Countries in the Global South, which are the least responsible for carbon emissions and the climate crisis, are feeling its impacts first and most severely. Climate change is leading to more frequent and intense extreme weather events around the world. Caribbean islands and other Small Island Developing States in particular are responsible for just 0.2% of emissions, yet are being repeatedly devastated by the intensified hurricanes of a hotter world.
This crisis poses an existential threat to human society, and indeed to all life on earth. The IPCC has reported that temperatures are rising faster than at any time for at least 2,000 years, with CO2 levels in the atmosphere the highest for 2 million years. Unless deep and rapid cuts in emissions occur, the Paris Agreement goals will be out of reach, and the planet devastated.
Yet, the climate debt is not being paid. Rich countries are failing to meet their already inadequate commitments to provide climate finance to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, whilst spending every UN climate conference avoiding the topic of payment for the damage caused by the climate emergency.
There is another illegitimate form of climate debt that is being paid every day by poor countries to the rich countries. It takes the form of interest payments on their massive debts: debt built up in rebuilding from hurricanes, paying off loans to development banks for climate investment, and adapting to their farmland becoming desert.
Dominica and the spiral of climate debt
Dominica, a small island of 70,000 people in the eastern Caribbean, is on the front line of the climate emergency. In 2016, tropical storm Erika devastated the island, causing damage equivalent to 90% of its GDP. Only a year later, the event was dwarfed by Category 5 hurricane Maria, which destroyed over 90% of the island’s structures, causing an estimated US$1.3 billion of damage, more than double the value of everything the country produces in a year, a barely credible 226% of GDP.
Days after hurricane Maria, Dominica had to find several million dollars for a debt repayment that fell due. Its debt had already risen to the very high level of 72% of GDP after Erika, and rose further to 78% of GDP in the aftermath of Maria.
Dominica’s geography and exposure to intensifying tropical storms puts it at the forefront of the climate crisis. In fact, around 80% of the most damaging disasters since 2000 have been tropical storms, and over 90% of them have been in Small Island Developing States, with over 60% in the Caribbean. Extreme climate events tend to be particularly disastrous for small island states as their small landmass means that the entire country is often affected.
Dominica’s colonial history as a slave island is also a factor: the exclusive focus on banana production served the interests of the British Empire. Since its independence in 1967, Dominica has needed to diversify its economy to avoid reliance on a single crop, with the attendant exposure to price fluctuations and climate-related crop failure.
The pandemic, which has almost eliminated tourism and affected remittances, has further exacerbated Dominica’s problems.
However, Dominica is not doomed by history and geography. It has passed impressive climate resilience legislation that aims to make the island hurricane-proof, through building codes, diversified agriculture, geothermal energy and sustainable high-end tourism. It has successfully reconstructed after Erika and Maria.
But this requires funding. In the aftermath of Maria, Prime Minister Skerrit gave an emotional address to the UN, asking for reconstruction grants in order to not “let 72,000 Dominicans shoulder the world’s conscience on climate change on their own.” His appeal was not answered. Dominica is now assessed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as being at high risk of debt distress.
The relationship between the climate and debt crises
Climate-vulnerable countries like Dominica are trapped in a vicious circle of climate-related disasters and debt. Every time they are hit by a hurricane, they go further into debt to cover the costs of reconstruction. As an increasing proportion of their national income goes to debt payments, they are less able to invest in preparing for future disasters, or in rebuilding when they arrive.
Their creditors, who profit from the interest on their mounting debt, are governments and companies in the Global North that caused the climate crisis and its destructive effects in the first place.
Wealthy, high-polluting countries have recognised in principle their greater responsibility for responding to the climate crisis. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed by all UN member states, asserts that those states which have historically contributed the most to climate change are most responsible for dealing with its impacts. Wealthy polluting countries committed in 2009 to providing $100 billion per year in climate finance. Even if one ignores the widespread over-reporting by countries, this target is not being met.
Worse, around two thirds of climate finance is offered in the form of loans, often at market rates of relatively high rates of interest. 90% of the climate finance received by Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018 was in the form of loans. Instead of addressing the historic climate debt owed by Global North countries, most climate finance is adding to the unsustainable debt of Global South countries, whilst generating profits for lenders in the North.
