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Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal

8 min read.

Working from home (WFH) certainly has its advantages, but studies have shown that prolonged isolation can have dire mental health consequences. As societies change their behaviour to adjust to COVID-19, they must take into consideration the innate human need for physical interaction.

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Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal
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Many office workers are celebrating working from home (WFH), which has become the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus and lockdowns. Introverts who hate the prospect of making small talk with colleagues they secretly loathe have welcomed the idea of working remotely from home in their pajamas and setting their own work schedules. Those whose working experience was considerably diminished by office politics find that it is much easier to ignore these politics on Zoom.

WFH certainly has its advantages. Time spent commuting to work (which in Nairobi can be as long as two hours due to the city’s horrific traffic jams) can now be spent working. This is good for the environment, which is already choking from vehicular fumes, and for productivity. I have worked from home for several years and find that I am more productive at home because I spend less time getting dressed for work, travelling to work, and conducting idle chitchat with colleagues, time that is essentially wasted. Twitter has already told its employees that they can work from home for the rest of their working life at the company if they choose to do so.

With the advent of WFH, it has also become evident that showing up at work is not the same as working. Many of us have worked in places where it is not clear what work people actually do or why they were hired. Their output appears negligible or insignificant, but because they show up at work, it is assumed that they are working. With WFH, managers might be more diligent about monitoring “deliverables” (NGO-ese for outputs) by employees. After all, if you say you are working from home, and cannot show what you did, then it becomes clear that you are not actually working.

However, before we throw out our office suits and slip permanently into our comfortable bedroom slippers, we might consider this: the majority of essential workers in this world still have to go to work and make physical contact with human beings to earn a living. Doctors, nurses, retail store managers, food vendors, hawkers, need to physically interact with the people they serve. No WFH for them.

For those of us who were already working from home before the pandemic and lockdowns started, the new normal might appear like the old normal, but it is not for one simple reason – this lockdown is enforced; it is not voluntary. People working from home can decide when to go out and socialise to recharge their batteries or to make human contact; now that option no longer exists or is restricted.

Studies have also shown that while many women prefer the flexibility of working from home, a majority find that leaving the house to go to work is actually therapeutic. A survey by Gallup, for instance, found that two-thirds of working women liked the “social aspect” of their jobs. Working from home alone doesn’t provide the social contact and camaraderie that an office can provide.

There are other disadvantages of WFH and using online platforms to communicate with colleagues. As Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times recently, “Remote work leaves a terrible feedback vacuum. Communication with colleagues is no longer casual but effortful; no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have less contact – particularly of the casual variety – and with fewer people”.

Senior says that it would also be a mistake to assume that toxic office politics will not find its way into the WFH space. “They [office politics] are much easier to navigate if you can actually see your colleagues – and therefore discern where the power resides, how business gets done and who the kind people are”, she wrote.

When the home becomes a battlefield

The lockdowns around the globe are also testing marriages and giving rise to mental health problems that are breaking up families and leading to increased domestic violence. As the war against the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, another kind of pandemic is raging across the world. Reports indicate that violence against women has increased since lockdowns have been enforced in various countries, and that women are bearing a disproportionate burden of taking care of their families.

United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, raised the alarm recently when he stated: “Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”. He noted that “violence is not confined to the battlefield”.

According to a recent UNWomen report, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women”, in France reports of domestic violence increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown on 17 March. In Argentina, emergency calls on domestic violence cases increased by 25 per cent after the lockdown on 20 March. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines registered an increase in calls by 30 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. Demands for emergency shelter for domestic violence victims have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“As stay-at-home orders expand to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly find themselves isolated from the people and resources that can help them”, says the report. “The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response”.

“It’s a perfect storm”, said the CEO of one British charity. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help”.

In many countries where there are few services for victims of domestic violence, or where reporting physical abuse, especially by an intimate partner, is difficult, women are trapped in a vicious cycle. In situations where healthcare services are already over-stretched, women victims of domestic violence are also less likely to seek medical attention.

