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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic

14 min read.

In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic
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Oyunga Pala, Curator-in-Chief, The Elephant

Death knocks at your door and before you can tell him come in, he is in the house with you ~ Grace Ogot in Tekayo

Towards the end of January 2020, we discussed the coronavirus outbreak in China during an editorial meeting at The Elephant. At the time, the issue seemed not within the immediate scope of the important world events we should look into. A month later, we published a piece by Nairobi-based writer April Zhu on the experiences of the Chinese diaspora in Kenya, and the subsequent wave of sinophobia that was spreading faster than the coronavirus. By the third week of March, Kenya was in the grip of the COVID-19 global health crisis. The coronavirus has now become our lived reality in a manner that none of us could have predicted.

Our core mandate at The Elephant is to explain society to the people and the advent of COVID-19 has brought society into extraordinary times; the pandemic has provoked an existential crisis across the world, reordering all facets of life in real time.

At a time when good journalism is constrained by corporate interests, a deluge of fake news, state propaganda and sensationalism, The Elephant seeks clarity for its audience. In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. Even as we adhered to the health protocols of physical distancing, we leaned into the social solidarity of our intellectual community to help us make sense of the incomprehensible. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

Normal Service Will Not Be Resumed

John Githongo is the Publisher at The Elephant

Across the planet, extraordinary circumstances have been precipitated by an invisible deadly viral threat whose freedom of movement has not only caused illness and death. The fear it has provoked, and the measures taken to contain it, have brought humanity to a unique point of inflection. The asymmetrical challenge the coronavirus has posed to governments has caused them to literally throw their economies at the pandemic in a desperate attempt to slow it down. Previous major pandemics have served to reorder society and this one will be no different. Even as the economic consequences of the coronavirus begin to be felt, this crisis has also created a great opportunity for systemic change.

We have come to the stark realisation that, despite the experiments of the past 40 years, governments cannot shirk the responsibility of providing quality healthcare, security and education for all citizens. In the short-term, across Africa, we will have to free up resources to mitigate the economic blast that’s on its way and which will quickly become political if mismanaged. Debt will have to be renegotiated or set aside and if our elites insist on stealing even this, the next extreme stress test will be brought to bear on the security services called upon to manage the revolt of hungry populations. Ironically, the coronavirus has provided us with an opportunity to transform our economy and politics in true service to the people. The greatest crisis will not have been the virus itself but rather, a failure of the imagination in the face of the massive disruption it will have caused.

Advent Season of the Virus

Yvonne A. Owuor is an award-winning writer, editor and theoretician

Elements from a surreal landscape we call earth: Wuhan. Wet Market. Dr. Li Weinliang (RIP), Kenyan students and citizens stranded in moving virus epicentres; an Ambassador who resorts to praying for them—turns out she was right: social isolation + moral support as the most effective solution. Animals strolling into humanity’s silenced cities (at least we now know that in the event of our mass demise, the animals who have been watching us, after all, will take over our cities, and nature, it seems, truly does abhor a vacuum), the halting of work as we know it, a new shared grammar; social distancing, COVID-19, curfew. Verbally adept Italian mayors, Mutahi Kagwe, startling Kenyans by being a state official in an entrenched “mediocraty” that looks and sounds competent and coherent.

The likelihood of a post-virus global economic recession and depression. The roles of States (with the primary pimps of Neoliberal Logic revealing themselves to be oddly inchoate now) and how each performed on the “capacity, management and delivery of public goods” scorecard, in the face of this equalising global existential threat, that has also offered the world a common language. (It has caused (for a while) persistent dumb dichotomies–Us/them; West/Other; Developed/Undeveloped… that sought to assert themselves to fizzle away in the face of chilling reality). The masks that concealed so many cracked facades, even in Kenya, are off and in this humanising moment where the only battle is Life vs Death spin only sounds like garble.

Most significantly, COVID-19 is the defining virus for a new generation. That generation watches in terror at the incompetence of their elders whose instinct it is to apply old tested answers to new untested crises. After this storm, the generation is likely to emerge from the womb of darkness furious and frothing, armed with a collectivised will to uproot the status quo by whatever means. They will use the unique grammar of their generation, wired by a preternatural technological savvy, to programme another imagination of being in the world. They will confuse the Emperor-elders, who they see, through the lenses of the virus, have, in reality been buzzing about stark naked even as they preached robes of many colours. That generation did it (as organised netizens) for Dr. Ai Fen’s article by resorting to assorted censor-algorithm-beating language forms. They succeeded. Something is coming: a virus is its herald. Let the games begin.