Many climate-vulnerable countries also cannot access zero-interest loans from international financial institutions like the IMF. The most indebted countries are largely classified as middle income, meaning that they must pay interest. IMF loans are conditional on recipient countries implementing austerity policies, which has recently provoked large-scale protests in Sudan, Tunisia, Kenya and elsewhere.
The lack of support from the international community leaves climate-vulnerable countries with no option but to look to the international capital markets to raise funds. The proportion of Global South debt owed to private creditors has increased dramatically over the last ten years to around 30% of its total debt. In an era of zero interest rates for rich countries, Global South countries continue to pay around 10% annual interest on bonds and loans.
These high interest rates reflect that the loans are inherently risky. Lending for development is premised on the assumption that the investment will bring returns for the borrowing government, enabling them to repay the loans later. But investment for climate adaptation is fundamentally about reducing future damage, rather than generating income. Hurricane-resistant buildings will not normally bring profits.
In a final irony, lenders are beginning to factor climate vulnerability into interest rates, on the principle that Caribbean islands, for example, are at higher risk of default because they will continue to be hit by intensifying hurricanes. In other words, Global North lenders punish climate-vulnerable countries for being the casualties of the climate crisis. The result is that higher repayments mean debt becomes unsustainable at an increasing rate, increasing the risk of default and further driving up interest rates.
This vortex of spiralling debt is driving some Global South countries into measures that exacerbate the climate crisis. Exploitation of natural resources can be one of the only ways of earning foreign currency revenue through exports. Yet forest exploitation can lead to deforestation, soil erosion and ecosystem degradation, exacerbating the effects of future climate-related droughts and storms, while fossil fuel exploitation intensifies the underlying climate emergency. Creditors are even insisting that countries undertake activities that harm the environment, in order to keep paying off their debts. Suriname’s private creditors have insisted that it factor in future profits from potential drilling for oil into any restructuring of its debt, while Pakistan’s efforts to reduce its reliance on coal-fired power stations have been obstructed by the outstanding debts owed to China for their construction.
The international response
When the pandemic hit in 2020, world leaders were not slow to see the risk of the debt crisis tipping over into a wave of sovereign defaults. In April 2021, the G20 announced the suspension of debt payments for up to 73 of the poorest countries, and has subsequently extended the Debt Service Suspension Initiative until December 2021. This was followed by the Common Framework in November 2020, which aimed to provide a format for all creditors, including private lenders, to come together to agree to restructuring debts for countries with unsustainable debt.
The G20 rose to the occasion in terms of speed and rhetoric, but has fallen far short on substance. Debt suspension served only to push a small proportion of Global South debts into the future. The majority of the most indebted and most climate-vulnerable countries, which are classified as middle income, were ineligible and thus excluded.
The Common Framework, meanwhile, is yet to achieve anything. Only three of the 73 eligible countries have applied, and none of the three have seen any debts restructured. Private creditors have taken no substantial steps to cooperate, flatly refusing Zambia’s request for debt restructuring, and continuing to hold out on Chad, while China is proving reluctant to join the negotiations with Ethiopia. Unless all creditors participate, the process will fail, since the Framework is set up to prevent hold-outs from continuing to be paid, and profiting from other creditors’ concessions.
Global South countries realise that, without a process to compel private creditors to participate, and with no concrete prospects for debt cancellation, applying to such a program is not worth the potential damage to their credit ratings. Countries, especially those that have no better options than borrowing on the private finance market, worry that if they try to restructure debts to private creditors, they will pay even higher interest on future loans.
It is symptomatic of the power imbalances in global decision-making that the response to the debt crisis has come from the G20 — a self-selected group of mainly rich creditor countries, of which many are former colonial powers bearing heavy responsibility for the climate crisis — rather than the UN, where the Global South has a presence. Indeed, in 2015 the UN voted to move towards creating a sovereign debt restructuring mechanism, with 136 countries in favour, 41 abstaining and just 6 against. However, the 6 included the US and UK, jurisdictions under which most international debt contracts are governed, essentially blocking progress. Small island developing states have been vocal in demanding a more just approach to climate finance and debt, but they are simply not at the table when decisions are taken on the debt crisis. It is no surprise then that those decisions reflect the interests of creditors rather than climate justice.