The closure of schools has also placed enormous pressure on women, who tend to be the main caregivers in families. For women who are poor, and who live in cramped housing, the pressures can be overwhelming. With stay-at-home children and a spouse who has either been let go at work, or who cannot work because of the lockdown, the home can become a pressure cooker ready to explode. Men who feel more insecure due to their unemployment status are likely to take out their frustrations on their wives. Sometimes this can result in physical violence, even murder, as has been reported in Kenya, where there appears to be a surge in intimate partner violence, sometimes resulting in death.

The looming mental health crisis

In my view, the idea that self-isolation and working remotely from home should be accepted as the new normal is terribly misplaced for one simple reason: human beings are wired to be social animals, and depriving them of social contact has dire psychological consequences. WFH advocates fail to consider that humans have an innate need to physically interact with other humans.

There is a famous experiment conducted by the American psychologist Harry Harlow that is often cited to underscore the above point. Harlow’s work with primates, particularly infant rhesus monkeys, showed why isolation can be detrimental to human development. His experiments showed that when baby monkeys are taken away from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting, they start engaging in disturbing behaviour, including self-mutilation. It didn’t matter how well fed the monkeys were, their need for maternal comfort and love proved more critical to their development than their need for sustenance. The infant monkeys placed in cages did not thrive; some held in prolonged captivity even died. The experiment highlighted the importance of maternal care and touch in infant development. Those who believe that hugs, cuddles and handshakes are gestures that will no longer be tolerated in a post-COVID world might want to refer to Harlow’s groundbreaking work.

Johann Hari also highlights the importance of social contact in his book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. Hari, a journalist who had been on anti-depressants for years (without much success) embarked on a journey to find out why depressed people remained depressed even after years of taking drugs or undergoing therapy.

He found that depression is not so much a clinical condition that can managed with the right medicine, but essentially a social disorder whose cure lies in connecting with other like-minded people. He found that depressed people are not only more likely to feel lonely, but also tend to feel insecure. They have few friends and little social interaction.

Despite the proliferation of social media and the billions of “friends” on Facebook, an alarming number of people around the world are reporting being both lonely and depressed. Hari found that social media cannot compensate for the psychological loss of social life. He quotes the biologist E.O Wilson, who said that “people must belong to a tribe” to thrive. People must feel a sense of community and have friends they can count on. This involves physical interaction.

Unfortunately, our modern world has made connection and a sense of community harder to achieve. Social media has replaced physical contact; online shopping has replaced the pleasure of physically touching an object before buying it; the neoliberal capitalist world order has made it much harder for people to form relationships that have nothing to do with money. This has severely impacted the mental health of societies.

The social cost of rising inequality

The world has also become far more unequal, with a handful of people and corporations owning most of the world’s wealth, and a large majority eking out a living from paycheck to paycheck, and with few prospects of owning a home. An Oxfam report released last year showed that in 2018, the 26 richest people in the world had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, or 3.8 billion people. In addition, the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by 12 per cent in 2018 while the wealth of the poorest half decreased by 11 per cent.

Studies have found that millennials are less likely to own their own homes during their lifetime than their parents and grandparents. This is partly the result of the “gig economy”, which has become the new normal, with young people taking on short-term contractual jobs rather than more secure long-term employment that can provide things like health insurance and pension schemes. While the gig economy has been lauded by some for offering people more flexibility and variety in the kinds of jobs they do, it also has several disadvantages, the primary one being lack of financial security, which has led to mounting uncertainty, particularly among people approaching middle age.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global recession is likely to increase inequality in an already highly unequal world. With more people losing their jobs or earning less, the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. This has mental health and social consequences.

In their groundbreaking book on inequality, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket show a strong relationship between inequality and mental illness. The researchers found that highly unequal societies tend to have a higher incidence of depression, obesity, drug addiction, and violent crime than societies that are more equal. One reason for this is that in societies that place a high value on having money and possessions, people who judge themselves through this value system are more at risk of depression and anxiety.

Highly unequal societies also tend to value competition more than cooperation. They tend to be individualistic and materialistic. Hence, they tend not to take care of the “public good”, and so are less likely to invest in good quality and affordable healthcare and education, or in things that have no commercial value, but which are essential for the well-being of societies, such as public parks and social security systems. This affects the overall mental health of people living in these societies.

