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Sleeping with the Enemy: Are KDF and Humanitarian Agencies Doing Business with Al Shabaab?

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Kenya’s bid to have Al Shabaab listed as a terrorist organisation by the UN Security Council has raised several questions about the timing of the proposal and about whether it is a genuine attempt to deal with the terrorist threat emanating from Somalia writes RASNA WARAH.

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Sleeping with the Enemy: Are KDF and Humanitarian Agencies Doing Business with Al Shabaab?
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For several years, Somalia-watchers have suspected that aid and humanitarian organisations make deals with Al Shabaab in order to gain access to territories controlled by the terrorist group. Now, these suspicions have been confirmed by none other than former United States officials and heads of donor agencies and humanitarian organisations who are urging the Kenyan government not to request the United Nations Security Council to list Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation because such a designation will hinder humanitarian work in Somalia.

According to a Daily Nation report, the group—which includes the former US Ambassador to Kenya, Mark Bellamy, the former Undersecretary of State, Thomas R. Pickering, and the former USAID administrator, J. Brian Atwood—says that Kenya’s proposal will “break the current working relationship where humanitarian workers are allowed certain windows to reach extremist-held regions”. In a letter to the US Secretary of State Mark Pompeo, the group stated that such a move could put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

Now it is not very clear why the Kenyan government has suddenly decided that Al Shabaab should be declared a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, given that Kenya and several other countries already recognise Al Shabaab as a terrorist outfit. Speculation is rife that such a listing in the UN Security Council would release more funds for counterterrorism efforts, which could financially benefit Kenya, which is both a frontline state and a major target of Al Shabaab’s terrorist activities. The timing of Kenya’s bid is also strange given that in 2010 the UN Security Council had designated Al Shabaab as a threat to peace and security and had added it to a list of sanctioned entities that are subject to travel bans, asset freezes and arms embargoes.

According to a report prepared jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol, after losing Kismaayo, Al Shabaab began imposing “taxes” at roadblocks along routes in the hinterland that were used to transport charcoal to the port. At just one roadblock in Somalia’s Badhadhe District, the terrorist group was estimated to have made between $8 million and $18 million per year from charcoal traffic

Some Kenya government officials have hinted that if Al Shabaab is listed as a terrorist organisation along the same lines as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), this will lead to an international military campaign to counter the group, an effort which is currently being shouldered mainly by African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, of which Kenya is a part.

Whatever the real motives of the Kenyan government, the admission by the aid sector that it has contacts with the terrorist organisation has unleashed all kinds of conundrums, and exposed the convoluted nature of aid to Somalia.

What is surprising is that former US officials and diplomats are at the forefront of stopping the Kenyan government from presenting its proposal to the UN Security Council. After all, the United States designated Al Shabaab a terrorist organisation as far back as February 2008 following the group’s proclamation of its allegiance to Al Qaeda. Subsequently, Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom also listed Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation.

Protection money

Two things happen when a group is declared as a terrorist organisation by a donor country or aid organisation. One, donor countries who name the group as a terrorist organisation put in safeguards to ensure that their funding/aid does not directly or indirectly benefit the organisation. There are severe consequences for those who break this rule. For instance, in the United States, violations can result in both civil and criminal penalties, including fines of up to $1 million or 20 years in prison. Two, donor countries stop or reduce funding to the country where the terrorist organisation is based.

Yet in the case of Somalia, these rules became a bit blurred, especially at the height of the 2011 famine in the country, when there was an international effort to raise millions of dollars for food aid. Sceptics wondered how the UN and other aid agencies expected to deliver food to large swathes of central and southern Somalia that were controlled by Al Shabaab, considering that the terrorist group had banned several UN agencies and international NGOs from operating there. (Al Shabaab views international aid organisations as fronts for Western intelligence agencies.) This was when it became apparent that in order to gain access to Al Shabaab-controlled territories in Somalia, aid agencies and NGOs on the ground had been making deals with the terrorist group; many UN agencies and international NGOs were paying taxes or “protection money” to Al Shabaab through their local implementing partners (usually Somalia-based NGOs).

Whatever the real motives of the Kenyan government, the admission by the aid sector that it has contacts with the terrorist organisation has unleashed all kinds of conundrums, and exposed the convoluted nature of aid to Somalia

A paper published in December 2013 by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled “Talking to the other side: Humanitarian negotiations with Al Shabaab in Somalia” explained how the system worked: “While banning some organisations, Al Shabaab permitted others to work – albeit under increasingly tight rules and regulations. With the consequences for disobedience clear, the threat of expulsion compelled agencies either to comply or to withdraw, which was seen by many as unacceptable given the scale of the need. In November 2009, Al Shabaab imposed 11 conditions on remaining aid agencies in Bay and Bakool, including payment of registration and security fees of up to $20,000 every 6 months.”