The climate crisis is also a debt crisis, and the two cannot be addressed in isolation from each other. Any potential solution has to recognise the mutually reinforcing effects of the interlocking crises, and address both elements with seriousness. The urgency of the climate crisis requires debt cancellation, not mere suspension of payments. In order to prevent future debt crises, grant-based climate finance must be available to enable countries to adapt to and mitigate the climate crisis without saddling them with more debt. Rich countries must accept their responsibility to pay for the loss and damage already caused.
As the urgency of the crisis becomes clear, false and partial solutions have begun to proliferate, which misleadingly present the crisis as solvable without deviation from business as usual. ‘Green’ and ‘nature performance’ bonds — types of loans from private companies to Global South governments which connect repayments to progress on often hazy environmental protection indicators — increase the debt burden, and risk being simply a new way for investors to profit off Global South debt while gesturing towards the climate emergency. Debt swaps, where some debt is written off in return for debtor countries investing in conservation goals or climate adaptation and mitigation, can be of some benefit if they involve significant debt cancellation. However, in practice, the amounts of debt written off have been inadequate to the scale of the crisis because debt swaps are complex and costly to implement, and give power to creditors to determine environmental priorities.
The pandemic has revealed the vastly different circumstances of rich countries, able to print money at almost no cost to protect lives and jobs and stimulate the recovery, and poorer countries that must borrow at high interest, adding to already unsustainable debt piles. The climate crisis requires much greater and longer-term investment, which will be out of reach for Global South countries that must devote a significant proportion of their income to repaying debt. Without debt cancellation, vulnerable countries will never be able to free up sufficient resources to respond to the challenges of the climate emergency.
Large-scale debt cancellation could take place through a strengthened Common Framework or an alternative mechanism, but it must be open to all countries that need it, and require all creditors, including private ones, to participate.
As climate-related extreme events become more frequent, the world needs a mechanism that allows countries to suspend debt repayments in the immediate aftermath of a calamity, when resources are critically needed for the emergency response. An automatic interest-free moratorium on debt repayments should be followed by assessment of the impact of the disaster, and debt restructuring if needed. This would build on important innovations already taking place at the level of debt contracts, where ‘state-contingent clauses’ in some contracts allow for debt repayments to be paused and adjusted following a disaster.
Ultimately, a multilateral debt workout mechanism is needed that would provide a structure to enable effectively-bankrupt states to bring their debts down to sustainable levels. It needs to be enforceable by law, in the same way as individual bankruptcy proceedings, to prevent vulture funds from suing.
These reforms to the debt system are necessary but not sufficient. A just climate transition requires costs to be met in a sustainable way through climate finance grants, rather than by affected countries taking on debt. A new fund should be created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, funded by rich and polluting countries, to provide support to countries experiencing climate-related disasters.
Climate justice is essential to the future of the planet, and it is impossible without debt justice. The Global South is not responsible for creating the climate crisis, and the legacy of colonialism and unsustainable debt have left it least able to afford the investment needed to mitigate and adapt to the coming emergency. Global South leaders from around the world are demanding debt cancellation for climate justice. COP26 in November will be a crucial moment of solidarity between protesters in the street, Global South negotiators in the conference hall, and communities around the world who are rising up to demand collective liberation from debt, exploitation and climate catastrophe.
This article was first published by Progressive International.
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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree
By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation.
The joint United Nations (UN) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation is like a ham omelette: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. In this investigation, the UN only reluctantly became involved in demonstrating its efforts in investigating atrocity crimes, while the EHRC was committed to defending the government of Ethiopia – the architect of the war on Tigray.
Various reports on the investigation into atrocity crimes committed in Tigray are expected to be released in the coming weeks.
The report of the joint UN and EHRC investigation was released on 3 November 2021. The much-anticipated report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the determination by the United States government on whether genocide against Tigrayans has been committed, are also expected to be released in the near future. These reports will be markedly different from the discredited report of the joint investigation.
The joint investigation’s report failed to establish facts because the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) had no access to the location it purported to cover and where most of the crimes are presumed to have been committed. Due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the joint investigation was unable to access atrocity zones. It also underreported on, and failed to include, infamous atrocity zones in Tigray, including Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adrigrat, Hawzen, Gijet, and Maryam Dengelat as well as the Tigrayan bodies that washed up in Sudan on the Nile River. As in most cases, the worst atrocity zones in Tigray were located in active battlefields. Yet, the investigators were able to visit and interview witnesses in parts of Tigray that had been ethnically cleansed.
