For far too long, the global refugee situation has been misconstrued as static, with certain parts of the globe generating disproportionate numbers of refugees and others perpetually faced with the burden of hosting displaced peoples. In particular, Africa is seen as a producer rather than a receiver of refugees. To be clear, Africa is not a continent that feeds the world with refugees any less than it hosts them. Although Africa is seen as exceptional in terms of global refugee networks, the factors accounting for refugee crises can bedevil any region at any point in time. These factors include war, natural disasters, political upheavals, military coups, civil strife, religious or cultural persecutions, personal circumstances, economic hardship, terrorist activities, and many more.
African countries, as much as any other, have taken turns in both generating and hosting refugees, and if history is any measuring rod, will continue to do so. It is the African refugee equilibrium, a phenomenon whereby a country that at one moment in its history is feeding its neighbors with refugees can become, at another moment, the receiver of refugees from those same neighbors. Africa isn’t just feeding the world with migrants and refugees but is top on the list of hosts. As per the UNHCR statistics of 2018, 30% of the world’s 25.9 million registered refugees were being hosted in Africa. Yet, the numbers of Africans who make their way to the West as refugees and migrants occupy the headlines of international news, painting the continent and the people as a miserable “sea of humanity,” perpetually flooding the rest of the world, especially North America and Europe.
Examples of how Africa has been mutually hosting its own refugees and taking turns are unlimited. The regions of Central and West Africa have particularly exemplified the concept of the African refugee equilibrium, with many nations taking turns in generating and hosting refugees. Even in the days when it suffered refugee and migrant crises, few Equatorial Guineans left the continent; the vast majority fled to nearby Cameroon, Gabon, and Nigeria. During the First World War, the German colony of Kamerun fed the Spanish colony of Guinea with tens of thousands of refugees. But in the 1970s, Cameroon, in turn, hosted about 30,000 refugees from Equatorial Guinea. During the Nigerian Civil War, Nigeria fed several of its West and Central African neighbors with tens of thousands of refugees, including children, who ended up in countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast. The post-civil war era has seen Nigeria host hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from its neighbors, even while Nigeria itself simultaneously feeds some of those neighbors with a new category of refugees.
West and Central Africa are not unique in this exchange. Since the 1960s, nations in East and Southern Africa have taken turns between hosting and generating refugees. In East Africa, the Kakuma refugee camp in the northwest of Kenya currently hosts about 200,000 refugees from more than 20 neighboring countries, including refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi, to name but a few. Uganda, which has sent refugees to its neighbors, including Kenya, hosts its own refugees and refugees from others. Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee camp currently ranks the second largest in the world.
Perhaps more interestingly is the fact that besides mutually hosting its own refugees, Africa has hosted refugees from other continents, including from Europe. While examples abound, a few here will suffice. During the late 19th century and the 20th century in the midst of anti-Semitism, a significant number of European Jews entered North and Eastern Africa as refugees, with some settling in as far as South Africa. On the eve of the First World War, there were already more than 40,000 Jewish migrants and refugees settled in South Africa. In the 1930s, South Africa again received more than 6,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, in excess of 20,000 Polish refugees, who had been evicted from Russia and Eastern Europe following German invasion, were received and hosted in East and Southern Africa, including in modern day Tanzania, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, the crisis of war and decolonization in the Congo caused the flight of several thousand whites from the Congo. They were hosted as refugees in a number of African countries, including South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, the Central African Republic, Tanganyika, Rwanda, and Burundi.
The examples provided here only scratch the surface of the African refugee equilibrium, but they each demonstrate that we must pay attention to historical antecedents in refugee studies. In other words, we need to historicize African refugee studies. Only by so doing can we fully appreciate the important and diverse role that Africa plays. This approach clearly shows that if our neighbors are currently facing a refugee crisis and turn to us for assistance, we must view them with respect and compassion; it could soon be our turn and we could need them.
