Connect with us
close

Politics

The Nakba, Israeli Apartheid and the Question of Palestine

15 min read.

South Africa is leading opposition to Israel’s observer status in the African Union because the country’s relations with the people of Palestine do not reflect the principles of the AU charter.

Published

on

The Nakba, Israeli Apartheid and the Question of Palestine

South Africa is leading a number of African countries in opposing Israel’s admission as an observer in the African Union. At a bilateral meeting on 8 October 2021, South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Naledi Pandor, and Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Riad Malki, agreed that Israel’s observer status at the African Union should be rescinded.

“There can be no justification for AU chairperson granting observer status to Israel. The decision was totally inexplicable and we will continue to argue that the decision should be rescinded,’’ Pandor said in the capital Pretoria. South Africa is backed by Namibia, Botswana, Tunisia, Eritrea, Senegal, Tanzania, Niger, ‌the Comoro Islands, Gabon, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Algeria and Seychelles.

In an interview with CNN on 27 September 2021, Minister Pandor said all countries associated with the AU must reflect the co-values and principles of its charter. “They must be anti-colonial, they should not be occupiers of anyone’s land, they should not be oppressive in denial of human rights and democratic practice. All these principles in the charter are not reflected in Israel’s relations with the people of Palestine,” Pandor said.

Israel’s occupation of parts of Palestinian territory has been at the centre of a protracted conflict. On 2 August 2021, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Palestinians may continue living in their houses in Sheikh Jarrah, a disputed area of East Jerusalem, as “protected tenants” but they must pay an annual fee of NIS1,500 (about KSh51,500) to the Nahalat Shimon Company per home. This would mean that they accept the property effectively belongs to Nahalat Shimon, a Jewish settlement company, according to the Indian Express.

While the ruling was seen as a compromise to forestall evictions from the Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians have not welcomed it. They argue that the court judgment ignores their own claims to the property.

The ownership of Jerusalem has been at the core of the conflict for decades and the families that were under threat of eviction — which triggered the 11-day bombardment in May 2021 —  have been living in Sheikh Jarrah since 1950, after they were forced to flee territories affected by the declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel. The would-be settlers cite an Israeli law that allows Jews to reclaim ownership of property lost before 1948.

So, what happened?

The State of Israel was proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, on 14 May 1948. On the same day, US President Harry Truman, a close ally of Israel, recognized the new nation. This marked the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How did this happen?

Formation of the Jewish state

In 135CE, the Roman Empire evicted Jews from Jerusalem and renamed it Judea, later changed to Palestine to dissociate the Jews from the land. As a result, Jews were scattered across Europe and persecuted wherever they went as they were considered the killers of Jesus Christ. The persecution continued well into the 19th Century when they came together under Zionism to protect themselves and their identity.

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Zionism as a Jewish nationalist movement that had as its goal the creation and support of a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews. It has evolved to become a religious, political and ideological movement.

Zionism sought to stop the persecution of Jews and to push for their return to Palestine. “By 1903, at least 30,000 Jews had already re-established themselves inside Palestine. By 1914, 40,000 more Jews had returned and then the First World War started, the Ottoman Empire collapsed,” Palki Sharma of Wion News narrates.

The British took control of Palestine and as more Jews returned, tensions between them and the Arabs escalated, often resulting in violence, with each side playing victim. The British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 (which they would renounce in 1947), a statement that announced their support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

The declaration came in the form of a letter from Britain’s then foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, addressed to Lionel Walter Rothschild of the British Jewish community. The rise of Nazi Germany in the early 1930s worsened the situation, however, and left more than six million Jews dead in the Holocaust. Many sought refuge in neighbouring countries and in the US but were unwelcome. For instance, in June 1939, a ship carrying some 900 Jews to America was sent back to Europe because of “lack of necessary immigration documents”.

As the Jewish population in Palestine grew, around 1944, the West backed the establishment of a Jewish state. There had been earlier attempts, among them Ararat City in the US in 1820, the British Uganda Programme in 1903, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the former Soviet Union in 1928, the Madagascar Plan of 1940, the British Guiana plan in 1940 and the Ethiopia and Australia plans, all unsuccessful.

President Truman played a key role in the establishment of the State of Israel and this could explain the close relations between the US and Israel to date. Soon after taking office in April 1945, Truman appointed experts to study the Palestinian issue.  According to the US Office of the Historian, in May 1946, Truman approved a recommendation to admit 100,000 displaced persons into Palestine and in October declared support for the creation of a Jewish state.

Partition of Palestine 

The UN Special Commission on Palestine was established on 15 May 1947 following the UK’s request that the General Assembly make “recommendations under article 10 of the Charter, concerning the future government of Palestine”. This is after it renounced the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Throughout 1947, UNSCOP examined the Palestinian question and recommended its partition into a Jewish and an Arab state. On 29 November 1947 the UN adopted Resolution 181 (also known as the Partition Resolution) that would divide Britain’s former Palestinian colony into Jewish and Arab states in May 1948, when the British mandate was scheduled to end.

