despite the aforementioned shortcomings, Nyamweya’s artistic intervention cannot be downplayed. The issue of food security cannot be left to politicians and policymakers alone. This is not just because food is a basic need, but because a healthy and productive nation has the potential to improve the life expectancy and of children afflicted by malnutrition.
More importantly, a visual narrative approach is a welcome addition to a radical way of acknowledging the enormous capacity of art to surprise and reimagine how to deal with the existential anxieties of our time, such as food insecurity, climate change-induced drought and destruction of biodiversity. It is also a wake-up call to leaders, policymakers and other stakeholders that the conventional way of dealing with the challenges affecting farmers might have to change. Nyamweya’s book is a must-read for everyone who cares deeply about the future of our country and the coming generations.
Queer Lawfare in Africa – Legal Strategies in Contexts of LGBTIQ+ Criminalisation and Politicisation
The concept of lawfare, describes long-term battles over heated social and political issues, where actors on different sides employ strategies using rights, law and courts as tools and arenas.
The Supreme Court of India is anticipated to conduct hearings and deliver judgments in some important issues concerning the LGBTQIA+ community- ranging from the constitutionality of the blood donation guidelines that discriminate persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity to petitions on marriage equality (under both the Special Marriage Act and the Hindu Marriage Act). In this context, the book Queer Lawfare in Africa, edited by Adrian Jjuuko, Siri Gloppen, Alan Msosa and Frans Viljoen makes for a relevant and compelling read.
Queer Lawfare, according to the authors, is a strategy where rights and/ or laws are tactically employed to advance politically contested goals with regards to the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. In the words of Siri Gloppen, Adrian Jjuuko, Frans Viljoen, Alan Msosa, the term “lawfare” used in the book describes the following:
The concept of lawfare, as used in this book, describes long-term battles over heated social and political issues, where actors on different sides employ strategies using rights, law and courts as tools and arenas. While sometimes associated with the misuse of law for political ends, ‘lawfare’ is here used as a descriptive, analytical term, de-linked from (the perceived) worthy-ness of the goal. The association with warfare is intentional and important: these are ongoing ‘wars’, with hard ideological cleavages and iterative battles. They are typically fought on several fronts and the contestants on each side have long term goals that they seek to advance by way of incremental tactics, often responding to, or anticipating their opponents’ moves, as well as other aspects of their (always potentially shifting) opportunity structure.
The book looks into queer lawfare in thirteen African nations- South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Botswana, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Ethiopia and Sudan. Much like India, a lot of the nations discussed in the book had a criminal provision very similar to section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (before it was read down by the Supreme Court in Navtej Johar v. Union of India). Thereby, in many of these nations decriminalisation of sexual intercourse between consenting adults- irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity became (and in some countries still is) one of the first major goals of queer lawfare.
In some of the countries discussed in the book (particularly in those where queer lawfare has led to realisation of substantial legal gains for the LGBTQIA+ community), the movement started with seemingly neutral rights battles which intersected with discrimination law for instance, the right to association. The right to association cases in queer lawfare majorly consist of organisations or coalitions- established with the aim of further LGBTQIA+ rights- challenging the decision of the government to disallow their registration (set in a legal context where homosexuality is criminalised). In Botswana, such a challenge was decided in favour of the LGBT organisation, Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) by the Court of Appeal (see also, the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of Kenya). In Mozambique on the other hand, the Mozambican Association for the Defence of Sexual Minorities (LAMBDA) operates under a feminist umbrella organisation since it is not legally registered and as a natural corollary, the queer lawfare is influenced much by the strategies used by the feminist movement.
The book also refreshingly looks into the social contexts of each nation and discusses how despite LGBTQ+ movements sharing the same vision of emancipation, the means employed to achieve the end varies depending on social and political contexts in different countries. It also subtly gets across the point that there is ‘no one size fits all’ solution when it comes to queer lawfare. It discusses the different stages at which queer lawfare is in and how it varies from country to country- from South Africa where giant strides have been made in the judicial sphere to Ethiopia where ‘online lawfare’ is more prevalent due to which there is an absence of a significant progressive legal change.