Racism, Ecology and Conservation Politics

Dr Mordecai Ogada is a writer, conservationist and co-author of the book The Big Conservation Lie

Our warped conservation sector hasn’t been spared the upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many years, I have advised that tourism should be treated as a by-product of conservation, rather than the basis for it, precisely because of the fickle nature of the tourism business. Kenya’s relentless pursuit of tourism at the expense of more resilient indigenous livelihoods like pastoralism, is a fallacy that is only matched by our obsession with tourists of foreign extraction as some kind of validation of our standing as a country. Now that tourism has crashed for the foreseeable future, the weakness of this model has been brutally exposed, with tourism interests begging for donations and bailouts, while livestock production continues unimpeded.

This trauma may just be the “reset” button required to rouse our conservation sector from the slumber that styles the Kenya wildlife service as a tourism organisation under a Ministry of “Tourism and Wildlife”, led by a minister who was a long-term tourism practitioner. A “woken up” Kenya would hopefully come to the realisation that we should conserve first for ourselves and then receive the visitors who come to partake of what we have conserved to serve our own needs. Our obsession with foreign (preferably white) tourists and conservation thinking is what provides fertile ground for the racial prejudice, corruption and unseemly dependence on charity that still persist in this sector. May there be a bright dawn at the end of this dark night.

Pandemics, Tech and the Future of Work

Njanja Mwangi is the founder and Director of Apex College in Sydney City, Australia

The recent discussion online and elsewhere on how the coronavirus will force Kenyan firms to rethink the way work is done, ignores the fact that expectations of a virtual work revolution accelerated by this pandemic are overblown. The optimistic belief is that we will abruptly move into a future where offices and the nine to five workday will be replaced with virtual work and results-only workplaces.

I think this optimism about a revolution around work is premature. Allow me to explain. A question I have often asked any manager I have met over the years is, “What proportion of the workforce would you say is below average to terrible at their job?” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone give me a number of less than 70 per cent. This means that in any workplace or society, 7 out of 10 people can’t be relied upon to consistently understand and effectively execute work instructions.

A number of tools have been perfected over the years to mitigate this reality including in management, human resources departments, offices and work schedules. Talk to any Baby Boomer who owns a business in Kenya and they will tell you that “waKenya ni lazima wakaliwe” (Kenyans must be sat upon, i.e. micro-managed).

This means that, firstly, once this crisis is over, a lot of workplaces will resume business as usual to allow the tools that make up for workplace incompetence to do their thing. Secondly, there definitely will be people who will transition to working from home but I think it would be foolish to assume that this change will not come with a lot of controls, many of which will make working from home much less appealing than it currently appears.

A Braver, Newer World

Rasna Warah is a writer, editor and author of Unsilenced

The coronavirus has heralded an age of uncertainty around the globe, but one thing is certain: the world will never be the same again. After the coronavirus pandemic has run its course, and even after a vaccine against the disease has been developed, a shaken world will be forced to reevaluate its priorities.

We may be forced to ask ourselves difficult existential questions, such as: should we continue ravaging and plundering the earth in the name of profit and economic growth? Can we sustain a world where a tiny number of people own and control the majority of its resources? What kind of planet do we want our children to inherit? One where sharing and cooperation are the norm or one where greed and individualism trump compassion and generosity?

What use are armies when a virus like this one can silently and stealthily decimate unsuspecting populations? How do we prepare for such a disaster in the future? What lessons can we learn from this pandemic? What really is the meaning of life? Maybe human beings still have a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe now is the time to reassert our collective humanity.

Terror, Security and COVID-19

Abdullahi Boru is a security expert and writer with a focus on the Horn of Africa

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a trifecta of impacts: health, the economy and public order.  All are inextricably interlinked.

In the Horn of Africa where the national health infrastructure is fragile and there are hardly any formal social safety fallback options, the proposed iterations of lockdowns announced by the governments as a means of containing the spread of the virus could ignite public order crises. And considering that some of the countries in the region are landlocked, public disruption in one country could spread to neighbouring countries.

Such vulnerabilities provide a window of opportunity for transnational non-state actors. With the security agencies preoccupied with the local public order crisis, non-state actors like Al Shabaab, while sensitive to public opinion, are not averse to inflicting maximum damage to the state at its point of weakness.

The dawn attacks at Camp Simba in Manda show that Al Shabaab’s ambitions are not limited to soft and hard national military targets, but also target American bases in the region. Moreover, AMISOM bases will be particularly in the group’s crosshairs now that drawdown of the forces has been announced. Over the last few months, Al Shabaab fighters have been seeking to acquire Chinese-made, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, and some have been arrested while taking flying classes, an indication of the group’s ambition to remain the pre-eminent Al Qaeda franchise internationally.