President Truman played a key role in the establishment of the State of Israel and this could explain the close relations the US has with Israel to date.

The religious sites surrounding Jerusalem would remain a corpus separatum under international control administered by the UN. This meant that they had a special legal and political status without enjoying a sovereign, independent status.

Although the US backed Resolution 181, the Department of State recommended the creation of a UN trusteeship with limits on Jewish immigration and the division of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab provinces but not states.

Truman ultimately decided to recognize the State of Israel despite the recommendation of the Department of State, which was based on fears of an increasing Soviet role in the Arab world, the potential for restriction of supplies to the US by Arab oil-producing nations, and the possibility of war in Palestine as Arab states threatened to attack almost as soon as the UN passed the partition resolution. The neighbouring Arab states declared they would prevent the creation of the Jewish state by all means and with that, a wave of violent attacks against Jews began.

Arab-Israeli Wars

When Israel declared independence on 14 May 1948, five Arab armies — Egypt, Transjordan (Jordan), Syria, Lebanon and Iraq — invaded Israel the same night, seeking to destroy it. Saudi Arabia and Yemen sent additional contingents. They maintained that the only solution to the problem of Palestine was the establishment of a unitary Palestinian state.

This became the Arab-Israeli War or the War of Independence for Israelis. At the end of the war in 1949, Egypt had control of the Gaza Strip and Jordan had annexed the West Bank.

More than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from what is now Israel during what they call the Nakba, while at least 260,000 Jews in the Arab world were pushed into the new state. Israel lost about 6,000 people, 1 per cent of the population.

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194, establishing a UN Conciliation Commission to facilitate peace between Israel and the Arab states. It resolved that,

Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible

Many of the articles of the resolution were not fulfilled as they were either opposed by Israel, rejected by the Arab states, or were overshadowed by war as the 1948 conflict continued.

The second Arab-Israeli war broke out on 29 October 1956 when Israel, Great Britain and France launched a joint attack against Egypt in an attempt to depose its leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser and regain control of the Suez Canal.

Why was Israel involved?

Since the establishment of the state of Israel, cargo shipments to and from Israel had been subject to Egyptian authorisation, search and seizure while passing through the Suez Canal. On 1 September 1951, UNSC Resolution 95 urged Egypt “To terminate the restrictions on the passage of international commercial ships and goods through the Suez Canal, wherever bound, and to cease all interference with such shipping.” This didn’t stop.

In 1954, President Nasser began sponsoring raids into Israel by Palestinian militias who often targeted civilians. Israel responded in kind. It was Nasser’s intention to gain recognition among the anti-Zionists as a way of establishing his leadership over the Arab world.

UNSCOP examined the Palestinian question and recommended its partition into a Jewish and an Arab state.

Then came the third Arab war or the Six-Day War of 1967 that involved Israel and Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. The conflict started over the Straits of Tiran, the sea passages between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas that separate the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea.

Israel had withdrawn from the second war on condition that the passages would remain open. However, in May 1967, a month before war broke out, Nasser announced that passage would be closed to Israeli vessels. Israel launched a series of airstrikes against Egyptian airfields on 5 June, initially claiming it was responding to Egyptian attacks but later admitting the airstrikes were “pre-emptive”.

The occupation

Who started the war remains a matter of debate and controversy but Israel won, seizing the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. This marked the beginning of Israeli occupation of these regions and between 280,000 to 325,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the West Bank. On 22 November 1967, “in an effort to secure a just and lasting peace”, the Security Council adopted Resolution 242 calling for Israel to withdraw from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” the basis of all subsequent peace initiatives.

Israel accepted the resolution, with its UN Permanent Representative saying on 1 May 1968, “My government has indicated its acceptance of the Security Council resolution for the promotion of agreement on the establishment of a just and lasting peace. I am also authorized to reaffirm that we are willing to seek agreement with each Arab State on all matters included in that resolution.” But the occupation continues to date.

The resolution was the basis for negotiations that led to Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt (1979), Jordan (1994) and the 1993 and 1995 agreements with the Palestinians. Up until 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which represented Palestinians at the UN, continued to reject the resolution “because it lacked explicit references to Palestinians”.

Then came the Security Council Resolution 338 (1973), which called for a ceasefire in the Middle East during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War or the Yom Kippur War involving Israel, Egypt and Syria.  Egypt’s objective was to seize control of the east bank of the Suez Canal and consequently negotiate the return of the rest of the Sinai.

The resolution called for a total ceasefire, the implementation of Resolution 242 in all of its parts immediately and concurrently with the ceasefire, and the start of negotiations with the aim of establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.

PLO Declaration

In 1974, the Arab League meeting in Tunisia declared the Palestine Liberation Organization as the legitimate representation of Palestinians based on Resolution 181. This was followed by the Camp David peace process or the Camp David Accords, signed between Egypt (President Anwar Sadat) and Israel (Prime Minister Menachem Begin) on 17 September 1978.