Human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. They need to cooperate and make physical contact with others. WFH and self-isolation are already impacting the mental health of people. If physical distancing and self-isolation become the norm in the long term, then hospitals might reduce the number of coronavirus patients, but mental asylums and counselling services will become overwhelmed. In poor countries, where psychological counselling is a luxury, expect more violent crime, suicides and drug and alcohol addiction. The new normal will, in fact, become the new abnormal.

While there is no doubt that social behaviour will be impacted by the pandemic in the short term, it would be a tragedy if human beings shut themselves off permanently from other human beings in the long term. As I have tried to show, long-term self-isolation is neither healthy nor desirable. The emotional and social costs are simply too high.

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Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Lava Jato: The CIA’s Poisoned Gift to Brazil

Recently leaked conversations show shocking levels of US involvement in Brazil’s Lava Jato corruption case against former president Lula da Silva.

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Lava Jato: The CIA’s Poisoned Gift to Brazil
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“I’m going to celebrate today.”— Laura Tessler

“A gift from the CIA.”— Deltan Dallagnol

These recently leaked quotes refer to the arrest and jailing of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva in April 2018 that changed the course of the country’s history. It opened the door to far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power with the support of the United States and powerful corporate interests.

Although US involvement in the once heralded anti-corruption investigation operation Lava Jato has been publicly known for some time, leaked conversations between its prosecutors like Tessler and Dallagnol and Judge Sergio Moro have revealed a level of collusion that has shocked even the keenest observers.

A petition filed with the Federal Supreme Court (STF) by the defence of ex-president Lula presents such new evidence that ex-judge Sergio Moro colluded with foreign authorities in conducting the process which led to the arrest of the Workers Party leader, and his subsequent barring from a run for the presidency in 2018.

In the latest leaked Telegram conversations, which are now official court documents, the level of illegal collaboration visible between the Lava Jato task force and the internationally promoted judge is the most flagrant yet, and more valuable for Lula’s defence than chats first published by the Intercept in 2019.

The latest excerpts could result in the politically motivated case against Lula being annulled.

Ex-judge Sergio Moro and head of the Lava Jato task force Deltan Dallagnol have been accused of “treason” for their illegal collusion with United States authorities. In 2017, deputy US attorney general Kenneth Blanco boasted at an Atlantic Council event of informal (illegal) collaboration with Brazilian prosecutors on the Lula case, citing it as a success story. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Justice attempted to pay the Lava Jato task force a $682 million dollar kickback, ostensibly for them to set up a “private foundation to fight corruption”.

On April 5, 2018, the day Lula was arrested by Moro, prosecutor Isabel Grobba revealed the news: “Moro orders Lula to be arrested,” and Deltan Dallagnol replied: “Before MA (Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio) screws everything up.” Dallagnol was referring to what Marco Aurélio was then preparing; a Supreme Court vote which would potentially see defendants such as Lula freed from jail pending their second appeal.

Had this passed, it would’ve enabled Lula to run for president at the 2018 election. Polling at that point showed him twenty points ahead of nearest rival, U.S. backed far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

After coming to power, Jair Bolsonaro and Sergio Moro — who had been appointed as Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister — made an unprecedented visit to CIA headquarters in Langleywith the backing of Wall Street. The FBI has also massively increased its reach in Brazil since the election and was in direct, legal and illegal collaboration with Lava Jato task force since its inception, with its main liaison and now head of FBI’s international corruption unit, Leslie Backschies, boasting that it had “toppled Presidents in Brazil”.

Cooperation between Brazilian and United States authorities, including the use of FBI hackers to break encrypted files, had become clear long before the arrest of the ex-president. Messages from August 31, 2016, when Dilma Rousseff faced her final impeachment hearing, already prove this.

FBI use of hackers in Brazil dates back to 2012 when they encouraged a group from ‘Anonymous’ to attack Brazilian government and corporate institutions and online infrastructure, in a staged protest against “corruption”. Sérgio Bruno revealed: “Janot (Prosecutor General) was with people from the US Embassy last week and it seems that he commented on this [breaking into files via illegal means], without going into details (sic)”.