Tech and Our Lives Post-Corona

Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, writer, policy analyst, advocacy strategist and musician

Digital technologies will be a cornerstone of life after the pandemic. Development, investment, policy and governance plans will carry the term “digital” as a prefix.

Today, we may welcome proposals like digitally tracking infected persons’ movements to flatten the curve. The flipside: they are also the building blocks for a surveillance-ridden future. Our consent lies in our desire to see governments “do whatever it takes” to put an end to the rona.

But it won’t be as simple as switching off the apps and algorithms tracking the virus, and by extension, people. These “solutions” are also feeding the appetite that states and tech providers already have for the datafication of every aspect of our lives; to monitor our every move, every transaction, every activity.

The justification to keep the digital surveillance in place will be that there will be other crises for which the activated technology can be put to use. Going cashless today may mean saying goodbye to autonomy tomorrow. Today’s coronavirus victim could be any one of us that will be deemed to be out of line with the system’s rules in the future.

We urgently need narratives and strategies to counter the overwhelming tide of techno-solutionism sweeping in and positioning itself as the silver bullet. Or else, life after the coronavirus will come to imitate our dystopian fictions.

Institutionalised Racism and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Darius Okolla is a writer, editor and curator of audio-visual content at The Elephant 

Many Kenyans will not know that there exists a corpus of colonial-era writings and policies grounded in scientific racism, many of which have been incorporated into the current laws, mindsets and worldviews that govern our public life. The marketisation of basic services – water, education, healthcare – arbitrary application of the law, endemic corruption, and even the theft of blood from our blood banks are the manifestations of this institutionalised racism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to confront the cluelessness and heavy-handedness of a ruling regime that has perpetuated this historical racism which has engendered feelings of cultural inferiority and encouraged anti-intellectualism, elite ineptitude, collapse of moral courage, predatory public instincts, commercialisation of public life, and corruption, particularly in the healthcare sector.

In imposing a curfew and partial lockdown, the state should have taken into account our communal existence, particularly our conception of space, social relations, interdependencies, and supply chains. How, for example, does this lockdown shape night travel? Marikiti 4 a.m. agro-purchases? Where on the scale of essential services do critical “non-essential” ecosystems like Gikomba fit given their place in the crucial informal economy? Thus far, however, the state’s haphazard policies have only served to precipitate the chaos and pushback that happened in Likoni, the defiance of curfew in Eldoret, and the citizen violence against the police in Malindi.

We need to intellectualise more and securitise less, using a pandemic mitigation advisory panel consisting of epidemiologists, urban planners, public interest lawyers, urban anthropologists, public health teams, virologists, economists, and the clergy to craft county-specific lockdown policies. This pandemic should be a road back to crafting human-centred, data-informed public policy.

Tech, Pandemics and Viruses

Alan Kawamara is a techie and a software developer at The Elephant

With the world quickly realising the benefits of digital-ready workspaces and teleworking, COVID-19 has handed digital transformation evangelists a huge opportunity to spread the tech gospel further and faster. Everywhere in our digital spaces, online workspaces hitherto unknown are mentioned, shared and applied with a new-found zeal as workplaces try to find new ways of keeping the work going.

Going forward, organisations will rethink their working models, embracing Cloud technology and anything-as-a-service (XaaS) solutions to cushion themselves against future disruptions. Therefore, in many ways COVID-19 can be said to be as much a tech virus as it is a biological virus. It has unleashed a disruption similar to the infamous Stuxnet virus, the world’s first digital weapon.

Having gone through the challenges of having to perform in the unpredictable time of the coronavirus pandemic, individuals and organisations will have to embrace cultures of experimentation, being willing to quickly adapt, scale or drop tech solutions depending on new and fast-changing variables.

With greater digitisation, reliance on data and analytics for decision-making will become key, with managers keen on obtaining almost real-time measurement of team and work efficiencies. Governments will make more determined investments in internet infrastructure, allowing for faster and cheaper access to connectivity as an enabler of this new way of working.

Pandemics, Power and Foreign Lands

Shingai Kagunda is an MFA graduate student at Brown University

Isn’t it much harder to write when the speculative possibility of a globalised pandemic becomes reality? The worldwide scourge and its ramifications have now become this bottomless anxiety sitting in our being, making itself comfortable. COVID-19 has ensured that many aspects of national and racial existence now carry with them clear or tacit signs that say “Not welcome here”.

This is an even much more personal loss for those of us who are so far away from home facing so many unknowns. And it was even more strongly felt as I watched the last flight leave New York for Kenya, leaving a sense of “so now?” hanging in the air.

Currently, out here in the US, we have to stay home, and where possible take walks—six feet away from other bodies—and turn to Zoom for classes. This is a whole re-education of our lives. We have to rely on multiple video chats to speak to family and friends at least once a day. Ideally, this is an opportune time to dream up alternative ways of being because the pandemic has interrupted capital, supply chains, human connection, and life as we know it.