The Accords had three parts: (1) a process for Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza, (2) a framework for the conclusion of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and (3) a similar framework for peace treaties between Israel and its other neighbours.

Prime Minister Begin and the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) agreed that a transitional self-governing Palestinian Authority be elected to replace the Israeli political and military forces in the Occupied Territories.

The second of these frameworks — Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel — led directly to the 1979 Egypt–Israel peace treaty. The agreement, officially titled the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East”, won Sadat and Begin the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.

More than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from what is now Israel during what they call the Nakba.

However, the PLO rejected the Accords, as did its Arab friends. Egypt was ejected from the Arab League. The PLO objected to the lack of sovereignty and to the right of Israel to maintain Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. The UN backed Palestine, saying the deal was a bilateral agreement between Israel and Egypt, without the participation of the PLO.

On 15 November 1998, the PLO declared the independence of Palestine with Yasser Arafat as the first President of the State of Palestine.

The next major development were the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993. They included provisions with regard to the West Bank and Gaza that were similar to those in the Camp David Accords. They also included a transitional period, an elected self-governing Palestinian Authority, withdrawal of the Israeli military government and redeployment of Israeli troops, the establishment of a local police force, and a plan to move ahead with negotiations on the final status of the Occupied Territories.

But they too collapsed.

Writing in The Atlantic, Einat Wilf, a former Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset for Independence and the Labor Party, observes that throughout the interim years of the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlement was allowed to continue unimpeded, with the number of settlers increasing from 110,000 on the eve of the Accords in 1993, to 185,000 in 2000 during the negotiations over a final status, to 430,000 today. “That increase seriously undermined the notion that Israel was sincere about making way for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza,” she notes.

Einat, who worked with Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres, and co-authored The War for Return with Adi Schwarz, adds that, meanwhile, Palestinian leaders continued to pursue what they referred to as the “Right of Return”, their demand that ever-growing numbers of Palestinians be allowed to settle within the territory of pre-1967 Israel, which would make Jews a minority in an Arab state.

There were nearly 3 million Palestinians registered with UNRWA as refugees in 1993, a number that increased to 3.8 million in 2000, and which stands at 5.3 million today. Palestinian leaders never dared face their people to tell them that as part of a final peace agreement, just as Jews would be expected to vacate their settlements east of the pre-1967 lines, Arab Palestinians would be expected to renounce their claim to settle west of those lines.

What doomed the Oslo Accords, she says, is also what made them possible in the first place: constructive ambiguity.

Einat recommends the two-state solution as the only option that recognizes the national rights of both peoples and provides a measure of justice to each. However, the approach needs to be different: “To get there, the parties need to approach the negotiations not as a marriage, but as a divorce”. “Serious peacemakers need to let go of vague and nebulous concepts such as ‘trust’ and ‘confidence building’, and behave more like harsh divorce attorneys who spell out every detail. In place of destructive ambiguity, we need constructive specificity.”

The UN backed Palestine, saying the deal was a bilateral agreement between Israel and Egypt, without the participation of the PLO.

Since then, there have been other attempts to broker a deal, among them the July 2000 Camp David Summit between US President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian National Authority,

The Summit collapsed after two weeks because of disagreements over territory, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, refugees and Palestinian right of return, as well as security arrangements and settlements.

Palestine insisted on the implementation of Resolution 242, which calls for full Israeli withdrawal from the territories it captured in the Six-Day War, as part of a final peace settlement, maintaining, “There cannot be a compromise on a compromise”. This referred to the 78 per cent of the territory occupied by Israel and the 22 per cent that Palestine had been left with.

Who started the war remains a matter of debate and controversy but Israel won.

Israel had captured the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. With the exception of the Sinai, which Egypt regained as part of the 1979 Camp David Accords, Israel still holds all these territories and has indicated that it will not relinquish Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, thus contravening Resolution 242. Essentially, Palestine was pushing for a return to the 1967 borders, which Israel rejected saying that would endanger its security.

A major contention revolved around the final status of Jerusalem, which determined the fate of the talks. Another collapse. Palestinians demanded complete control over East Jerusalem and the holy sites of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. On the other hand, Israel proposed that the Palestinians be granted “custodianship” of the Temple Mount and not sovereignty. Palestine insisted that Israel had no right to maintain Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the 11-day bombardment of Gaza by Israel in May and the rocket-firing were triggered by tensions around the Temple Mount or the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It boils down to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank where, according to a Human Rights Watch report, Israeli authorities methodically privilege Israeli Jews and discriminate against Palestinians.

In a past interview with this writer, the Ambassador of Palestine to Kenya, Hazem Shabat, accused Israel of provoking East Jerusalem. “Israel is evicting people from Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, who had been living in their houses for over a century on the basis that there is suspicion that these plots or areas once belonged to a Jewish organization in 1870, which is preceding the existence of Israel by almost half a century,” Shabat said in May.