As the marriage equality petition is listed for hearing before the Supreme Court of India is being heard by the Supreme Court of India, the chapter on queer lawfare in South Africa becomes particularly relevant. The landmark judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in Minister of Home Affairs v. Fourie that recognised marriage equality notably held that the constitutional rights of persons cannot be undermined or be determined by the religious beliefs of some persons. In this judgment, Justice Albie Sachs read the words “or spouse” after the words “husband” and “wife”, into certain provisions of the Marriage Equality Act, 1961. As has been articulated by Jayna Kothari in this piece, the adoption of a similar strategy in the marriage equality proceedings before the Supreme Court of India is central to making the provisions of the Special Marriage Act (“SMA”) more inclusive. Reading in the words “of spouse” after the words “wife” and “husband” used in various provisions of the Special Marriage Act in India would allow persons irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity to get the reliefs conferred by the SMA ranging from solemnization of marriage to provision of alimony.
The chapter also confronts the challenge of limited judicial imagination while dealing with marriage equality and states that the judgment delivered by the Constitutional Court of South Africa (which was hailed as progressive) still caters to the gender binary vision- one where the institution of marriage is valourised and idea of a ‘permanent same-sex life partnership’ essentially contains the characteristics of a typical heterosexual marriage. The chapter also highlights how the ‘good homosexual’ visualised by the Constitutional Court is generally ‘a partnered middle class, if not upper middle class, man or woman who, in a country like South Africa where class continues to follow race, is almost invariably white’ thereby bringing to light the class and racial undertones underlying the legal recognition of such unions. In India, given that the institution of marriage is intrinsically tied into caste, property and patriarchy, it will remain to be seen how the Supreme Court will navigate through complex questions of intersectionality while adjudicating this case.
The book also makes a passing reference to the transnational impact of judgments on queer rights delivered by the Indian Supreme Court. For example, where submissions made before the Kenyan High Court in EG v. Attorney General and the high court decision in Botswana in Letsweletse Motshidiemang v Attorney General were influenced by the judgment of the Supreme Court of India in Navtej Johar v. Union of India. This also points out to the butterfly effect in progressive queer jurisprudence and the important role the constitutional courts in India have to fulfill in the days ahead.
Another important feature is that none of the chapters miss an opportunity to inform the readers about the perseverance and resilience of LGBTQIA+ organizations, coalitions and activists. It does the important work of documenting their role in shaping the legal destiny despite facing legal setbacks and risks of coercive action by the state. It is a fitting tribute to the indomitable spirit of the queer rights movement across the said nations in Africa to challenge the legal and political system, despite it being designed to fail them.
Oromo Orthodox Split: A Collision Between Politics and Faith
The formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod signals greater shifts that have been on the political horizon in Ethiopia for the last four years.
Ethiopia has taken centre stage over the last four years, with a Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister propelled to power by a four-year civil protest movement quickly leading the country into multiple internal war fronts. The last two years, in particular, have seen many begin to wonder if the Ethiopian state itself will survive the compounding conflicts, given that they are rooted in a tumultuous, contested, and violent past. The most recent and significant development in the tectonic shifts that have been breaking social and political ground in the country occurred on the 22nd of January 2023.
Three Oromo archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church announced the formation of an Oromo Orthodox Church Synod, with 26 patriarchs appointed to lead the synod across Oromia. In stark opposition to the new synod, a large number of Ethiopian Orthodox Church members, particularly those of an Amhara ethnic background, have been coming out in protest at the breaking up of the church, citing it as a violation beyond politics, and a breach of holy religious law.
The government, which has been supportive of the Oromo Synod has – in the manner in which it regularly responds to any expression of civil dissent – responded with state violence, shooting at protesters and, for a short while, shutting down the Internet and telecommunication services.