Moreover, the report downplayed the concerns of victims. The UN Basic Principles on Right to Remedy and Reparations, under Principle 8, define victims as:
[P]ersons who individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that constitute gross violations of international human rights law, or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Where appropriate, and in accordance with domestic law, the term “victim” also includes the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimisation.
The final report did not include the findings of extensive interviews that the UN conducted with Tigrayan refugees from the second week of November 2020 through to the end of December 2020. These interviews were held in refugee camps in Sudan, with victims and witnesses of human rights violations of various kinds and to different degrees. According to some informants, the report was submitted to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in January 2021. However, for unclear reasons, the findings of this investigation have not yet been made public, and there is no mention of it in the joint report. Informants say that few staff members of the Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights in Addis Ababa raised questions regarding the integrity of the investigation carried out by their colleagues in Sudan.
The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded. Instead, the UN issued the report authored jointly with the EHRC while concealing the report its office in Sudan had produced earlier. This amounts to subversion of investigations and victims’ right to truth and remedy – a violation of international law. Reports indicate that the government of Ethiopia curtailed the UN’s role in the investigation including by expelling one of the UN investigators.
Witnesses were reluctant to participate in an inquiry involving the EHRC. As one of the challenges, the report mentions the “perceptions of bias against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray where some potential interviewees declined to be interviewed by the JIT because of the presence of EHRC personnel”. This is a deliberate understatement.
Tigrayan victims and Tigray authorities rejected the joint investigation from the outset and declared their non-cooperation. In a recent report the Guardian asserts, “Especially damaging has been the growing perception among Tigrayans, about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that the commission is partial towards the federal government and hostile to the TPLF.”
The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded.
Victims are right to fear reprisals by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces, and this fear silenced many and reinforced victims’ non-cooperation since the EHRC was involved. Conversely, perpetrators believe they can get away with their crimes when the EHRC is leading the investigation.
A principal at the core of the concept of justice is redressing the wrongs done to victims. The interests of victims should thus remain central to any investigation. In Tigray, women are the principal victims of the war, and a deliberate campaign of rape and sexual violence has been as typical as murder.
By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation. Justice entails that victims have the right to the truth and that those responsible for victimising people are held to account for their actions in a transparent fact-finding process and held liable for remedying the harm caused. The truth of what occurred should be established through the verification of facts and full public disclosure.
The joint investigation started on the wrong footing. The basis on which the decision to constitute a joint investigation was made, the terms of reference, the selection of the investigators, and the agreement between the UN and the EHRC have never been made public, despite many requests. They remain shrouded in secrecy.
Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia. Others argue that such a joint venture would help build local and national capacity for investigation. It is heartless to think of building local capacity at the expense of victims of mass atrocity crimes (rape, killings, displacement and destruction of livelihoods). In effect, in this investigation, though committed to addressing atrocity crimes, the UN has been allowed to play second fiddle to personalities of a national system. The UN offered a façade of independence and impartiality to the investigation. The decision to conduct this joint investigation politicized a process that could and should have been de-politicized.
Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia.
Given that a general situation of war, chaos and a breakdown in law and order has been deliberately created in Tigray to systematically and systemically commit atrocities, destroy infrastructure and loot property, fears of reprisal are real. Consequently, the victims had little confidence in the joint investigation’s impartiality, capability and mandate to establish the truth, let alone identify perpetrators – particularly those holding the highest offices of command, control and communication.
For these reasons, many Tigrayans denounced the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for involving the EHRC. The investigation was, from the start, designed to fail the Tigrayan victims. Tigrayans consistently called for the UN to establish an international commission of inquiry equipped to investigate crimes of such magnitude and gravity.
What is more, the report subverted the core aim of a standard investigation. Investigations and findings should be based on verifiable evidence collected from the ground without any involvement from the parties to the conflict and institutions accused of bias. The UN also failed to follow its guidelines and precedence of establishing independent and international commissions of inquiry or international fact-finding missions, as it did in Burundi, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Sudan (Darfur), Côte d’Ivoire, and Lebanon. These exemplary investigations were comprehensive and served as historical records of grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, offered the victims truth, and ensured the legal and political accountability of those responsible. In addition to holding criminals accountable, such investigations are supposed to help in restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and above all, guarantees of non-repetition of violations.