Shabat noted that the evictions failed to recognize that the people who were living there were driven out of their homes in other cities of what is now Israel, where they left houses and stretches of land they had owned before they took refuge in Jerusalem.

At the time, Oded Joseph, Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, admitted to an ownership row over the properties and said the matter was in court.

When provoked, Hamas, a militant group that controls Gaza, has often resorted to violence. The conviction that the conflict can only be solved violently, Ambassador Shabat says, is because after 30 years of negotiating with Israel, the situation has “deteriorated beyond redemption, beyond salvation”. “How come I have been negotiating for 30 years, accepting all international parameters? We had the Mitchell plan, we had the Tentative plan, we had the Roadmap, we had to have the international quartet overseeing the peace process. All which I have collaborated with, and fulfilled commitments but still the result is zero,” says Shabat, adding, “And when the peace process started, there were 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Today, as we speak, there are more than 700,000.”

“So basically, the signal that is given is that these negotiations or the political cause will not yield any results. And by doing so we’re just prolonging the misery of the Palestinian people as Israel only understands the language of power. And this is how we should speak to Israel,” Shabat says.

For honest negotiations, he says, the international community has the duty to force Israel into compliance with international law just as it does with any other country that breaks it.

This includes UN resolutions, including Resolution 242 that calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories and respect for territorial integrity.

What doomed the Oslo Accords is also what made them possible in the first place: constructive ambiguity.

Despite the blame game between the two envoys, which is essentially a reflection of the positions of their respective governments, they do have a common position — that the solution lies in honest negotiations.

Ambassador Oded says the solution is to go back to the negotiating table and reach a deal that allows Palestine and Israel to live side by side in dignity. But he argues this has not been possible because “the Palestine Authority has no control of the talks as Hamas has taken over”.

In all this, there is the significant influence of the various external forces in the Arab world and in the West who are remote-controlling the positions held. Given the various interests, and the fears and the mistrust between Israel and Palestine, a solution seems out of reach.

In May 2014, for instance, Martin Indyk, US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, blamed the construction of Jewish settlements for the breakdown of peace-making with the Palestinians. Indyk said neither side had “the stomach to make the necessary compromises”, but singled out settlement-building on occupied territory as a particular obstacle. Israel fired back, accusing Indyk of hypocrisy, saying he had known construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would continue during the discussions.

Palestinians continue to be on the receiving end.

In a report titled A Threshold Crossed: Israel Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution released in April, Human Rights Watch accused Israel of apartheid in the Occupied Territories. A summary of the reports reads in part,

Several widely held assumptions, including that the occupation is temporary, that the “peace process” will soon bring an end to Israeli abuses, that Palestinians have meaningful control over their lives in the West Bank and Gaza, and that Israel is an egalitarian democracy inside its borders, have obscured the reality of Israel’s entrenched discriminatory rule over Palestinians.

Human Rights Watch said that laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy.

In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

This was not the first time such claims were being made.

In March 2017, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia published a report accusing Israel of imposing an “apartheid regime” of racial discrimination on the Palestinian people.  It was the first time a UN agency had publicly made the accusation, said ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf, a Jordan national.

Israel likened the report to Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda publication. This remains Israel’s position. Ambassador Oded described the report as bad propaganda that should not be bought.

In a 2005 study, The Future of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the US Institute of Peace blamed the Israeli political system, saying it has become a serious obstacle to a solution. “Any likely governing coalition in the coming years will probably be unable to sustain more than a partial peace process before collapsing under the weight of internal coalition contradictions,” it said.

As predicted, things didn’t get any better under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime, going by the 2014 and 2021 bombardments, and according to experts, the new government will not be any different.

Palestine was pushing for a return to the 1967 borders, which Israel rejected saying that would endanger its security.

Writing for The Conversation, Ian Parmeter, Research Scholar at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies of the Australian National University, says the new government has “strange bedfellows”.

The eight parties in the coalition range from the right-wing nationalist Yamina party to social-democratic Labor and left-wing Meretz. And for the first time in Israeli history, the coalition includes an Arab-Israeli party, Ra’am, whose four Knesset (parliament) seats enable the coalition to reach a majority. Another oddity of the new government is that Yamina leader Naftali Bennett will have the first two-year turn of a rotating four-year prime ministership with Ya’ir Lapid, leader of centrist party Yesh Atid,” he writes.

The coalition’s fragile make-up will almost certainly eschew initiatives to advance negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority for a two-state solution as Bennett is in some ways more right-wing than Netanyahu.

Natan Sachs, Director of the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy, corroborates this in a Twitter thread, ”Bennett is very (very) right-wing on the Palestinian issue. Much more so than Bibi . . . Bennett is ideologically opposed to a two-state solution.”

