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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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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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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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Educating the Native and the Ivy League Myth

Elite schools in the US continue to place a premium on institutions, not ideas. Where you went to school is what matters.

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As a young student, I was always fascinated by the “top” universities and the erudite people that emerged from those august institutions. My first contact with Ivy League people was when I arrived at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in 1999 to start my MSc research. I met students and faculty from Princeton University (which is a trustee of the research centre) and was reassured that they looked “normal”, given all the academic challenges and foibles that a Kenyatta University student like me had. After I finished my MSc, the administration was impressed enough with my work to offer me a job as resident scientist, which I took up with the alacrity of someone catching a big break through hard work (I got a rude awakening later, but that’s a story for another day). As part of my job, I was to supervise a group of Princeton undergraduates undertaking a senior field project and, wanting impress, I sharpened my ecologist brain, especially because I thought I would be instructing some of the world’s sharpest young minds. Now I laugh at my consternation when, after mapping out clear and easy ecological transects for them, they strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle (they were ladies) and that the boss might be offended.

Later on, I asked a postgraduate student from the same institution how these ladies could be so casual about their studies and she couldn’t hide her amusement at my ignorance. “Grad school is competitive. Undergrads get in because of money and name recognition.” I was stunned, but I remembered this when I saw the poor work they submitted at the end of their study. Being an aspiring lecturer (and a student of the late brilliant Prof R.O. Okelo) I marked them without fear or favour, assuming that they would be used to such standards at Princeton. I was told that I couldn’t give them such low marks because they were supposed to qualify for med school after their biology degrees.

They strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle.

The next cohort included one serious student who I actually enjoyed instructing and who finished her course successfully. By that time though, I was getting restless and had started writing an academic and financial proposal for my PhD, and I finished it about six months after my student had returned to the US to graduate. The then Director of Mpala, Dr Georgiadis, refused to let me do my PhD on the job, so I submitted my proposal to several conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. I received a positive response from them (offering me a grant) which hit me with a strange mixture of feelings. First of all, I was elated at the prospect of starting my PhD, but I was completely baffled by the signature on the award letter. It was signed by the undergraduate student that I had supervised about eight months earlier. An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder. It was my rude awakening to the racial prejudice that is de rigueur in African conservation practice. But I had to get my academic career moving, and indulge my first taste of the ultimate luxury that my competence and my work could afford me, which was the ability to say “NO”. It was with extreme pleasure that I wrote and signed my letter of resignation from my job at Mpala, leaving it on the Director’s desk.

Years later, after I finished my PhD and had a useful amount of conservation practice under my belt, I attended the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Sacramento, California, where there was a side event featuring publishers from several Ivy League universities. I excitedly engaged them because at the time Gatu Mbaria and I were in the middle of writing “The Big Conservation Lie”. I pointed out to all of them that there were no books about conservation in Africa written by indigenous Africans, but they were uniform in their refusal to even read the synopsis of what we had written. I later understood why when I learned that in US academia, African names — as authors or references — are generally viewed as devaluing to any literature.

An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder.

From Sacramento, I made the short trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, to give a seminar to an African Studies group. I felt honoured to be making an academic contribution at an Ivy League university and I prepared well. My assertions about the inherent prejudices in African conservation practice were met with stunned silence by the faculty, many of whom are involved with conservation research in Africa. One bright spot in that dour experience was the brilliant PhD student who echoed my views and pointed out that these prejudices existed within academia as well. I later found out that he was Kenyan — his name is Ken Opalo and he now teaches at Georgetown University.

Fast forward to today. The Big Conservation Lie was published, and after the initial wailing, breaking of wind, gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Mbaria and I are actually being acknowledged as significant thinkers in the conservation policy field and our literary input is being solicited by various publications around the world. Now, the cultural differences between how European and American institutions treat African knowledge are becoming clear (certainly in my experience). I have been approached by several European institutions to give talks (lectures), and have contributed articles and op-eds (to journals and magazines) and one book foreword. Generally, the approach is like this:

“Dear Dr Ogada, I am_______ and I am writing to you on behalf of________. We are impressed with what you wrote in _____ and would appreciate it if you would consider writing for us an article of (length) on (topic) in our publication. We will offer you an honorarium of (X Euros) for this work, and we would need to receive a draft from you by (date). . .” Looking forward to your positive response. . .”

When inviting me to speak, the letters are similarly respectful and appreciative of my time. The key thing is the focus on and respect for one’s intellectual contribution. Publications from American Ivy league schools typically say:

“Dear Dr Ogada, I am __________, the editor of __________. We find your thoughts on _______ very interesting and we are pleased to invite you to write an essay of________ (length) in our publication. Previous authors we have invited include (dropping about 6-8 names of prominent American scholars).