On the 13th of February, the Oromia Media Network reported that the new Synod is in the process of supporting the formation of synods of other national and ethnic identities, naming the Gambela, Gumuz, Sidama, Gurage, and Gamo as amongst those that will be forming their own Orthodox Church Synods in the near future.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has existed since the 4th century and belongs to the broader body of Orthodox churches that include the Coptic, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox churches, and the Syrian Orthodox Church of India. The liturgical language of the church is Ge’ez, a Semitic language originating from northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, with Amharic also being used in the church today. Orthodox believers make up approximately 30 per cent of Ethiopia’s population and Amharic, the language of the Amhara ethnic group who make up approximately 22 per cent of Ethiopia’s overall population, is the official working language of Ethiopia.
Language, and the social and political power that it comes with, is one of the reasons that supporters of the Oromo Orthodox Synod believe that this recent shift is necessary. Cultural marginalization has been the experience of the Oromo and other national and cultural groups in the country since the formation of the Ethiopian state in the 1800s, a formation that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was instrumental in spearheading.
When Menelik II began his expeditions into the Oromia heartland with the intent of consolidating the new state of Ethiopia, the proponents of this project came across a people who lived, worked, and worshipped predominately in Afaan Oromo. In particular, they practiced Waaqeefatta, the monotheistic religion of the Oromo.
Cultural marginalization has been the experience of the Oromo and other national and cultural groups in the country since the formation of the Ethiopian state in the 1800s.
Even though the popular narrative is that Ethiopia was never colonized, one of the impacts that Menelik achieved with the support of the Showan Amhara conquerors who were armed by the West was the upheaval of Oromo religious, cultural and political practice. This was replaced by the church’s own religious beliefs, as they were considered the only way to effectively commune with God.
In Ethiopia, as in much of the world, religion has always had political undertones. Historical narratives recounting both Protestant Christianity and Islam being used by Oromos to counter the effects of cultural and political domination experienced through the combined efforts of the Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian state speak to these political undertones.
Is the split really unprecedented?
Politics pervades every aspect of life everywhere, and although we would like to think that spiritual matters are beyond politics, there is perhaps nothing as politically charged as the relationships religions have with people, with states, and with the desire for social change.
Schisms and splits that occur for political reasons are not a new phenomenon in the world of Orthodox Christianity. In the 17th century, a movement to establish religious uniformity between Greek and Russian Orthodox practice was met with resistance that eventually saw a split into “Old Believers” and the official Russian Orthodox Church.
The reason for the split was disagreement over the introduction into the Russian Orthodox Church of specific religious rituals that belong to the Greek Orthodox tradition. Although it began as a disagreement about religious protocol, it developed into a movement where different parts of Russian society began to voice dissent against the feudal order led by leaders in the church.
There are obvious and significant differences between the 17th-century Russian split and what Ethiopia is facing today, but in order to avoid viewing the split within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as entirely unprecedented, we should see the formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod in the larger context of movements that have taken place in the history of the church, whereby politics and faith have collided to create new institutions and communities.
Is this just about religion?
The formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod has an impact on much more than just how people practice their faith. This event signals greater shifts that have been on the political horizon in Ethiopia for the last four years.
Opposition to the formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod has been defined by language describing it as an affront to the church’s values of “oneness”; the full name of the church is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, with the word “Tewahedo” meaning “to be made one” in the Amharic language.
The ideal of “oneness” or “unity” versus the reality has been at the heart of Ethiopia’s most critical political issues. The Ethiopian state has, in concert with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, had a history of violently assimilating a deeply diverse people and, in the same breath, defining itself as a beacon of unity. What we must understand is that what might be a breach of oneness and unity for one people, is for another people an act of revolution and decolonization.
The solution to this crisis, in my opinion, is not for the formation of the Oromo or other prospective synods to be stopped. Instead, as I think is the solution to many of Ethiopia’s issues, people must be willing to hear stories from the other side of the political divide in order to better engage the social and political changes of the now, and of the future.
I think that this is just the beginning and that although separation, like all change, can cause confusion, grief, and uncertainty, it can sometimes be the boldest step we can take towards building a new social contract for togetherness, cohesion, and harmony.
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