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The Kenyan Supreme Court’s BBI Judgment – Part I: On Constitutional Amendments and the Basic Structure

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This is the first of three articles in which Gautam Bhatia analyses the judgments of the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court following the constitutional challenge to the BBI Bill.

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The Kenyan Supreme Court’s BBI Judgment – Part I: On Constitutional Amendments and the Basic Structure
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On 5th April 2022, a seven-judge bench of the Kenyan Supreme Court delivered judgment in The Hon. Attorney General and Ors v David Ndii and Ors [“the BBI Appeal”]. The judgment marked the judicial culmination of the constitutional challenge to the BBI Bill, which had proposed seventy-four amendments to the 2010 Constitution of Kenya. Recall that the case came up in appeal from the judgments of – first – the High Court of Kenya, and then the Kenyan Court of Appeal, both of which had found the Bill unconstitutional for a variety of reasons. The Supreme Court, thus, was the third Court to hear and decide the issue; and over a period of one year, as many as nineteen judges heard and decided this case. The Supreme Court framed seven issues for judgment, which can be found in Martha Koome CJ’s lead judgment and the seven judges wrote individual opinions.

In the course of three articles, I propose to analyse the judgments in the following manner. In this first article, I will consider the issue of the basic structure. In the second article, I will consider the issue of the popular initiative to amend the Kenyan Constitution under Article 257, and some of the remaining points in the judgment(s). In the final article, I will examine some of the potential implications of the judgment(s) going forward (for example, on the issue of whether referendum questions for constitutional amendment must be distinct and separate). It is safe to say that, as with the judgments of the two other superior courts, the range and novelty of the issues before the Court mean that its verdict will be studied across the world for a long time to come.

On the Basic Structure: An Introduction

Recall that the High Court and the Court of Appeal had both held that the basic structure doctrine was applicable in Kenya. In addition, both Courts had also held that in concrete terms, this meant that any alteration to the basic structure of the Kenyan Constitution could take place only through an exercise of the People’s primary constituent power, which existed outside of the Constitution. The primary constituent power was essentially the power to make or remake a Constitution, and could therefore only be done under the framework within which the 2010 Constitution had originally been drafted. This – according to both Courts – required a four-step sequential process: civic education, public participation, a Constituent Assembly, and a referendum. The correctness of these findings was at issue before the Supreme Court.

The formal disposition of the Court indicates that on this point, the judgments of the High Court and Court of Appeal were set aside by a 6-1 majority (Ibrahim J the sole dissent); that is, the Supreme Court rejected the applicability of the basic structure doctrine and of the four-step sequential process in Kenya, by a 6-1 majority. I believe, however, that a close reading of the seven opinions reveals a somewhat more complex picture, which I will now attempt to demonstrate.

Hyper-Amendments and Tiered Constitutional Amendment Processes

In addressing the question of the basic structure, several judgments of the Supreme Court begin at a common starting point: what was the specific historical mischief that the Kenyan Constitution’s amendment procedures (set out under Chapter XVI) were attempting to address? The answer: a culture of “hyper-amendments” to Kenya’s Independence Constitution. In the years after Independence, the old Constitution was often seen as an impediment by the Presidency, and as a result, a series of far-reaching amendments were passed that more or less entirely devalued its status as a founding charter (and invariably concentrated power in the office of the Presidency, at the cost of other State organs and the People (Ouko J, paragraph 1918, quoting Ghai/McAuslan). Upon Kenya’s return to multi-party democracy in the 1990s, and the eventual constitutional reform process, this culture of hyper-amendments was prominently in the minds of the People and of the drafters (see Koome CJ, paragraph 189 – 191; Mwilu DCJ, paragraph 521; Lenaola J, paragraphs 1415 – 1417; Oukuo J, paragraph 1802).

In the years after Independence, the old Constitution was often seen as an impediment by the Presidency.