One asks why the UN thinks the atrocities committed in Tigray are less deserving.
All investigations need to include all alleged violations by any party. The prosecution also needs to include all responsible parties to ensure that no justice is victor’s justice. This is not only the right thing to do but also the most effective method of legitimizing the process, ensuring accountability, providing remedies, and fighting impunity. However, such a process should not apply bothsidesism as a method of investigation and attribution of culpability.
Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators. There are more paragraphs about calls for the cessation of hostilities, reconciliation, and capacity building than accountability, attribution of culpability, and ending impunity. The report is crafted in a manner that covers up the ringleaders of the crimes, softens accountability, advances recommendations that permit impunity in the name of reconciliation, and establishes false equivalence among warring parties. One paragraph in the report, for example, states, “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms. In this regard, the JIT was told that national institutions such as the Office of the Federal Attorney General and military justice organs have initiated processes to hold perpetrators accountable, with some perpetrators already having been convicted and sentenced.” The report advances proposals on non-legal issues including political causes of the war, humanitarian consequences and capacity building of EHRC.
Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators.
It is bizarre that the UN believes that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Attorney General of the Government of Ethiopia can ensure accountability. The Ethiopian National Defence Force is a principal party in the war, and the Attorney General remains the chief architect of massive profiling of Tigrayans living outside Tigray, rounding up Tigrayans and leading the campaign for their internment. Like the EHRC, the Attorney General has no prosecutorial independence to hold officials of the Ethiopian government accountable.
Furthermore, many Ethiopians see only the victimization of their own group and not what their side has done to others. Dialogue, reconciliation and peace cannot be achieved while every fact is disputed. This report adds to the fierce dispute around the facts. For this very reason, many will continue to reject the report – as they did the investigation.
Overwhelming segments of the Tigrayan society reject the joint report. In particular, Tigrayans demand that the UN conduct its investigations, revealing Tigrayans’ high expectations of the UN’s ability to establish the truth based on which justice can be served.
Given the recent leaked audio recording that reveals the conspiracy against Tigrayans by some of the leaders in the UN Ethiopia office, one is forced to ask why Tigrayans have such high hopes in the UN. Many are left with no option but to reject outright the poison fruit of the so-called joint investigation, much as the victims, their families, the survivors and the Tigrayan community at large have done. By disregarding repeated calls for an international commission of inquiry, the UN has missed an opportunity for an empathetic and purposeful connection with the actual victims of the war.
Many atrocity situations such as in Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, and Burundi have been visited by the highest level officials of the international community. The highest-level officials of the UN, AU, IGAD and the US and EU leadership should travel to Tigray and other war-torn areas of Ethiopia. Even if permission from the government of Ethiopia for such high-level visits would have been difficult to secure, such attempts by high-level officials to visit the region would have demonstrated at least personal compassion and solidarity with victims. Such visits would have been viewed as both a symbolic and tangible commitment of leaders to end the war and the siege, and address impunity.
In the interests of the victims – and to place them at the centre of UN’s human rights work – the UN should authorize a UN-mandated commission of inquiry to investigate the atrocity crimes committed in Tigray and in other parts of the country.
No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land
Kenyans choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army (also known as Mau Mau) did not fight for a monument. They fought for land.
Mau Mau heroes now have a monument, but no land. Earlier this month, they were invited to the unveiling of this monument in Nairobi; a “memorial to the victims of torture and ill treatment during the colonial period 1952-1960.” They turned up in large numbers, the majority wearing bright red t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Shujaa wa Mau Mau” – Mau Mau hero.
In their hundreds, they were a sea of red and black amidst the green of Uhuru Park, watching avidly for when their monument would be unveiled in the section of this commons called “Freedom Corner.”
And while the British and Kenyan government and collaborating NGO representatives, all younger than the actual heroes, were sitting within an expansive white tent, these aging freedom fighters were sat under the hot sun, waiting for the official ceremony to begin. Some were said to have arrived as early as 6 am.