There are constant examples across Africa where our lack of knowledge of our own shared refugee experiences or sometimes outright denial of history continues to inform the way we treat fellow Africans with disdain and hostility. Xenophobia (better known as Afrophobia) in South Africa is just one example. The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) has carefully documented xenophobic attacks against other African refugees and migrants in South Africa since 1994, establishing several cases where in many South African towns and cities, South Africans attacked, injured or even killed African refugees and migrants. If only an average South African knew that not too long ago many African countries were safe havens to many of their countrymen and women during the anti-Apartheid struggle, they would think twice before unleashing xenophobic attacks against other Africans. Even across West and Central Africa, there have been several instances of both civilian African populations and their governments treating other African refugees in their countries with unbelievable hostility. When oil was suddenly discovered in Equatorial Guinea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Equatoguineans and the government alike, quickly forgot their shared refugee and migrant history with Cameroon, and began a series of hostilities against Cameroonian refugees and migrants who came to Equatorial Guinea for “greener pastures.” An informed knowledge about our collective refugee and migrant experiences would go miles in ensuring that Africans and African governments treat other African refugees and migrants in their countries in a friendlier and more accommodative fashion.
There is, however, hope on the horizon. Africanists are increasingly turning their attention to refugee studies and the African refugee equilibrium. Two special issues are forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of African Studies and in Africa Today, both of which showcase Africa’s shared and diverse refugee and migrant experiences. These issues are part of the efforts to redress the image of Africa and the misconceptions surrounding the continent regarding migrants and refugee movements.
What all of these means is that it is only a matter of time before the static image of African refugee dynamics and the African refugee equilibrium will displace these ahistorical ideas.
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Manifesto for Human Life
On the anniversary of COVID-19, we must build a world centered on human life — a planet of care, equality, and popular sovereignty.
The crisis of Covid-19 has exposed the myth of “global health.” There is no global public health system, and there never was. The pandemic has stripped the mask of multilateralism from the pharmaceutical-philanthropic complex, revealing a system that serves rich countries before the rest, and puts private profits before public health. We should not celebrate the anniversary of the pandemic by reviving the myth of “global health.” We should build a system that actually delivers it.
The foundations of this powerful myth were crushed at the very outset of the pandemic. The Trump administration walked out of the World Health Organization, and its allies stirred racist, orientalist, and xenophobic sentiment instead of prepraing for the spread of the virus. Within months, a handful of rich countries had stockpiled every existing vaccine candidate, hoarding more than half the world’s supply. Meanwhile, they voted to uphold intellectual property rules that would deny them to the rest.
The institutional architecture of the so-called global health system caved immediately to these nationalist interests, from global health organizations — two-thirds of which are headquartered in the US, UK, and Switzerland — to international financial institutions, mobilized to protect creditors’ right to collect interest over debtors’ right to survival.
Even the philanthropists — who have worked assiduously to construct the myth of global health — played their part in this process, urging the privatization of vaccine technology instead of sharing it with the world.
Now, these institutions mark the anniversary of pandemic declaration with debates about the future of global health — finance reforms, governance mechanisms, innovation costs, and so on. But we cannot save a system that does not exist.
Instead, we must revisit the question at the very heart of the health debate: How can we protect human life? How can we resist a health apartheid that protects the lives of the rich and discards those of the poor? How can we build a system that prioritizes the love and care that we need to keep each other alive?
Convening scholars, activists, and practitioners from around the world, the Covid-19 Response group of the Progressive International has proposed some principles in a new ‘Manifesto for Life.’
First, a People’s Vaccine for Covid-19.
As long as the virus spreads, it can mutate and move. No one country can end the pandemic alone; Covid-19 anywhere is a threat to public health everywhere. A system truly premised on global health would guarantee open access to all know-how for the COVID-19 vaccine and the creation of production facilities across the globe.
Second, a World Health Organization that can work for world health.