On the same day, Brazilian prosecutor Roberson Pozzobon also mentions the task force’s cooperation with FBI hackers: “We asked to see if the FBI has the expertise to break (into encrypted files)”.

The following year, Janot toured the world promoting Operation Lava Jato at investor events, both in the United States, and at the World Economic Forum in Davos, describing the now-disgraced anti-corruption operation as “pro-market”, a political position it was not supposed to have. Cooperation with Swiss and Swedish authorities is also evident from the leaked conversations.

A recent announcement has stated that Lava Jato, or Car Wash, as it was relentlessly promoted in the English-speaking media, will be shut down completely later this year, having helped wreck Brazil’s economy and eviscerate its democracy.

Editorial note: The following is an edited version of the article originally published by Brasil Wire. It has been amended to provide context for the recent developments in the Lava Jato corruption case. You can find all of Brasil Wire’s articles on operation Lava Jato here.

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Is Balkanisation the Solution to Somalia’s Governance Woes?

Thirty years after the civil war of 1991, Somalia has still not been able to develop a functional governance structure that delivers services to the people. Federalism has also not delivered political stability. Is it time for Somalia to break up into independent clan-based states?

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Is Balkanisation the Solution to Somalia’s Governance Woes?
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When former prime minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo was elected president of the Federal Government of Somalia in 2017, many lauded his victory. Unlike his predecessors, Farmaajo was viewed as a leader who would unite the country because he had a nationalistic mindset and was someone who was not influenced by clan interests. Many believed that, unlike his predecessor, Hassan Sheikh, whose tenure was marred by corruption allegations and in-fighting, he would bring together a country that has remained fragmented along clan lines and endured internal conflicts for decades. He was also perceived to be someone who would address corruption that has been endemic in every Somali government since the days of President Siad Barre.

Sadly, Farmaajo’s tenure did not result in significant transformation of Somali governance structures or politics. On the contrary, his open hostility towards leaders of federal states – notably Jubbaland, where he is said to have interfered in elections by imposing his own candidate – and claims that corruption in his government had increased, not decreased, left many wondering if he had perhaps been over-rated. Now opposition groups have said that they will not recognise him as the head of state as he has failed to organise the much anticipated one-person-one-vote election that was due this month, which would have either extended or ended his term. This apparent power vacuum has caused some jitters in the international community, whose backing Farmaajo has enjoyed.

However, it would be naïve to assume that Farmaajo’s exit is a critical destabilising factor in Somalia, because, frankly, the president in present-day Somalia is merely a figurehead; he does not wield real power. The government in Mogadishu has had little control over the rest of the country, where clan-based fiefdoms and federal states do pretty much what they want, with little reference go Mogadishu. National security is largely in the hands of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, not the Somalia National Army.

The concept of a state that delivers services to citizens has also remained a mirage for most Somalis who are governed either by customary law known as xeer or the Sharia.  Some have even argued that with its strict codes and hold over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab actually offers a semblance of “governance” in the areas it controls – even if these taxes are collected through extortion or threats of violence.

In much of Somalia, services, such as health and education, are largely provided by foreign faith-based foundations, non-governmental organisations or the private sector, not the state. Many hospitals and schools are funded by foreign (mostly Arab) governments or religious institutions. This means that the state remains largely absent in people’s lives. And because NGOs and foundations can only do so much, much of the country remains unserviced, with the result that Somalia continues to remain one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, with high levels of illiteracy (estimates indicate that the literacy rate is as low as 20 per cent). State institutions, such as the Central Bank and revenue collection authorities, are also either non-existent or dysfunctional.

Efforts by the United Nations and the international community to bring a semblance of governance by supporting governments that are heavily funded by Western and Arab countries have not helped to establish the institutions necessary for the government to run efficiently.  On the contrary, some might argue that that foreign aid has been counter-productive as it has entrenched corruption in government (as much of the aid is stolen by corrupt officials) and slowed down Somalia’s recovery.