Up to this point, the opinions of the Supreme Court are in agreement with those of the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Drawing upon the historical record, the Supreme Court opinions then go on to argue that the Kenyan People therefore devised a solution to the problem of hyper-amendments, and constitutionalised it; in other words, the hyper-amendments were to be addressed by a solution internal to the 2010 Kenyan Constitution. This solution is to be found in Chapter XVI of the Constitution, and – in particular – in the tiered amendment process that it sets up. Article 255(1) of the Constitution “entrenches” certain provisions of the document. For these “entrenched” provisions, the amendment procedure is far more onerous than for un-entrenched provisions, requiring a referendum with certain conditions (Article 255(2)), in addition to (or complementing) the Parliamentary amendment route (under Article 256) or the popular initiative route (in Article 257). This tiered amendment process, according to the judges, thus creates a balance between constitutional flexibility and constitutional rigidity, and also “tames” the mischief of hyper-amendments (see Koome CJ, paragraphs 192 – 197; Ndungu J, paragraphs 1161 – 1162; Lenaola J, paragraph 1418; Ouko J, paragraph 1803).

Two conclusions follow from this, according to the Supreme Court. The first is that this history – and structure – of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution therefore distinguishes it from jurisdictions such as India (where the basic structure doctrine first gained judicial acceptance). In India, where Parliament possesses the plenary power to amend the Constitution, the basic structure doctrine arises as a judicial response in order to protect the Constitution from parliamentary abuse. However, what in India requires the basic structure doctrine, is already provided for in Kenya through the tiered amendment process; in other words, the tiered amendment process does the job that the basic structure doctrine is supposed to do (Koome CJ, paragraphs 217; Mwilu J, 401-402; Lenaola J, paragraphs 1439 – 1442, 1451 – 1453; Ouko J, paragraphs 1763 – 1781, 1811). And secondly, the tiered amendment process – and its history – demonstrates that the People – in their capacity as framers of the Constitution – intended to make the amendment process gapless.

The three pathways provided for under Articles 255 – 257 are exhaustive, and for this reason, the High Court and the Court of Appeal were incorrect to introduce a “judicially-created fourth pathway” to amendment (Koome CJ, paragraph 200). Koome CJ also frames this another way, noting that the High Court and the Courts of Appeal failed to demonstrate what the lacuna was in Chapter XVI that necessitated the judicial creation of the four-step process (Koome CJ, paragraphs 200; Mwilu J, 406).

This snapshot, I believe, is an accurate summary of the reasoning of a majority of the judges in this case. To my mind, however, it also raises two interlinked issues, which – when scrutinised closely – somewhat complicate the final holding of the Court.

Amendment, Repeal, and the Basic Structure

It is, of course, entirely correct to say that the plenary power of parliament to amend the Constitution (as in India) is significantly distinct from the tiered amendment process under Articles 255 – 257; and, further, that this distinction is relevant when considering the question of the basic structure. However, it is equally important not to overstate the sequitur: it does follow from this – as I have argued previously – that the version of the basic structure doctrine as developed in India (i.e., a judicial veto over amendments) cannot be transplanted into the Kenyan context. However, this was not what the High Court and Court of Appeal did. Precisely because of the tiered structure of amendments under the Kenyan Constitution, the High Court and the Court of Appeal articulated a much more reduced role for judicial review: not a substantive veto over amendments (thus making every provision potentially amendable), but a procedural role to ensure that alterations to the basic structure could be done only through the primary constituent power.

Secondly – and connectedly – this flows from a conceptual point that is left unaddressed by the summary of the Supreme Court’s argument that I have provided above: the distinction between amendment and repeal (express or implied). The tiered amendment process, the onerous requirements under Article 257 to prevent hyper-amendments, and the balance between flexibility and rigidity ensure that as a practical matter, in most circumstances, the basic structure doctrine will not need to be invoked, because the Constitution’s internal mechanisms are far more effective for dealing with potential constitutional destruction (as opposed to, say, the Indian Constitution). The fact that the basic structure doctrine will almost never need to be imposed does not, however, address the point that it exists because of the conceptual distinction between amendment and repeal, and the fact that the Constitution – as conceded by Ouko J – “does not provide for its own replacement” (paragraph 1847).