The interests of its rich countries, private funders, and bad ideas of big financial institutions hinder the World Health Oorganisation. It is time to free the WHO from these constraints. This does not mean building a supranational authority unaccountable to the governments it serves; on the contrary, it means delivering on the WHO’s core promise of multilateral governance. A WHO focused on world health would focus on building the regional and national public health systems that enhance the principle of self-determination, rather than riding roughshod over it.
Third, private capital must be made to submit to public health.
The plain objective of “Big Pharma” is to profit from people falling ill. The right to life is made into a commodity and sold as a luxury to a limited few. To enshrine a global right to life, we must begin from the principle of free and universal healthcare, shifting from a private locus of provision over to a public.
Fourth, human life is not a bargaining chip.
We are asked to believe in a “global health” system that considers public health a source of geopolitical leverage. The pandemic has made clear that seeing health through the lens of “national security” leads to policing over provision, aggression over cooperation. A true global health system will end medical sanctions and the deployment of security forces in response to public health emergencies.
Finally, pride of place for our carers.
‘Essential’ workers have been hailed as heroes but dehumanized in practice: underpaid and overworked, often without any rights as workers or recourse to social support. Carer unions will be key to any public health policies. Workers must be trained, protected, paid, and their right to provide or withdraw labour respected.
One year into the pandemic, it is easy to feel that everything has changed. But it hasn’t, and it must. We continue to live by the laws of a “global health” system that does not exist, preventing us from building one that does.
There are only two choices. One path leads us backwards to a planet of neglect, where the rich shield themselves with the bodies of the poor. This is a familiar story. The other leads to life. On the anniversary of Covid-19, this is the path that we choose.
Áurea Carolina de Freitas e Silva
Elizabeth Victoria Gomez Alcorta
What #LindaKatiba Is, and Why It Matters
The BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament and to a parasitic model of government.
Linda Katiba is a citizen’s voluntary initiative that is determined to resist the government-led move to unconstitutionally cannibalise and overthrow the will of the people of Kenya encapsulated in the 2010 constitution. It is a collective movement of Kenyans who believe that our constitution holds great promise for the Kenyan people and when fully implemented will bring about the transformative changes envisioned by its framers and the Kenyans who voted for it. Linda Katiba is therefore an effort to help citizens sift through the falsehoods being peddled by the proponents of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and make informed decisions.
The most powerful feature of the 2010 constitution is that it places citizens (Wanjiku) at the centre of governance, providing them with the tools and the power to demand participation, inclusion, accountability, and transparency in governance processes. Where this is not complied with, the constitution further provides for interventions such as through the courts and people power.
This shift of power is what has put the political class in a direct collision course with the citizens amidst the recent misguided calls for constitutional reforms by a section of the political class. It is the reason why we must constantly remind ourselves that this constitution was negotiated by Kenyans over two decades with the objective of transforming Kenya by constitutionally overthrowing the old order that represented a parasitic model of government, where the political elite and top civil servants, despite earning hefty salaries, allowances and other perks (including multiple top of the range motor vehicles) on the peoples sweat, continuously ignored and failed to prioritise the critical needs of the people.
At its core, the BBI initiative is about defending this untenable parasitic model and that is why it is being led and defended not just by a section of the political elite, but also by top civil servants who by law are prohibited from participating in active politics. This nostalgia for a powerful past is probably the reason why BBI is being forced down our throats through bribery, threats and all manner of intimidation.
It is a life and death matter for a sizeable number of the political elite to defend undeserved and unearned privilege at the expense of underprivileged Kenyans whose right of access to critical government services such as health, education, water and sanitation, to housing and adequate food as guaranteed by Article 43 of the constitution has all but been ignored. The right to and provision of these basic needs is among the key reasons why protecting the tenets of the 2010 constitution matters.