Foreign governments have also been blamed for destabilising Somalia. The US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, which succeeded in ousting the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – which had successfully brought about a semblance of governance in Somalia through a coalition of Muslim clerics and businessmen –  spawned radical groups like Al Shabaab, which have wreaked havoc in Somalia ever since.  Kenya’s misguided “incursion” into Somalia in 2011, had a similar effect: Al Shabaab unleashed its terror on Kenyan soil, and Kenya lost its standing as a neutral country that does not intervene militarily in neighbouring countries. Certain Arab countries, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have also been accused of interfering in Somalia’s elections by sponsoring favoured candidates.

All of Somalia’s governments since 2004, when a transitional government was established, have thus failed to re-build state institutions that were destroyed during the civil war or to deliver services to the Somali people. In its entire eight-year tenure, from October 2004 to August 2012, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) did not have the capacity to become a fully functioning government, with a fully-fledged revenue collecting authority and robust ministries.  Ministers had no portfolios and ministries had skeletal staff. The national army was weak and under-funded, and since 2007, the government has relied almost exclusively on African Union soldiers for security, though some donors, notably Turkey, have attempted to revive the Somalia National Army.

Somalia’s first post-transition government was elected in 2012 under a United Nations-brokered constitution. Hassan Sheikh was elected as president with much enthusiasm and in the belief that things would be different under a government that had the goodwill of the people. In his first year in office, President Hassan Sheikh was named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus called his election “a seismic event” that “electrified Somalis and both surprised and relieved the international community”. However, it would not be long before his government would also be marred by corruption allegations.

What governance model should Somalia adopt? 

There has been some debate about which type of governance model is most suitable for a country that is not just divided along clan/regional lines, but where lack of functioning secular institutions threaten nation-building.

Federalism, that is, regional autonomy within a single political system, has been proposed by the international community as the most suitable system for Somalia as it caters for deep clan divisions by allocating the major clans semi-autonomous regional territories.  The 4.5 formula for government representation proposed by the constitution based on the four largest clans (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyne) and 0.5 positions for minorities does acknowledge the reality of a clan-based society, but as Somalia’s recent history has shown, clan can be, and has been, manipulated for personal gain by politicians.  As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is also the danger that the new federal states will mimic the corruption and dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict.

Several experts have also proposed a building block approach, whereby the country is divided into six local administrative structures that would eventually resemble a patchwork of semi-autonomous territories defined in whole or in part by clan affiliation.. In one such proposal, the Isaaq clan would dominate Somaliland in the northwest; the Majerteen in present-day Puntland would dominate the northeast; the heterogeneous Jubbaland and Gedo regions bordering Kenya would have a mixture of clans (though there are now fears that the Ogaden, who are politically influential along the Kenya border, would eventually control the region); a Hawiye-dominated polity would dominate central Somalia; the Digil-Mirifle would centre around Bay and Bakol; and Mogadishu would remain a cosmopolitan administrative centre.

Somaliland offers important lessons on the governance models that could work in a strife-torn society divided along clan lines and where radical Islamist factions have taken root. Since it declared independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has remained relatively peaceful and has had its own government and institutions that have worked quite well and brought a semblance of normality in this troubled region.

After Siad Barre ordered an attack on Hargeisa following opposition to his rule there, Somaliland decided to forge its own path and disassociate from the dysfunction that marked both the latter part of Barre’s regime and the warlordism that replaced it during the civil war. It then adopted a unique hybrid system of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional customary law, Sharia law and modern secular institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, an army and a police force.  The Guurti, the upper house of Somaliland’s legislature, comprises traditional clan elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from various professions who are selected by their respective clans. The Guurti wields enormous decision-making powers and is considered one of the stabilising factors in Somaliland’s inclusive governance model. Michael Walls, the author of A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture and Somaliland’s Political Transition, has described Somaliland’s governance model as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy.

However, Somaliland’s governance model is far from perfect: the consensual clan-based politics has hindered issue-based politics, eroded individual rights and led to the perception that some clans, such as the dominant Isaaq clan, are favoured over others. Tensions across its eastern border with Puntland also threaten its future stability.