Precisely because of the tiered structure of amendments under the Kenyan Constitution, the High Court and the Court of Appeal articulated a much more reduced role for judicial review.

Now, how do the judges of the Supreme Court deal with this point? Let us first consider the judgments of Ibrahim J (formally in dissent) and Dr Smokin Wanjala J (formally in the majority). Ibrahim J’s judgment is straightforward: he agrees with the High Court and the Court of Appeal on the distinction between amend and repeal, the primary constituent power, and the four-step sequential process (see, in particular, paragraphs 724 – 725). Let us now come to Smokin Wanjala J, because this is where things start to get interesting. Wanjala J objects to the abstract nature of the enquiry that has been framed before – and addressed by – the superior courts below (paragraph 1000). He notes:

Speaking for myself from where I sit as a Judge, and deprived of the romanticism of academic theorizing, it is my view that what has been articulated as “the basic structure doctrine”, is no doctrine, but a  notion, a reasoning, a school of thought, or at best, a heuristic device, to which a court of law may turn, within the framework of Article 259(1) of the Constitution, in determining whether, a proposed constitutional amendment, has the potential to destabilize, distort, or even destroy the constitutional equilibrium. (emphasis supplied)

But when you think about it, this is – essentially – the basic structure “doctrine” (or the “basic structure heuristic device” if you want to call it that), without being explicitly named as such. It is an interpretive method whose purpose is to prevent amendments that “destabilise, distort, or destroy the constitutional equilibrium.” Importantly, both here – and in his disposition – Wanjala J explicitly considers Article 259(1), which requires the Constitution to be interpreted in a manner that promotes its values and principles – as a substantive limitation upon constitutional amendments, in addition to the requirements of Chapter XVI. This is particularly clear from paragraph 1026:

In this regard, I am in agreement with the observations by Okwengu and Gatembu, JJ.A to the effect that a proposed amendment must pass both the procedural and substantive test. Where I part ways with my two colleagues is at the point at which they base their substantive test not on the constitutional equilibrium in Article 259, but on a basic structure (Gatembu, J.A–Article 255(1) and Okwengu, J.A–the Preamble). By the same token, I do not agree with the submission by the Attorney General to the effect that any and every proposed constitutional amendment would be valid as long as it goes through the procedural requirements stipulated in Articles 255, 256 and 257 of the Constitution. Courts of law cannot shut their eyes to a proposed constitutional amendment, if its content has the potential of subverting the Constitution. (emphasis supplied)

Now, with great respect, one may choose not to call something “the basic structure doctrine”, but the statement that a Court of law can subject constitutional amendments to judicial review on the question of whether its “content has the potential of subverting the Constitution”, one is doing what is generally understood to be basic structure review. It might be the case that its long association with the specific form taken in India has turned the basic structure doctrine into a bit of a poisoned chalice. In that case, there should of course be no problem in dropping the term, and simply stating that “constitutional amendments that subvert the Constitution are subject to judicial review.” And in his disposition at paragraph 1122, Wanjala J agrees that while the four-step sequential process will not apply to constitutional amendments, it would nonetheless apply to “seismic constitutional moments” when the People are exercising their primary constituent power.

It is an interpretive method whose purpose is to prevent amendments that “destabilise, distort, or destroy the constitutional equilibrium.”

We therefore already have a more complicated situation than what the final disposition of the Court suggests. That disposition suggests that a 6-1 majority rejected the basic structure doctrine. That is true, because Wanjala J does not believe that the basic structure doctrine is a “doctrine”. But we already have two judges who accept the distinction between constitutional amendments and constitutional repeal (or subversion), and accept that in the latter case, the primary constituent power (with its four-step process) will apply.