Finally, we could say, at least some recognition for our people who were classified as terrorists until 2003. Finally something to honour the bravery of all freedom fighters and the significance of that period in our history.
But, as social movement activist Gacheke Gachihi asked, what can we gain from a narrative that continues to posit them as “victim” instead of victor over the British? And even while recognizing the inhuman excesses meted out against them, what are the motivations for a rewriting of history that perpetuates a narrative of their victimhood and, as is appearing to be more and more the case, erases the full extent of their struggle?
Spoken interminably at the monument unveiling was the word “reconciliation,” followed closely by “ending” and “closure.” It seems that this monument is also meant to make us reconcile our past with all features of British imperialism; the £90,000 monument (an incessantly repeated figure) is where all further questions about the ravages of empire stop.
Inevitably, it seems also to be the national burial site for the land question.
Not one mention of it anywhere at this launch.
It was the elephant in the room, the solid yet invisible presence that no one spoke about. It was clumsily replaced by other buzzwords: reconciliation, closure, victimhood.
And while they turned up in their numbers, the show could definitely have gone on without the Kenya Land and Freedom army for in many ways these heroes were the appropriate props for the speeches and photo opportunities of innumerable people who were not Mau Mau, yet who will revel in the after glories of the praise that will come from being “important” at this event.
It is reported that these important characters then later went off to drink at the Norfolk, the oldest and, undoubtedly, most colonial of Nairobi’s hotels (even President Roosevelt stayed here in 1909 when he came to shoot half our wildlife to “collect specimens for the Smithsonian institute”) and whose terrace is “rumoured” to be the site where Africans were often shot for sport.
Meanwhile the actual shujaas then walked home, 80-year-old grandmothers bent over with no shoes walking through busy Nairobi to go back to their rural homes.
And in the the Nairobi headquarters of the Mau Mau, Mathare constituency, life continued as normal for Monica Wambui, a 101-year-old Mau Mau woman who has been living in her mabati tin house for the last 50 + years, and with no water, permanent shelter and still having to find her own firewood to cook.
And for this shujaa wa Mau Mau from Mathare, tells it all.
In this same place the descendants of these two heroes are caught in the spate of police killings that Mathare Social Justice Centre is working to document. And there will never be monuments for these young people who, in many ways, are also fighting for land.
A week later we are still being told about the £90,000 monument to “victims,” and being assailed constantly by the supposed generosity of the British government who solicited this monument at their “own” expense (one twitter commentator remarked that this money is likely to have been easily raised from all the exorbitant visa fees Kenyans are charged to visit the UK) .
And in all the hyper-buzz about this memorial we choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army did not fight for a monument.
They fought for land.
I Am Samuel
The government should support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard, and everyone’s point of view to be listened to.
“I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
We first got introduced to independent documentary filmmaking in 2013, at a gathering of Kenyan filmmakers in a small office of the nascent DocuBox film fund. Pete Murimi, director of I am Samuel, and I, producer, had no idea that it was possible to tell stories independent of a broadcaster or funder. As a service producer, I was used to receiving agency or broadcaster briefs and working according to spec. Pete, as a filmmaker at the UN, was familiar with that style of telling stories.
This intimate gathering of filmmakers (which included directors of The Letter, Kenya’s submission to the Oscars in 2020, and the director of New Moon, winner of Oscar-qualifying 2018 DIFF Best Documentary award) did not know that it was about to embark on an arduous multiple-year journey to tell their stories, and self-release at global festivals. But we all somehow made it through the strength of community and the determination to have complete agency over the stories we felt were important to tell. Pete and I were committed to telling stories of outsiders, people who did not accept the way things were, just because.
Voltaire’s quote above is our fallback when asked about freedom of expression, the freedom we committed to when we decided we wanted to tell these stories. We are a diverse country, with complicated, layered realities. Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.
Shot over five years, I Am Samuel tells the story of a queer man navigating the tension between his life in Nairobi and his rural childhood home. He and his partner Alex want to build a life together, but his father and mother want him to get married, have kids, and live the exact kind of life they have.
Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.