Aware that Kenyans hold devolution dear, the political elite are using the promises of more money to the counties—a whopping 35 per cent compared to the current 15 per cent—as the bait to lure citizens to support the BBI project. This promise is coming from an administration that has for the last nine years been reluctant to disburse in a timely manner the 15 per cent, the minimum provided for by the constitution. Given that the constitution does not set a ceiling for the maximum amount that the National government may allocate to the counties, nothing is preventing the current administration and the BBI brothers, who jointly wield a majority in parliament, from implementing the budget increase coming June budget. There cannot be a better way for the BBI brothers to demonstrate good faith than to allocate the 35 per cent in this last year of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency. I suspect that this administration will not actualise this promise because they know it is mission impossible in the prevailing economic situation.
Our country is reeling under a debt burden that is almost at ten trillion shillings, a debt that we are experiencing difficulties servicing, forcing the government to seek a six-month moratorium from its creditors. Much of our revenue is going towards servicing the debt leaving us with little or no money for development and recurrent expenditure including salaries. This is the context in which the BBI proponents are saying to us that we should prioritise the expansion of parliament and the executive over our health needs, our livelihoods and our children’s education. Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBI project prioritises political deal making over the lives of Kenyans. The government is telling us that it will take us up to three years for only 30 per cent of the population to access COVID-19 vaccines.
We are not helpless. We need to make our voices count. We must rise up and tell the BBI brothers that our lives matter, that our needs matter and that they must be prioritised above all else.
From where I stand, the BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament. It is a gateway to a bloated parliament and an expanded executive. It is a return to political intolerance spearheaded by the state. We are back to labelling people with divergent opinions as “enemies of state”. Teargassing of perceived opponents of BBI is now the preferred weapon of the state. The political environment is toxic and does not favour rational discussion of the BBI project by citizens. Moreover, the Jubilee administration is split down the middle, with divisions even within the presidency. It is time to tell the BBI brothers: “prophet heal thyself”. Let them heal the divisions within their ranks which are threatening to burn the country. Let the BBI project cease fomenting intolerance.
Sold by its proponents as a people’s initiative, the BBI project has illegally spent and continues to spend scarce taxpayer’s money. No disclosures are made on what the money has so far been spent and how much more is expected to be splashed in these times of scarcity and a looming food crisis. MCAs countrywide have given the BBI project a nod in exchange for car grants. There has been little or with no public participation and nor has the public been provided with copies of the proposed constitutional amendments.
As citizens, we must not give up. It is time for Kenyans of goodwill to reclaim their voices individually and collectively and speak truth to power. We must refuse to be intimidated or silenced by a political elite and senior civil servants who number less than four thousand while over twenty million Kenyan voters are waiting to be informed and persuaded. All we need is the courage of our convictions to galvanise the country by word of mouth to say no to enslavement through the BBI project.
Let us be reminded that the independence constitution was eroded bit by bit until it became unrecognisable thus necessitating a fresh start. We should be wary of opening the door to a similar cannibalisation of our constitution even before we have implemented it.
To President Uhuru, you have time to stop this. Do not let your legacy be that of the president who destroyed our democratic gains. Live up to your oath of office to uphold and defend the constitution.
This is what is at the heart of the Linda Katiba resistance and defense of the constitution. It matters because it is easier to defend our democratic gains than to lose them and attempt to reclaim them later with no guarantee that it will be possible. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Let us all join hands to Linda Katiba.
Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It
Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. Now, a student movement could slowly transform society.
“Nan lara an sara! Nan lara an sara!”: A crowd of roughly 300 students throngs the “freedom square” and chants defiantly, clenched fists in the air. The scene is the campus of Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, in Ouagadougou. The students are members of Deux Heures pour Nous, Deux Heures pour Kamita (Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita; referred to here as DHK). “Kamita” is an Afrocentric term, designating the continent. The group is a throwback: A radical student organization dedicated to ideology and analysis, that intends to break from the complacency that has taken hold on African campuses in recent years.