I now want to consider the opinions of Lenaola J and Ouko J. To their credit, both judges recognise – and address – the issue of constitutional amendment versus constitutional repeal. In paragraph 1464, Lenaola J states:

My point of departure with my learned colleagues is that the process presently in dispute was squarely anchored on Article 257 as read with Articles 255 and 256. I shall return to the question whether the Amendment Bill was in fact a complete overhaul of the present constitutional order or whether it was an amendment as envisaged by these Articles (emphasis supplied). Suffice it to say that, should the Kenyan people, in their sovereign will choose to do away with the Constitution 2010 and create another, then the sequential steps above are mandatory and our constitutional history will be the reference point.

Thus, in paragraph 1464, Lenaola J explicitly recognises the distinction between “a complete overhaul” and “amendment”, and also recognises that the 255 – 257 procedure only deals with the latter category. Indeed, his primary point is that the BBI Bill was not, as a matter of fact, a “complete overhaul”: in paragraph 1472, he asks, “why would dismemberment take centre stage when the issue before the courts below was amendment?” And most definitively, in paragraph 1473, he quotes Richard Albert’s distinction between “amendment” and “dismemberment”, with approval (paragraphs 1474 – 1475). Indeed, in the paragraph he quotes, Albert specifically notes that “a dismemberment is incompatible with the existing framework of the Constitution because it seeks to achieve a conflicting purpose” – lines very similar to Wanjala J’s articulation of constitutional “subversion”.

It might be the case that its long association with the specific form taken in India has turned the basic structure doctrine into a bit of a poisoned chalice.

There is, admittedly, something of an internal tension in Lenaola J’s opinion here: he appears, for example, to suggest later on that dismemberment necessarily requires formally enacting a new Constitution (see paragraph 1485). It is crucial to note, however, that this need not be the case: a Constitution’s structure and identity (the language used by Richard Albert, which Lenaola J cites with approval) can be “overhauled” by something as technically innocuous as changing a single sentence – or even a single word – in a single constitutional provision. For example, an amendment changing a polity from a multi-party democracy to a single-party State can be accomplished through a single sentence, but it is undoubtedly a constitutional dismemberment. Another historical example is the Indian Supreme Court judgment in Minerva Mills, where the Constitutional amendment at issue had essentially made the Indian Constitution’s bill of rights non-justiciable, as long as the government stated that it was carrying out a social policy goal. This had been accomplished by amending a part of a sentence in a sub-clause of one provision of the Indian Constitution.

A very similar tension is present in Ouko J’s opinion. In paragraph 1838, he notes:

Therefore, it is true to say that it is the prerogative of the people to change their system of government, but only by the people’s exercise of their constituent power and not through the amendment procedure. And that is the difference between primary and secondary constituent powers, the former is the power to build a new structure by the people themselves and the latter, the power to amend an existing constitution. Today, under Chapter Sixteen, this power is exercised by the people and their elected representatives.

Once again, we see the distinction between “amendment” and – in this case – “building a new structure” or “changing the system of government.” This comes to a head in paragraph 1846, where she notes:

It ought to be apparent from the foregoing that, I must come to the conclusion that a constituent assembly is an organ for constitution-making. An amendment of the Constitution under Chapter Sixteen does not recognize constituent assembly as one of the organs for the process. This Constitution, like the former Constitution does not contemplate its replacement.

And in paragraph 1849:

Therefore, the question to be determined here is whether the proposed amendments would lead to such egregious outcome. That they had the effect of repudiating essential elements of the Constitution—concerning its structure, identity, or core fundamental rights—and replacing them with the opposite features; a momentous constitutional change.