Ashley Jackson and Abdi Aynte, the authors of the report, say that such behaviour is not limited to Somalia; aid agencies in Afghanistan have also been known to negotiate with the Taliban.

Some aid and humanitarian organisations resisted this form of “taxation”, but those that complied had to factor in these fees in their project budgets. Yet, these same organisations continued to deny that they gave money to Al Shabaab in exchange for access—such an admission could have led to reduced funding and perhaps even sanctions against the organisations.

KDF’s links

What is surprising about Kenya’s recent move is that the government itself has not been averse to dealing with terrorist organisations in the past, as when Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) recruited the Ras Kamboni militia to fight alongside it when KDF invaded southern Somalia in October 2011. It is common knowledge that the Ras Kamboni militia’s leader, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, better known as Madobe, was a high-ranking official of the militant Islamic group Hizbul Islam, which was formed in 2009 by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys (who has been designated as an international terrorist by the United States) before he joined the Kenyan forces.

Madobe was the governor of Kismaayo during the short-lived rule of the Islamic Courts Union, and later joined and then defected from Al Shabaab, ostensibly after protesting against its brutal methods. He later formed the Ras Kamboni militia to fight his former allies and to regain control over the prized port of Kismaayo, which was under the control of Al Shabaab when his and the Kenyan forces entered southern Somalia. (This could have been his primary motive for collaborating with the Kenyans.) All these double-dealings and defections should have been a cause for concern to KDF, but apparently they were not factored in when KDF—or rather the government of Mwai Kibaki—recruited Ras Kamboni militia for Kenya’s military mission in Somalia.

What could have prompted the Kenyan government to not only join forces with a known insurgent but even train his soldiers? Was it not a huge risk to be partnering with a militant group that had previous links with Al Shabaab? Wasn’t supporting such a group a security risk to the Kenyan forces? What if the Ras Kamboni soldiers defected? Given Madobe’s own record of defections, could he be relied on as a steady and committed ally?

Some observers believe that because he already knew the lay of the land, and had similar objectives as the Kenyan forces—to gain control of Kismaayo, Al Shabaab’s economic lifeline—Madobe was identified, and probably presented himself as a natural ally of the Kenyans, who were keen to create a friendly “buffer zone” in Jubbaland in southern Somalia. His Ogaden clan, which has for years sought to control southern Somalia, and which is also politically dominant in northeastern Kenya, could have also worked to his advantage.

It is important to note that the Kenyan government did not seek UN Security Council approval before it invaded Somalia. Kenyans were told that the operation was merely an “incursion” that had the blessing of the Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu and which was aimed at ousting Al Shabaab from areas along Kenya’s border with Somalia. It is ironic that the Kenyan government is now seeking the UN Security Council’s support.

The hypocrisy of the Kenyan government vis-à-vis the UN Security Council was further exposed when KDF were re-hatted as AMISOM. In September 2012, almost one year after the Kenyan invasion, when Kismaayo, the prized port that was Al Shabaab’s main economic base, fell to the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces, rumours began to emerge of Kenyan and Ras Kamboni soldiers exporting charcoal from the port, despite a UN Security Council ban.

Apparently, when the Kenyan and Somali forces entered Kismaayo, they discovered an estimated four million sacks of charcoal with an international market value of at least $60 million lined up by Al Shabaab and ready for export. In its report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea claimed that the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces decided to export the charcoal despite the UN ban, and that the export of charcoal more than doubled under their watch.

The Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces, like Al Shabaab, it seemed, had turned Kismaayo into a cash cow. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimated that charcoal worth $250 million was shipped from Somalia in 2013 and 2014, and that an average of 20 trucks, each carrying 5 to 12 tonnes of charcoal, were arriving in Kismaayo every day.

Kenya thus has to contend with the fact that the UN Security Council may not be holding a favourable view of Kenyan forces in Somalia because KDF might, in fact, be funding Al Shabaab. In its 2014 report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group also made the astonishing claim that profits from the port of Kismaayo, which were made through taxes, charcoal exports and the importation of cheap sugar, were equally divided between the Kenyan forces, the Interim Jubbaland Administration headed by Ahmed Madobe, and Al Shabaab—suggesting that KDF’s presence in Somalia had not affected Al Shabaab’s ability to raise funds; on the contrary, KDF might have been aiding the terrorist group’s income-generating activities.