As the meeting builds, a young man roars in the middle of the circle, a megaphone in his right hand, his left hand following the rhythm of the crowd: “nan lara!” (if we lie down!). The crowd responds “an sara!” (we are dead!). After several minutes of call and response, the young man opens the meeting. “Comrades, welcome! Thank you for dedicating two hours today for our beloved Kamita. Today, we seek wisdom from one another in addressing the topic before us: the presence of French military on the free and independent land of Burkina Faso.” He proceeds to lay out the agenda of the day, and the modalities for taking the floor.
Meetings like this one, which I attended in August 2019, take place every day, from 1 to 3 pm, on the campus. They have continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic which compelled attendees to wear facemasks; I have kept in touch with members and interviewed leaders as well as occasional attendees. The meetings are arranged in an open space and amplified with loudspeakers. No position is invalid. No topic is taboo. The group emphasizes innovative radical thinking about democracy, social change, and liberation. But weak arguments are booed, while carefully crafted ones are applauded—especially when they are considered ideologically sound, in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or Thomas Sankara.
Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. As older student organizations become ossified and discredited, emerging ones seek credibility by leaning toward pan-African ideologies. The country and its politics offer a particularly fertile scene for the youth to develop ideological and political organizations that aim to transform society. Slogans such as “Plus rien se sera comme avant!” (Nothing will be as before!) and “Nan lara an sara!” signal such a desire for change and willingness to act. DHK represents a new militancy, with power and potential—but also contradictions and challenges.
DHK formed in 2013, a time when social discontent was growing in Burkina Faso. Workers’ strikes paralyzed many sectors, including higher education. Civil society groups and opposition parties were engaged in a power struggle against then-President Blaise Compaoré, who was attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his rule. The academic community was caught in this malaise. It was in this context that students at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University chose to experiment with a new form of participatory democracy by creating a performative venue on campus.
Over the years, DHK has become prominent among the burgeoning youth movements in Burkina Faso. Beyond the boastful, intellectual verbiage and rhetorical skills that its members show, the organization has built a reputation as a leftist movement that focuses on social justice, political emancipation, and environmental stewardship—both at the national and international levels. In February 2019, for instance, the organization sent a delegate to Venezuela “to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle against imperialism,” a post on its Facebook page reads.
Developing and sustaining a pan-African ideology on a campus where student conferences and intellectual exchange outside the curriculum are almost non-existent is a challenging task. Yet DHK has managed to establish a respected forum where uncensored conversations take place every day, gathering up to several hundred attendees. Every week, a series of discussion topics is chosen and published on Facebook. Often, they respond to the news of the day. At other times, the reflection is oriented toward historical events. There are guest speakers, such as Kemi Seba, the Franco-Beninese activist, or Yacouba Sawadogo, a Burkinabe farmer known as “the man who stopped the desert” for successfully bringing to life a 40-hectare forest on a barren land.
The daily gatherings constitute moments of deliberation, healing, strategizing, and planning. On the day that I attended, social media abounded with polemical information about the alleged opening of a new French military base in Djibo, a small northern town 45 kilometers from the border with Mali. The meeting was an opportunity to condemn the base and discuss the role of France’s counterterrorism activities in the region. Participants equated France’s current presence with its 19th-century pacification doctrine that justified colonialism. “We are inviting France to the school of civilization. We invite her to finally learn to be a nation that respects the sovereignty of other nations,” one man said.
Sometimes, the organization brings speakers who do not have formal education, such as farmers and small craft traders, challenging the perception of what constitutes knowledge in a university setting. This initiative is “an uninhibited approach to learning by uninhibited students who have conscience that development is homemade,” Bayala Lianhoue Imhotep, secretary general of DHK, told me. “No one has the monopoly of imagination. Our farmers are an inexhaustible source of knowledge if we cared to listen to them.”
At first, campus authorities rejected DHK for its radical positions concerning the university and student life. They sought to shut it down and push it off campus. Now, civil society movements beyond campus including Balai Citoyen seek them out. They constitute a force that can mobilize adherents, an antidote to the general fatigue among youth following the 2014 popular revolution.