Once again, with respect, one may choose not to call this “basic structure review”, but what is happening here seems awfully close to “basic structure review” when courts or scholars do call it that. As with Lenaola J, Ouko J’s primary discomfort appears to be with the Courts below having labelled the BBI Bill as akin to constitutional dismemberment. In paragraph 1858, he labels this as “overkill”. The point, however, is that this admits the principle: if indeed any kind of formal “amendment” was possible under Articles 255 – 257, then the question of substantively assessing the amendments themselves wouldn’t even arise. Indeed, it doesn’t arise in Ndungu J’s opinion, which is very clear on the point that there is no constitutional alteration that is outside the scope of Chapter XVI.

An amendment changing a polity from a multi-party democracy to a single-party State can be accomplished through a single sentence, but it is undoubtedly a constitutional dismemberment.

Thus, we now have an even more complicated picture. Two judges out of seven (Ibrahim and Wanjala JJ) accept, in substance, the proposition that the four-step process applies to radical constitutional alteration that cannot properly be called an amendment. Two other judges (Lenaola and Ouko JJ) accept the principled distinction between constitutional “dismemberment” and “amendment”; Lenaola J appears to suggest that in the former case, you would need the four-step process, as it is akin to making a new Constitution, while Ouko J accepts Professor Akech’s amicus brief on the point that the four-step process was not, historically, how the 2010 Constitution was framed; it is only an “approximation.” Thus, we now have a situation where, in the disposition, six out of seven judges have rejected the applicability of “the basic structure doctrine”, but (at least) four out of seven judges have accepted that there is a conceptual distinction between constitutional “amendment” and “dismemberment”, the latter of which is outside the scope of Chapter XVI amendment processes (with three out of those four seeing space for the four-step process, and the fourth holding that it is an “approximation” of the founding moment).

What of the opinion of Mwilu DCJ? In paragraph 407, Mwilu J notes that:

In my view, whether a Constitution is amendable or not, whether any amendment initiative amounts to an alteration or dismemberment and the procedure to be followed is a matter that would be determined on a case to case basis depending on the circumstances.

After then noting the distinction between “amendment” and “alteration” (paragraphs 418 – 419), she then notes, at paragraph 421:

The court always reserves the constitutional obligation to intervene provided that a party seeking relief proves to the court’s satisfaction that there are clear and unambiguous threats such as to the design and architecture of the Constitution (emphasis supplied).

While this is also redolent of basic structure language, Mwilu J later goes on to note that while constitutional alteration must necessarily be an “extra-constitutional process” outside the scope of Articles 255 – 257, the exact form it might take need not replicate the manner of the constitutional founding: it may be through the “primary constituent power” or through “any of the other mechanisms necessary to overhaul the constitutional dispensation.” (paragraph 437)

It is not immediately clear what these other mechanisms might be. Mwilu J’s basic point appears to be that the mechanism by which fundamental constitutional alteration takes place cannot be judicially determined, as it is basically extra-constitutional. The corollary of this surely is, though, that to the extent that these fundamental alterations are sought to be brought in through the amendment process, they are open to substantive judicial review, as Mwilu J explicitly notes that those kinds of alterations “are not subject to referendum” under Article 255. In other words, Mwilu J’s problem appears to be not with judicial review of formal constitutional amendments in order to decide whether or not they are fundamental alterations, but with what follows, i.e., the judiciary deciding that, in case it is a fundamental alteration, that it must be done through the four-step test. But the only other alternative that then reconciles all these positions is for the judiciary to invalidate radical constitutional alteration that is disguised as an amendment via the 255 – 257 route; in no other interpretation does paragraph 421, which calls for judicial intervention when the threat is to “the design and architecture of the Constitution”, make sense.

We now have a situation where, in the disposition, six out of seven judges have rejected the applicability of “the basic structure doctrine”.