These claims were also supported by a report by the US-funded Institute of Defence Analyses, which was cited by the Sunday Nation in an article published on 27 July 2014, which stated: “Kenya, although formally a participant in AMISOM, which operates in support of the Somali national government, is also complicit in support of trade that provides income to Al Shabaab, its military opponent, both inside Somalia, and, increasingly, at home in Kenya.”

According to a report prepared jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol, after losing Kismaayo, Al Shabaab began imposing “taxes” at roadblocks along routes in the hinterland that were used to transport charcoal to the port. At just one roadblock in Somalia’s Badhadhe District, the terrorist group was estimated to have made between $8 million and $18 million per year from charcoal traffic. Christian Hellemann, the principal analyst for the report, likened the charcoal trade in Somalia to the drug wars in Mexico in terms of the violence and the amounts of money involved.

An anonymous source who spoke to the Saturday Nation claimed that smuggled sugar was also a major source of income for Al Shabaab and KDF. There were five checkpoints between Kismaayo and the Kenyan town of Garissa; three of them were controlled by Al Shabaab and two by the Kenyan forces. “The sugar trucks are waved through all the checkpoints without any checks,” said the source. “There is a tacit agreement between the owner and these entities and we are sure hefty sums of money change hands in the form of illegal ‘taxes’,” stated the source, who was cited in the article published on 25 April 2015.

These reports were corroborated by other investigations that indicated that about 70 businessmen located in Kismaayo, Nairobi and Garissa were brokers in the sugar trade between Somalia and Kenya.

In other words, Kenyan forces were implicated in aiding Al Shabaab materially. Yet no sanctions have been placed on the Kenyan government or KDF and none of these allegations have affected how Kenyan forces in Somalia are viewed at home. In fact, reports about KDF’s involvement in the illicit charcoal and other trades in Somalia are largely ignored.

Maritime dispute

So what could be behind this new-found urgency on the part of the Kenyan government to compel the UN Security Council to declare Al Shabaab a terrorist organisation? After all, if sanctions are imposed on Kenya as a result of its own alleged affiliation with Al Shabaab, then will Kenya not be the ultimate loser?

Analysts believe that there must be something else behind Kenya’s diplomatic efforts at the UN. “It may have something to do with the maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia because the Kenyan government is not going to accept a negative result from the court,” says Andrew Franklin, a Nairobi-based security analyst.

Kenya is currently in a legal dispute with Somalia over a maritime boundary along its border—a 100,000 square metre triangular chunk of the Indian Ocean that is suspected to be rich in oil. The International Court of Justice is expected to announce its decision on the dispute soon. It is possible that the Kenyan government is using the Al Shabaab threat to put additional pressure on the Federal Government of Somalia to withdraw the case against Kenya. Maybe Kenya believes that the listing of Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation could lead to the imposition of UN sanctions on countries that harbour terrorists, in this case, Somalia. Having been weakened by the UN sanctions, Mogadishu might then consider negotiating with Nairobi on the border dispute. (The distribution of oil wealth will no doubt determine the content of any such negotiations.)

But there might be other considerations as well. Kenya has been unsuccessful in bringing back two Cuban doctors working in Kenya who were abducted by Al Shabaab in April this year from the border town of Mandera and taken to Somalia. Perhaps pressure from the Cuban government might have prompted the Kenyan government (which made a deal with Cuba to bring in the Cuban doctors, a decision that has irked Kenyan doctors who have failed to negotiate better terms for themselves with the government for years) to make it look like it is doing something about the Al Shabaab menace, hence the proposal to the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, Al Shabaab, not one to let an opportunity go to waste, has apparently been using the medical services of the Cuban doctors. “There are rumours that the Cubans are treating Al Shabaab fighters and the general civilian population,” says Franklin. How ironic will it be if these Cuban doctors, when finally released, are charged with aiding a terrorist organisation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forced Repatriation to Ethiopia

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

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

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

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

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

Harsh conditions facing Tigrayan refugees

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

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

The disinterest of African media and society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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UK-Rwanda Refugee Deal: A Stain on President Kagame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Road to 9/8: What Is at Stake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further context

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

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

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

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

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

Risks 

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

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

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

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

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