DHK represents in many ways a revival.
Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo has a tradition of being a center of social movements, with student strikes that often led to a general paralysis of the capital city. The roots of Burkinabè student militancy go back to student unions in the 1950s in Dakar and in France, where Burkinabè and other francophone Africans went to study. Those unions were an avant-garde in political mobilization, a breeding ground of activists in the late colonial period and after independence.
In the early post-independence era, student activism aligned ideologically with the emerging political tendencies in the country. In 1966 the Voltaic Student Union supported the popular insurrection that ousted President Maurice Yameogo. The successive military regimes did not favor the emergence of a strong student unionism. However, during the Sankara years (1984-1987), college students mobilized to support the revolution. In the following two decades, student activism became progressively belligerent toward the Compaore regime. In the 1990s when the Structural Adjustment Programs compelled the government to adopt a much more democratic attitude, granting civil liberties, student militancy reclaimed a momentum. While student militancy never ceased to exist, it suffered in its vivacity since internal divisions and state repression weakened toward the end of the 1990s.
Recent renewal of political consciousness among Burkinabè youth took form through events such as the assassination of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, long worker strikes in 2011 and 2015, student protests leading to violent confrontations with police, and the closing of the university for over three months in 2008 and 2011. Other contributing factors were changes in Franco-African political dynamics following French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, along with a persistent perception that the international community is hypocritical. Along the way, the memory of Thomas Sankara and his political discourse have re-emerged in popular music and activist rallies.
What is the potential of this revival? On one hand, student militancy today has inherited unresolved structural problems and grievances from their predecessors: deficient infrastructures, mismanaged academic calendar, deteriorated social services, etc. On the other hand, however, the ideological foundation behind student militancy is much more profound. Student activists are not only seeking to resolve their immediate needs, but they question the root causes of their predicament. While their struggle is locally rooted, it is open to other currents from the South. They often extrapolate their perception of inequalities at home with the struggles of other peoples elsewhere such as in Palestine, Venezuela, and Taiwan. They adhere to an Afro-centric understanding of history in their attempt to take control of their destinies as young Burkinabè.
For groups such as DHK, the traditional student associations and unions have become irrelevant, not because they lack grievances to address, but because they do not propose any sound ideology to solve them. DHK positions itself as an anti-imperialist movement, but also one that is opened to the struggles of other contemporary Black liberation movements. At the August 2019 meeting where attendees discussed French counterterrorism in the Sahel, some participants pointed out that the French could easily rid the Sahel of its insurgent groups if France really wanted to—peddling some conspiracy theories that were already circulating in the social media.
DHK is a promising unconventional revival activist group that promotes intellectual and democratic debates. Since its creation seven years ago, it has grown in membership and its ability to mobilize for action. At times however, it can be provocative in its ideas and approach when it connects with controversial figures such as Kemi Seba or when it takes side in some global issues without expertise in their historical complexity such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, this revival is taking place under the radar of most scholars and media attention, who often gloss over it as “growing anti-French sentiment.”
In Ouagadougou, university student militancy is the last stronghold of students’ civil discourse. It is one that still grapples with its own issues, but nonetheless is ideologically promising. As foggy and muddy as some of their thoughts and ideas may be, the youth of DHK are informed by their quotidian reality. It is an ideology rooted in a Sankarist ideology that is daring and even risky at times. But this discourse still represents the clearer demarcation line between civil discourse and what is perceived as growing radical or fundamental discourse in Burkina Faso. Unlike the growing non-state armed movements that are terrorizing the country, student ideological militancy is disruptive, but it is still organized within the limits of free speech and freedom of association guaranteed by the constitution.
Today, the days of grand pan-African reveries espoused by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara seem far behind. The dominant neoliberal economic systems that African nations have adopted and the persistence of neocolonial meddling in the post-colony blunted Afrocentric idealism. Even in academic research, we talk about it in the past and we do not envision it in the present. Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita gives us a compelling case study to rethink that position.
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