We must now begin to imagine what this will mean for the long haul and what our world and lives will be after the pandemic. No doubt, we must prepare for a radical shift of priorities in the after. We will need to set terms that will, and must, gain momentum in healthcare, redistribution of resources; we must choose life over profit. In the end we must sit and reflect and read and write and work and rest and draw and notice the earth breathing.

A New Philosophy of Man

Joe Kobuthi is a philosopher and a curator at The Elephant

For all creation, gazing eagerly as if with outstretched neck, is waiting and longing to see the manifestation of the sons of God. Romans 8:19

The scientific and technological advancements, the military-industrial complex, the sophisticated economic, social and political arrangements of the western hegemonic model now appear futile in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Humanity and nature have been groaning with eager expectation for something other than this five-hundred-year European experiment that has revealed itself to be rapacious and genocidal where the world is concerned. The West now lives at such a crazy, reckless speed that it has lost all reason and moral authority as it sinks into the abyss.

Here in the global south, we must no longer benchmark with this edifice as the standard for human advancement. No, we do not want to catch up to anyone. What we want is to move forward in the company of all men. It is now time for the peoples at the periphery to begin a new history for mankind.

After COVID-19, if our desire is human progress, we must create other ways of being. For Mother Nature and for humanity’s sake, we must rebuild from the ruins, think anew and attempt to set afoot a new philosophy of man. 

Coronavirus and a Changing Media Landscape

John Allan Namu is an investigative journalist and team lead of Africa Uncensored

I’m hoping that mine will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I see a media landscape that will be changed by the virus, in many ways for the better. What we are observing in the face of the pandemic is the resurgence of expert opinion from actual experts, a curiosity and hunger for fact by some (not all) journalists and a deeper appreciation for the importance of quality information by the public. So in that respect, the bones of journalism are relatively intact even if they have been weakened over time.

What is much harder to establish is how journalism will survive. COVID-19 has thrust upon almost every country that it has touched economic strain unseen in the 21st century. The value chains that supported journalism that were already imperiled now seem like they almost certainly will break, and more than ever, media houses in Kenya will have to find a way to ensure a future for themselves. This could be done through decentralising the news cycle and moving resources to create a plethora of news products and a more robust ecosystem. Swanky news studios may either have to become more spartan or be used as much as possible to generate new income.

The best coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic offers us a window into what could be. The very nature of the pandemic is such that the numbers being tracked change every day, and the lack of clarity about when it will end means that journalists have to think deeply about how to make their stories less and less perishable. Hopefully, this will lead to institutional thinking about the kind of investment that must be made for news to be useful.  Otherwise, even more media space will be captured by those who can pay for it.

Alternative media will flourish in the short term, but to survive, boutique media houses will have to search for partnerships that allow them to collaborate on content and share resources. Finally, what I hope for is that people recognise that good journalism is a public good, and fight for a national broadcaster that reports for the nation, not for the holders of office whom we have confused for the overlords of this precious public commodity.

Post-coronavirus and the need for communal solidarity. 

Betty Guchu is a writer and editor

I am returnee, a former long-term remittance woman (in the sense that I was doing the remitting, gladly). I came back, jaded by the world of international development cooperation, where the cooperation seems to benefit only the highly paid functionaries and the development experts that hang on to their coattails, earning a handsome fee with every contract. The waste of resources, the corruption, the nepotism and the cronyism finally got to me and the racism that one day asserted that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, to justify the exclusion of the views of the so-called beneficiaries, was the final straw. I started casting about for another way to live and to earn a living. More simply and more meaningfully. Before it was too late.

Out in the Kenyan countryside I have found such a life, in a community where we are each other’s social safety net. A hospital bill is shared, not just among friends and family, but within the community. As is the cost of a burial. My neighbour watches out for me and it doesn’t take long to know who the chicken thief is. Tools are borrowed and lent and seeds and seedlings exchanged. Advice is freely given, some of it old wives’ tales until you find out that it is not, having skeptically applied it. New ideas are welcomed and knowledge freely shared. Projects are initiated, funds raised and labour provided, elected officials showing up at the tail end to bask in the reflected glory. As is their wont.

It is not that folk here are nicer or more generous than folk anywhere else; it is that the environment is less alienating, that the inter-generational relationships are still quite strong, that the gap between the better-off and the less so is not a yawning chasm. But also, it is the realisation that “there, but by the grace of God, go I” that spurs the solidarity, the acknowledgement that unless we help each other, we all sink together. May the coronavirus bring all of us everywhere to that happy realisation.

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Op-Eds

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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Op-Eds

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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