The continued occupation, the blame games, the domestic politics, the religious positions and the global politics paint a very grim picture of an unending conflict.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Eliud Kibii is a sub-editor with The Star newspaper and writes on international relations, security and electoral processes.

Politics

I’m Lovin’ It: Kenyans’ Sadistic Fascination With Exams and Failure

Our contradictions point to a country that is deeply conflicted about itself. We are inauthentic and sadistic, bent on exerting and affirming the power of the colonial state, no matter what it does to us.

Published

on

I’m Lovin’ It: Kenyans’ Sadistic Fascination With Exams and Failure

I vividly remember an incident that occurred when I was a graduate student in the US. We were having this conversation with an American on campus, when I animatedly said, “I’m so loving this!” The American then saw fit to correct my English, and promptly told me, “In English, we don’t say ‘I am so loving.’ We say ‘I love.’”

This ignorant American, in his own country, seemed unaware that “I’m lovin’ it” was a phrase that had been popularized by the Justin Timberlake song “I’m lovin’ it” and, in a classic manipulation of culture by corporations, had become the tagline for McDonalds commercials. I said, “I’m so loving” very aware of that dynamic. I was also teaching undergraduate American students. They said this all the time and I was simply borrowing a phrase from them.

This American knew I was a graduate student and I must have had a fairly decent command of English, but that did not count. His boldness came from his assumption that, listening to my Kenyan accent, I couldn’t possibly know English well enough to play around with the language. He needed to remind me that when it comes to the English language, he ranks higher than I do.

The incident is an illustration of how purist notions of language and grammar are not innocent of certain social assumptions, and most of all, innocent of power. What language is considered “correct” depends not simply about what people say, but also about our assumptions about a person and their social status.

This complexity of language is exemplified in Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s recent humiliation of Kenyan nurses who purportedly failed the English language test necessary for them to work in the UK. The contradictions of the whole incident are mind-boggling. All the social dynamics of language were forgotten when the media, true to its hatred of educated Kenyans, celebrated that Kenyan nurses had failed the entry English test requirements.

Healthcare: The Kenyan middle passage?

Unlike what Kenyans are celebrating, Kagwe did not suggest that the nurses could not speak English. His beef was that they did not prepare for the tests well enough. In fact, he added that the role of the health workers is to prepare for the exams, and at no point did he express concern about the ability of the nurses to communicate in English.

But more troubling is that as the media and Kenyans sadistically celebrate the nurses’ failure, they forget how twisted and insidious the context of the conversation is. The context is the Cabinet Secretary for Health, whose job is to take care of Kenyans’ health, in a government that is supposed to provide work opportunities for Kenyans, telling the clinical officers that he will negotiate and sell their labour to countries abroad. And the conference attendees accepting this logic and clapping.

As Mkawasi Hall recently said in a conversation with me on this matter, the idea of governments looking for foreign employers for their own citizens comes from a very dark and troubling place, where the government abandons its contract with the citizens and chooses instead to sell them to foreigners as labour.

The idea of governments looking for foreign employers for their own citizens comes from a very dark and troubling place.

This idea is even worse than what Fanon predicted when he said that the African comprador elite would sell their beaches and landscapes to European tourists and make their countries the brothel of Europe. In this case, we are returning to the Middle Passage four centuries ago where African chiefs kidnapped and sold people into slavery. To add insult to injury, our current chiefs have not learned that it is not money, but African labour, that made the West rich, and they are astonishingly ignorant of Walter Rodney’s argument that the export of African labour underdeveloped, rather than developed, Africa. It defies imagination that the African bourgeoisie can think that the export of African labour will develop Africa because the bourgeoisie are English-speaking, suit-wearing Africans getting dollars from remittances rather than the chiefs receiving guns and cloth of four centuries ago.

Reading Kagwe’s words in print, without the performance, makes the cruelty and absurdity more visible. This is what Kagwe said:

The quality of service that we provide must be at the highest standard possible. Equal to anywhere on earth. If you do that, it will be possible for us to make Kenya a health tourism destination. And if that happens, you (pointing at the audience) will benefit.

As far as I am concerned, we will continue to negotiate for you, and ensure that you work in both Europe and the Middle East. We also have negotiations going on with the Middle Eastern region, and THEY NEED YOU PEOPLE (Kagwe’s emphasis). They need you people (audience applause) and therefore you must make sure that you go there.

But in order for that to happen, we have got to make sure that the standard of our training is one that is universal. . . . Let me tell you what has happened. And this is the truth.

When we test, because there are certain tests that one has to do, depending on the region in the world that you are going to . . . for instance, the ones who are going to England have got to do tests in English, and they have got to do tests I think in computers. Our failure rate, particularly in English, is extremely high (audience laughter). We sent 300 people to do the English exams. Ten passed (Audience laughter and whistling). Ten.

So I am challenging you that this is going to happen. We are going to negotiate, yes, but you are going to have to pass the exams. Not me. You (audience laughter). So when we do those exams, let’s prepare ourselves. Let’s set the standards, so that we are sure that there is no exam anywhere on earth, that a clinical officer training in Kenya can fail.