Finally, what of Koome CJ’s opinion? While Koome CJ is clearest on the point of the tiered amendment process achieving the balance between rigidity and flexibility, her judgment does not address the distinction between “amendment” and “repeal.” In paragraph 226, Koome CJ notes that any amendment to the Constitution must be carried out in conformity with the procedures set out under Chapter XVI; but that leaves the question unaddressed – what if it is alleged that the impugned amendment is not an amendment, but an implied repeal? In her summary of findings, Koome CJ notes further that the basic structure doctrine and the four step process are not applicable under the Constitution (paragraph 360). This is true, but also in substantial agreement with the case of the BBI challengers: the basic structure doctrine does not kick in as long as the formal amendment is actually an amendment, and as long as we are within the existing constitutional framework. It only applies when we are no longer under the Constitution.

Conclusion

Formally, by a majority of six to one, the Supreme Court rejected “the applicability of the basic structure doctrine” in Kenya. However, as I have attempted to show, a close reading of the seven judgments reveals a more complex picture. Consider a hypothetical future situation where a proposed amendment to the Constitution is once again challenged before the High Court, on the basis that it is not an amendment at all, but implied repeal, or repeal by stealth, or constitutional dismemberment. When the High Court looks to the Supreme Court for guidance, it will find the following:

  1. A majority of six rejecting the applicability of the basic structure doctrine (from the disposition)
  2. A majority of five accepting the distinction between “amendment” and “repeal” or “dismemberment”.
  3. A plurality of three explicitly noting that this distinction is subject to judicial review (with two others not taking an explicit position on this).
  4. A plurality of three holding that in case an “amendment” is actually a disguised “repeal”, the four-step test will apply (with an equal plurality of three against it, and one – Koome CJ – silent, as she does not draw a distinction between amendment and repeal).

In such a situation, how will the High Court proceed? That, I think, is something that time will tell.

Two final remarks. I think that a close reading of Koome CJ’s judgment came close to resolving the bind outlined above, without explicitly saying so. In paragraph 205, she notes:

The jurisprudential underpinning of this view is that in a case where the amendment process is multi-staged; involve multiple institutions; is time-consuming; engenders inclusivity and participation by the people in deliberations over the merits of the proposed amendments; and has down-stream veto by the people in the form of a referendum, there is no need for judicially-created implied limitations to amendment power through importation of the basic structure doctrine into a constitutional system before exhausting home grown mechanisms.

Koome CJ dwells at length upon the extent and depth of public participation required under Articles 256 and 257, and effectively equated the process with the four step test, sans the constituent assembly: running through her judgment is a strong endorsement of the civic education, public participation, and referendum (after adequate voter education) prongs of the test. What this suggests is that it might be open to argue that the procedures for participation under Articles 256 and 257 do not codify the primary constituent power (because that is a conceptual impossibility), but reflect it. In other words, if you are following the procedures under Articles 256 and 257 (in the sense of deep and inclusive public participation, as set out in Koome CJ’s judgment, and we will discuss some of that in the next post), you are exercising primary constituent power, and therefore, fundamental constitutional alterations are also possible as long as public participation happens in all its depth. This, I would suggest, might reconcile some of the potential internal tensions within some of the judgments, and also essentially keep the High Court and Court of Appeal’s judgments intact, just without the Constituent Assembly.

Secondly, one thing that appeared to weigh with the Court was the fact that in the twelve years since 2010, there has been no successful attempt to amend the Kenyan Constitution, and all attempts – whether under Article 256 or Article 257 – have failed. This is true; however, what is equally true is that were the BBI Bill to succeed, we would go from no amendments in twelve years to seventy-four amendments in twelve years, making the Kenyan Constitution one of the most swiftly-amended in the world. If it is true, therefore, that the purpose of the tiered amendment structure is to find a balance between flexibility and rigidity, while also ring-fencing entrenched provisions, then this has certain inescapable conclusions for the interpretation of Article 257 – including the question of single or multiple-issue referenda. This will be the subject of the next two posts.

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Gautam Bhatia is a constitutional lawyer based in New Delhi, India.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forced Repatriation to Ethiopia

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

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

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

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

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

Harsh conditions facing Tigrayan refugees

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

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

The disinterest of African media and society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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UK-Rwanda Refugee Deal: A Stain on President Kagame

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

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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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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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