The entire tone of the letter implies that you are being offered a singular privilege to “appear” in the particular journal. It is even worse when being asked to give a lecture. No official communication, just a casual message from a young student saying that they would like you to come and talk to their class on__________ (time and date on the timetable). No official communication from faculty or the institution. After doing that a couple of times, I realized that the reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications, or (God forbid) have an African name in the “references” section of their work.

The reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications.

European intellectuals seem to be catching on to the fact that knowledge and intellect reside in people, not institutions. That is why they solicit intellectual contributions based on the source of an idea they find applicable in that space and time. Name recognition doesn’t matter to them, which is why they seek people like Ogada, who doesn’t even have that recognition in Kenya. The elite schools in US still place this premium on institutions, which is why whenever an African displays intellectual aptitude, those who are impressed don’t ask about him and his ideas, but where he went to school. They want to know which institution bestowed this gift upon him.

For the record, I usually wait about a week before saying “no” to the Ivy League schools. Hopefully, they read my blog and will improve the manner in which they approach me, or stop it altogether.

Aluta continua.

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Cuba Can Help Vaccinate the World

On 25 January, the Progressive International will host a special briefing live from Havana with Cuba’s leading scientists, government ministers and public health officials as part of its Union for Vaccine Internationalism.

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2022 began with a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases crashing over the world, according to the World Health Organization. Over 18 million cases have been recorded in the past week alone, a record number since the pandemic began two years ago. In the first 10 days of January, nearly 60,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded worldwide — though the total death count is far higher than the official statistics describe.

The Omicron variant is reported to have less “severe” implications among vaccinated patients. But the world remains perilously under-vaccinated: 92 of the WHO’s member countries missed the 2021 target of 40 percent vaccination; at the current pace of rollout, 109 of them will miss their 2022 targets by July.

These statistics tell a story of a persistent vaccine apartheid. Across the EU, 80 percent of all adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Omicron is a death sentence for thousands in these countries — and as the virus travels across the Global South, new variants will emerge that may be less “mild” for the vaccinated populations of the North.

But the governments of these Northern countries refuse to plan for global vaccination — or even meet their own pledges. By late last year, they had delivered only 14% of the vaccine doses that they had promised to poorer countries through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing initiative. Big pharmaceutical corporations are focused almost exclusively on production of boosters for the world’s rich countries, creating a shortfall of three billion doses in the first quarter of this year.

President Joe Biden could easily help fill this shortfall by compelling US pharmaceutical corporations to share their vaccine technology with poorer nations. But he has so far refused to do so. A new production hub in Africa — where only 3 percent of people are vaccinated — is now trying to replicate the Moderna vaccine. But without Moderna’s help, or Joe Biden’s executive action, production could take more than a year to begin.

Amidst this crisis of global solidarity, Cuba has emerged as a powerful engine of vaccine internationalism. Not only has the island nation successfully developed two Covid-19 vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness, and vaccinated more than 90 percent of its population with at least one dose of its homegrown vaccine, Cuba has also offered its vaccine technology to the world. “We are not a multinational where returns are the number one reason for existing,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo of the Finlay Vaccines Institute in Cuba. “For us, it’s about achieving health.”

But the US and its allies continue to oppress and exclude Cuba from the global health system. The US blockade forced a shortage of syringes on the island that endangered its vaccine development and hindered mass production. US medical journals “marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries,” according to Vérez Bencomo. Meanwhile, the WHO refuses to accredit the Cuban vaccines, despite approval from regulators in countries like Argentina and Mexico.

That is why the Progressive International is sending a delegation to Havana: to combat misinformation, to defend Cuban sovereignty, and to help vaccinate the world.

Bringing delegates from the Union for Vaccine Internationalism, founded in June 2021 to fight the emerging apartheid, the Progressive International will convene Cuban scientists and government representatives to address international press and members of the scientific community in a showcase of the Cuban vaccine on 25 January.

The goals of the showcase are both local and global. Drawing attention to the promise of the Cuban vaccine and the perils of the US embargo against it, the showcase aims to forge connections between Cuba’s public biotech sector and manufacturers who might produce the vaccine and help the Cuban government recuperate the costs of its development.

In the process, the showcase aims to set an example of international solidarity in the face of the present global health crisis, advancing the cause of vaccine internationalism around the world.

This article was first published by Progressive International.

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DRC: Bring Patrice Lumumba Home

The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.

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For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.

At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.

The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance—from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.

In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.

While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.

These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.

Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction—at multiple levels and taking different forms—remains constant.

In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.

Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Felix’s election. Felix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.

Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.

For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.

Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.

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

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