And therefore when we talk about technologies, when we talk about the future, we need to prepare ourselves to be in that space.

It is clear that Kagwe does not care for the English communication skills of Kenyans. He cares that they pass the tests. That the media and their Kenyan adherents do not see this distinction between communicating in English and passing tests in English is baffling, given that the same people vilified 8.4.4 and praised the Competency Based Curriculum for doing away with exam obsession. Mark you, this saga comes in the week where KICD has announced the assessments of Grades 4 and 5, and Kenyans are responding with wishes of good luck to the children, despite the repeated claims that the assessments are not examinations.

So the Kenyans saying that nurses need to pass English tests to prove they can work in English are contradicting themselves. They want to equate passing tests to ability to work, yet, 1) they lament about the obsession with exams, and 2) they do not want to listen to the fact that most educationists agree that passing tests makes you a good test taker and says little about your skill in the work place.

Grammar or communication?

Now let’s go to the tests themselves. Kenyan media is mocking nurses based on information from a generic website calling itself SCL Online that claims that the tests are mapped “against the Common European Framework of Reference used to describe language ability.”

First, this SLC Online is not an official examinations body. The media has not done the homework of verifying that this so-called test was the one administered to the nurses. Second, the Common European Framework is for European countries where citizens speak another European language as their first language. In other words, the framework is for a European French speaker or German speaker seeking to work in the UK, or for a European English speaker seeking to work in Spain or in Holland. Those standards do not take into account former colonies where European languages are still imposed through the education system and exist in a coercive relationship with local African languages. So testing Africans from English-speaking Africa using European standards does not gauge the English language competence of Africans.

Let’s dig further into the abuse. According to Kenyan media reports, “nurses had 20 minutes to complete 60 multiple choice questions,” and some are listed here:

  1. My teacher ______ from the United Kingdom.
    A. are
    B. is
    C. am
    D. be
  2. What’s _______ name?
    A. –
    B. his
    C. him
    D. he
  3. My friend _______ in London.
    A. living
    B. live
    C. lives
    D. is live
  4. Where _______?
    A. works Tom
    B. Tom works
    C. Tom does work
    D. does Tom work
  5. I _______ coffee.
    A. no like
    B. not like
    C. like don’t
    D. don’t like

First, the structure of the questions is misleading and confusing, because one can put an infinite number of English words in the blanks that can correctly complete the sentences. Question 4, for example, does not capture the Kenyanized version of questions in English. A normal Kenyan expression would be “Tom works where?” It may not be the way English natives would ask the question, but heck it works. An English speaker who knows that the Kenyan is a foreigner would not have trouble understanding what the Kenyan is asking.

Unless, of course, the English patient, like my American interlocutor, is hostile to foreigners and is trying to prove a point about ownership and power. And we do know that in the post-Brexit, COVID anti-vaxxers English empire, many English subjects of Her Majesty are hostile to healthcare workers, whether they are White and English or not.

Testing Africans from English-speaking Africa using European standards does not gauge the English language competence of Africans.

When I saw question 5, my instinct was to fill the blank with the word “drink”, only to realize that the task is to choose the correct negation of the verb “to like”. This question is abusive, because before correctly answering the question, one has to realize that the question is about negation, rather than about the verb “to like”. I can categorically say that this question does not test language competence. This test did not need knowledge of English as much as practice at test-taking. Both Kagwe and the nurses’ unions are agreed that the issue is preparing for the tests, not nurses’ language skills.

My next point about this sadistic fascination with Kenyan nurses failing English exams is related to the fact that Kenya is a country where people will pontificate about African languages and fake laments about colonial languages. Why should we accept to have a colonial power sneering at our competence in English? As many sane Kenyans have pointed out, when Cuban doctors were brought to work in Kenya, they were not tested for their competence in Kiswahili. In fact, the same media enjoying the problems of Kenyan nurses was very generous in their reports of Cuban doctors also learning Kenyan languages. Why can’t we demand such consideration of the UK, since we teach in their language?

My last point on language learning comes from my own expertise in teaching French as a foreign language. There has been a debate in language teaching circles about whether to train people to speak a foreign language correctly, or to train them to communicate. About two decades ago, there was a feeling that the insistence on direct translation and correct grammar in foreign language teaching did not make learners competent in communication when speaking the language in the real world.

Speakers of a language also do not necessarily speak the language in the grammatically correct way. We should know this because of how Kenyan speakers of Kiswahili mix up their ngeli, for instance saying “kitabu yake” instead of “kitabu chake”. In front of Tanzanians who take Kiswahili seriously, a Kenyan will concede that they do not speak Kiswahili well. But the same Kenyan would probably laugh at a European who speaks Kiswahili using the correct grammatical form, saying that the European does not speak Kiswahili like a Kenyan.