In addition, because it is still not recognised internationally as a sovereign state, Somaliland is denied many of the opportunities that come with statehood. It cannot easily enter into bilateral agreements with other countries, get multinational companies to invest there or obtain loans from international financial institutions, though in recent years it has been able to overcome some of these obstacles.

Somaliland is also not recognised by the Federal Government of Somalia, which believes that Somaliland will eventually relent and unite with Somalia, which seems highly unrealistic at this time.  This is one reason why the Somali government gets so upset when Kenyan leaders engage with Somaliland leaders, as happened recently when Mogadishu withdrew its ambassador from Nairobi after President Uhuru Kenyatta met with the Somaliland leader Musa Bihi Abdi at State House. Raila Odinga’s recent call to the international community to recognise Somaliland as an independent state has been welcomed by Somalilanders, but is viewed with suspicion by the federal government in Mogadishu

Nonetheless, there has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, is perhaps the best governance model for Somalia. Is the current Western- and internationally-supported political dispensation in Somalia that has emerged after three decades of anarchy a “fake democracy”?  Can Somalia be salvaged through more home-grown solutions, like the one in Somaliland? Should Somalia break up into small autonomous states that are better able to govern themselves?

Balkanisation is usually a deprecated political term referring to, according to Wikipedia, the “disorderly or unpredictable fragmentation, or sub-fragmentation, of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states, which may be hostile or uncooperative with one another”. While usually associated with increasing instability and conflict, balkanisation could nonetheless still be the only solution for a country that has been unable to unite or to offer hope to its disillusioned citizens for more than three decades.

As Guled Ahmed of the Middle East Institute notes, “the 1995 Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian war, paved the way for ethnic balkanisation of former Yugoslavia into six countries. This resulted in peace and stability and prosperity. So if Eastern European countries can separate along ethnicism, why not balkanise Somalia with multi-ethnicism just like the former Yugoslavia to achieve peace and stability and fair elections based on one person one vote?”, he said.

Ahmed told me that balkanisation would also eliminate Al Shabaab (which has been fighting the government in Mogadishu for the last 14 years) as the independent states created would be more vigilant about who controls their territories and also because people will have more ownership of their government. Somali refugees languishing in Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere might also be tempted to finally return home.

Balkanisation can, however, be messy – and bloody. But Somalia need not go down that route. A negotiated separation could still be arrived at peacefully with the blessing of the international community. If the international community is serious about peace and stability in Somalia, it should pave the way for these discussions. Sometimes divorce is preferable to an acrimonious marriage.

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The Danger of the Single Story and Africa’s Refugee Equilibrium

Africans’ lack of knowledge about our own shared refugee experiences continues to fuel hate and discrimination on the continent.

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The Danger of the Single Story and Africa’s Refugee Equilibrium
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For far too long, the global refugee situation has been misconstrued as static, with certain parts of the globe generating disproportionate numbers of refugees and others perpetually faced with the burden of hosting displaced peoples. In particular, Africa is seen as a producer rather than a receiver of refugees. To be clear, Africa is not a continent that feeds the world with refugees any less than it hosts them. Although Africa is seen as exceptional in terms of global refugee networks, the factors accounting for refugee crises can bedevil any region at any point in time. These factors include war, natural disasters, political upheavals, military coups, civil strife, religious or cultural persecutions, personal circumstances, economic hardship, terrorist activities, and many more.

African countries, as much as any other, have taken turns in both generating and hosting refugees, and if history is any measuring rod, will continue to do so. It is the African refugee equilibrium, a phenomenon whereby a country that at one moment in its history is feeding its neighbors with refugees can become, at another moment, the receiver of refugees from those same neighbors. Africa isn’t just feeding the world with migrants and refugees but is top on the list of hosts. As per the UNHCR statistics of 2018, 30% of the world’s 25.9 million registered refugees were being hosted in Africa. Yet, the numbers of Africans who make their way to the West as refugees and migrants occupy the headlines of international news, painting the continent and the people as a miserable “sea of humanity,” perpetually flooding the rest of the world, especially North America and Europe.