This was not an easy documentary to make. Samuel had to give up a lot of his privacy, and trust Pete and I, who were first-time independent filmmakers, balancing making this film with our day jobs. But Samuel allowed us into his life, without restriction. And that was a privilege that we could not afford to take lightly. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In fiction films, the director is God; in documentary, God is the director.” We believe this to be true; life as it happens, with all its messiness and unpredictability, is what makes character-driven verité styles so difficult to do, but ultimately so rewarding.
I am Samuel was released at Hot Docs 2020, an international film festival that showcases stories from across the globe. It then toured the Human Rights Watch Film Festivals the world over and showed in South America, the Netherlands, and the UK. But our eventual goal was always to bring it back home. Because we felt this was a Kenyan story, we knew it would connect with audiences back home; mostly because Samuel’s lived reality as a queer, religious, traditional man is not unique. We applied for classification in Kenya to be able to screen it locally, and waited weeks for a response. We were asked to attend a meeting at the KFCB offices on Thursday 23rd September, but we were unable to make it in person. We then heard about the press conference, the ban, and the press release later that Thursday.
We are yet to receive a letter in writing or a certificate that shows our Kenyan rating.
We were deeply disturbed by the discriminatory language used in explaining the ban: they described it as “blasphemous” and “unacceptable, and an affront to our culture and identity.” The restricted classification of the film contained a number of inaccuracies. It referenced a “marriage” that never happened and said we were “promoting a homosexual lifestyle”. The board noted a “clear and deliberate attempt by the producer to promote same-sex marriage as an acceptable way of life. This attempt is evident through the repeated confessions of the gay couple that what they feel for each other is normal and should be embraced as a way of life, as well as the characters’ body language, including scenes of kissing of two male lovers.”
We were simply filming people’s lived experiences.
By banning the film, KFCB is silencing a real Kenyan community and trampling on our rights as filmmakers to tell Samuel’s story. Every story is important. And we are all equal in the eyes of the law and before God, in line with the religion the film board is invoking in this ruling. The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.
The Kenya Film Classification Board is trying to censor a part of Kenya that has always existed, is a lived reality for millions and will always be a part of us. Several high-profile Kenyans are queer, including government politicians and public figures, but the intolerant atmosphere created by discriminatory statements like those of the KFCB make it impossible for them to live openly – and allow other Kenyans to continue to discriminate, wrongfully so, against LGBTQ+ Kenyans. As I Am Samuel shows, prejudice forces LGBTQ+ Kenyans to live in the shadows, fearful of being beaten up, fired from their jobs, or evicted from their homes. Stigma puts pressure on their families, who fear that if their neighbours find out they have a gay child, they will be ostracised.
The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.
In their press statement, the KFCB appealed for content that “promotes Kenya’s moral values and national aspirations”. What are these values? The KFCB is assuming that the values of all Kenyans are the same – conservative and Christian. But Kenya is a diverse country and it is the responsibility of our government to represent and serve everybody. Our differences should be acknowledged as a strength, and shown through our filmmaking. Kenya is Africa’s third biggest film producer, after Nigeria and Ghana, making 500 films a year. African filmmakers are attracting international acclaim. Softie won an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last year. The United Nations recently said that the African film and audio-visual industry generates US$5 billion a year and has the potential to create 20 million jobs. I Am Samuel is the third LGBTQ+ film to be banned by the KFCB, following Stories of Our Lives (2014) and Rafiki (2018). Among other movies that have been banned by KFCB are The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).
Our film is a true record of Samuel’s lived experience Samuel. Gay African men, gay African people, should be recognised and have their rights respected. This includes the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination. Samuel himself is a strong Christian, and Kenya has several LGBTQ+-friendly churches that provide a place for queer Kenyans to worship together. Banning of films is a blow to Kenyan filmmakers as our audience is inherently local, and we need to have a wide distribution to reach audiences, to go regional, to go global, for so many reasons: telling our own narratives, correcting the misguided ones, creating jobs, and widening our own imaginations, exponentially, of what is possible for us as Kenyans. The Lupita Nyong’os and Edi Gathegis of this world should not only exist in a rare and unexplored vacuum.
It is time for the government to accept and support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard – because the banning also leaves us with questions about whether everyone’s point of view truly is listened to. The documentary has been released across Africa on the AfriDocs website, and we hope that African audiences will still get a chance to watch a film that is not accepted in its home country. . . yet.
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