In the post-Brexit, COVID anti-vaxxers English empire, many English subjects of Her Majesty are hostile to healthcare workers, whether they are White and English or not.

On the other hand, language purists also pointed out that it is difficult to communicate when you do not respect the basic language rules. What this debate meant for us as teachers is that we had to strike a balance between torturing students with grammar and getting them to communicate. For some grammatical errors, it takes time for a speaker to consistently use the correct grammatical form, even though they may know the correct one. For instance, a common error we see in Kenya is the mixing up of gender pronouns in English. And the reason for this is simple: Kenyan languages don’t have a gender distinction in pronouns. The English have he-she, in our languages we just have “anakunywa maji” for both people and animals. Are we going to humiliate Kenyan speakers because they got a pronoun wrong? Rules of grammar are dependent on many social factors besides the ability to correctly take a test.

Finally, it seems absurd that, with the pronouncements by the private sector, politicians and even Education Cabinet Secretaries that Kenya is wasting too many resources on the arts, Kenyans should be concerned about the language skills of scientists. Where exactly do we want Kenyan nurses to perfect their English, if in the same breath we are saying that the arts should not be taught? Or do we want to blame parents for not teaching their children English, now that CBC makes parents cover up for the faults of the education system?

Kenyan sadism

The fact that Kenyans have been quick to enjoy the humiliation of nurses, sold off by their own government to a former colonial power, despite all their proclamations of “titi la mama li tamu”, shows that we are dealing with deep cognitive dissonance and sadism when it comes to examinations and language. We make formulaic praises of local languages, we make formulaic laments about obsession with exams, but as soon as a Cabinet Secretary faults Kenyan nurses for failing English tests, we rejoice and sing about quality, competence and the failure of the education system.

Where exactly do we want Kenyan nurses to perfect their English, if in the same breath we are saying that the arts should not be taught?

These contradictions point to a country that is deeply conflicted about itself. We Kenyans are inauthentic and sadistic. We care less for who we actually are and prefer to stick to a make-believe narrative about ourselves, a narrative that is based on fake websites and international (read Anglo-American) recognition. Like my American interlocutor, we are deeply embedded in exerting and affirming the power of the colonial state, no matter what it does to us. We are completely hostile to analyzing power, so we prefer technical explanations and are hostile to social analysis. We lack our own Kenyan narratives about ourselves and keep measuring ourselves by the narratives of the UK and the US. This situation is completely violent, and it shows up in the rise of domestic violence, suicide and mental illness.

We need to abandon our narrative of Kenya as an “island of peace in a sea of turmoil”, and accept that we need healing from this violence that we have pushed underground into our abusive relationships in our private spaces. Other African countries may have wars with weapons against flesh and blood in the battlefields, but in Kenya, our battle is against our soul. And if we don’t treat it urgently, in a not so distant future we will be turning the violence, of which the police are already doing a dress rehearsal, into a fully-fledged war between citizens. It’s time that we Kenyans faced up to our reality of who we are to heal ourselves of our contradictions.

Continue Reading

Politics

Securing Kenya’s Electoral Integrity in the Digital Age: Censorship

Social media platforms have become increasingly central to democratic processes and civil society in Kenya must therefore remain vigilant of suppression of content online, whether by platforms or governments.

Published

on

Securing Kenya’s Electoral Integrity in the Digital Age: Censorship

On 21 October 2021, when faced with protests against the King, the southern African kingdom of Eswatini directed mobile operators based in the country to suspend access to Facebook. This is just one example—out of hundreds—where governments have turned to internet shutdowns as a means of suppressing opposition and stifling organising. At the same time, social media platforms have been accused of suppressing political speech when purportedly enforcing their terms of service. In our first article in this series, we highlighted some of the ways in which Kenyans have used social media platforms for civic participation and grassroots organising. Through these platforms, people across the world have enjoyed the ability to seek information, engage in debate, and drive movements.

The increasing centrality of these platforms to democratic processes such as elections means that the harm posed when access is disrupted is often immeasurable, though several researchers have attempted to quantify this harm qualitatively through citizens’ experiences, and quantitatively through economic impact. The Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law for example, has framed these harms as including increased citizenry backlash, economic losses, and eroded international reputation. In this article, we discuss the intentional suppression of political speech online by social media platforms and by governments, detailing the ways in which these manifest, and the dangers they pose to electoral integrity.

Suppression by platforms 

Almost exactly a year prior to the Kingdom of Eswatini’s blocking of Facebook, there were widespread protests in Nigeria over the Special-Anti Robbery Squad (SARS). Fed up with the corruption and brutality of SARS officers, citizens took to the streets. During these protests, it was reported that the army used live ammunition, resulting in the death of some of the protestors. When these reports were shared, Instagram’s algorithms flagged them as ‘potentially false’, further inflaming sentiments around the entire ordeal and leading Instagram to issue an apology.