Examples of how Africa has been mutually hosting its own refugees and taking turns are unlimited. The regions of Central and West Africa have particularly exemplified the concept of the African refugee equilibrium, with many nations taking turns in generating and hosting refugees. Even in the days when it suffered refugee and migrant crises, few Equatorial Guineans left the continent; the vast majority fled to nearby Cameroon, Gabon, and Nigeria. During the First World War, the German colony of Kamerun fed the Spanish colony of Guinea with tens of thousands of refugees. But in the 1970s, Cameroon, in turn, hosted about 30,000 refugees from Equatorial Guinea. During the Nigerian Civil War, Nigeria fed several of its West and Central African neighbors with tens of thousands of refugees, including children, who ended up in countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast. The post-civil war era has seen Nigeria host hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from its neighbors, even while Nigeria itself simultaneously feeds some of those neighbors with a new category of refugees.

West and Central Africa are not unique in this exchange. Since the 1960s, nations in East and Southern Africa have taken turns between hosting and generating refugees. In East Africa, the Kakuma refugee camp in the northwest of Kenya currently hosts about 200,000 refugees from more than 20  neighboring countries, including refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi, to name but a few. Uganda, which has sent refugees to its neighbors, including Kenya, hosts its own refugees and refugees from others. Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee camp currently ranks the second largest in the world.

Perhaps more interestingly is the fact that besides mutually hosting its own refugees, Africa has hosted refugees from other continents, including from Europe. While examples abound, a few here will suffice. During the late 19th century and the 20th century in the midst of anti-Semitism, a significant number of European Jews entered North and Eastern Africa as refugees, with some settling in as far as South Africa. On the eve of the First World War, there were already more than 40,000 Jewish migrants and refugees settled in South Africa. In the 1930s, South Africa again received more than 6,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, in excess of 20,000 Polish refugees, who had been evicted from Russia and Eastern Europe following German invasion, were received and hosted in East and Southern Africa, including in modern day Tanzania, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, the crisis of war and decolonization in the Congo caused the flight of several thousand whites from the Congo. They were hosted as refugees in a number of African countries, including South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, the Central African Republic, Tanganyika, Rwanda, and Burundi.

The examples provided here only scratch the surface of the African refugee equilibrium, but they each demonstrate that we must pay attention to historical antecedents in refugee studies. In other words, we need to historicize African refugee studies. Only by so doing can we fully appreciate the important and diverse role that Africa plays. This approach clearly shows that if our neighbors are currently facing a refugee crisis and turn to us for assistance, we must view them with respect and compassion; it could soon be our turn and we could need them.

There are constant examples across Africa where our lack of knowledge of our own shared refugee experiences or sometimes outright denial of history continues to inform the way we treat fellow Africans with disdain and hostility. Xenophobia (better known as Afrophobia) in South Africa is just one example. The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) has carefully documented xenophobic attacks against other African refugees and migrants in South Africa since 1994, establishing several cases where in many South African towns and cities, South Africans attacked, injured or even killed African refugees and migrants. If only an average South African knew that not too long ago many African countries were safe havens to many of their countrymen and women during the anti-Apartheid struggle, they would think twice before unleashing xenophobic attacks against other Africans. Even across West and Central Africa, there have been several instances of both civilian African populations and their governments treating other African refugees in their countries with unbelievable hostility. When oil was suddenly discovered in Equatorial Guinea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Equatoguineans and the government alike, quickly forgot their shared refugee and migrant history with Cameroon, and began a series of hostilities against Cameroonian refugees and migrants who came to Equatorial Guinea for “greener pastures.” An informed knowledge about our collective refugee and migrant experiences would go miles in ensuring that Africans and African governments treat other African refugees and migrants in their countries in a friendlier and more accommodative fashion.

There is, however, hope on the horizon. Africanists are increasingly turning their attention to refugee studies and the African refugee equilibrium. Two special issues are forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of African Studies and in Africa Today, both of which showcase Africa’s shared and diverse refugee and migrant experiences. These issues are part of the efforts to redress the image of Africa and the misconceptions surrounding the continent regarding migrants and refugee movements.

What all of these means is that it is only a matter of time before the static image of African refugee dynamics and the African refugee equilibrium will displace these ahistorical ideas.

This post is from a new 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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