This occurrence is but one example of the challenges facing content moderation by these platforms in Africa, and by extension the Global South. These platforms are empowered to enforce their Terms of Service (ToS) which, often, contain guidelines that restrict the spread of false information and hate speech. When detected, such content is either taken down entirely or downranked. However, enforcing these restrictions is often difficult. For one, due to the sheer amount of content shared, these platforms often use artificial intelligence to flag violations of their ToS.

These technologies are often trained on datasets that are not representative of the lived experience of Africans and as such, are biased from the outset. These biases manifest in erroneous actions such as Instagram’s response to the #EndSARS protests. Platforms such as Facebook are aware of these shortcomings; recently leaked internal documents revealed that Facebook’s artificial intelligence moderation tools were flagging cockfights as car crashes, and mass shootings as either paintball games or a carwash. While these platforms also have human reviewers to verify some of the actions taken by the moderation tools, these humans are almost always blind to the specific contexts and nuances of the societies to which the content they moderate relates.

Alive to these concerns, Facebook pledged to hire 100 moderators and trusted flaggers to cover every African market. It is not clear how many have been hired so far. It also remains unclear whether this would have a noteworthy impact as these “African markets” can further be segmented into thousands of language groups, all making use of these social media platforms, complicating moderation efforts. Erroneous flags that result in either the taking down or downranking of content have undermined efforts to raise awareness around injustice or to organise movements, as was the case in Tunisia when Facebook took down accounts belonging to 60 activists. These decisions are often consequential from a political perspective and take place in relative opacity.

These technologies are often trained on datasets that are not representative of the lived experience of Africans and as such, are biased from the outset.

Aside from errors in content moderation, social media platforms sometimes intentionally engage in suppression of speech at the direction of governments. Through transparency reports, Facebook and Twitter disclose instances where they have been requested by governments to either take down or restrict access to content based on such content violating local laws. With the enactment of laws criminalising the spread of subjectively defined false information (laws which Matt Bailey calls “fake censorship”), these platforms are effectively co-opted into censoring political speech which governments deem unfavourable.

During the 2017 elections, Facebook reported that it restricted access to 13 items that allegedly violated hate speech and election laws in Kenya. The specific content is not available on the transparency report, but this highlights the government’s ability to invoke local law to require these platforms to take down content. On the face of it, such an arrangement is understandable as governments are better placed to assess compliance with their laws. However, it becomes an issue where laws were enacted with a view to shrinking the civic space and suppressing any activism in the face of authoritarian tendencies.

In our previous article, we highlighted the subjective and selective application of Kenya’s Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act. Applied to this context, if the government were to request a takedown based on this law, Facebook or Twitter would simply comply, furthering the potential for suppression. While these platforms make it clear that they screen these requests prior to complying, the growing use of local laws which impose liability on platforms for failure to comply would incentivise them to err on the side of caution and blindly comply with requests. Turkey for example recently enacted a law that requires platforms to respond to complaints within 48 hours or face fines of up to US$700,000. That being said, some platforms such as Twitter have made it clear that where the complained of content does not violate its ToS, it would only restrict access in the jurisdiction with the law in place.

There is a discernible trend towards bringing these platforms under the control of governments. India recently withdrew safe harbour protections from Twitter due to its taking down of content associated with the ruling party. It also came under fire for allowing content critical of the government; the police raided Twitter’s offices in Delhi. India enacted new guidelines requiring platforms to appoint local representatives to handle complaints. Following these rules, the Indian government’s takedown requests have increased, often targeting content that is critical of the government or the ruling party. The co-opting of these platforms by governments or public authorities may sometimes put lives at risk. Recently, the Facebook Oversight Board recommended an independent investigation into Facebook’s suppression of pro-Palestine content at the request of the Israeli government. According to activists, this suppression sometimes puts lives in danger as they were unable to share information regarding the state of security at the time.

Internet shutdowns

In some instances, when unable to lawfully secure the takedown of content on platforms, governments resort to internet shutdowns to quell opposition. In the past decade, it is estimated that several governments have either wholly or partially shut down the internet a total of 850 times, with 90 per cent of these instances taking place in the last 5 years. These shutdowns occur on a spectrum, from blocking specific websites such as social media platforms, to completely shutting down access to the internet for entire regions. A report by Jigsaw and Access Now documented some of the most recent internet shutdowns such as by Uganda earlier this year, and Tanzania late last year.

These shutdowns are easier to implement where there are few internet service providers operating in a country, and where the government maintains significant control over them. These shutdowns have untold political and economic consequences (due to the informal sector’s use of social networks such as WhatsApp to trade). In Myanmar for example, it is estimated that approximately 2.5 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product was lost due to a partial internet shutdown – the military junta blocked access to Facebook during the day, and wholly shut down the internet every night for 72 consecutive nights. It must however be noted that using economic statistics as a measure of impact is not highly accurate in several African countries due to informal and unreported economic activity.

Erroneous flags that result in either the taking down or downranking of content have undermined efforts to raise awareness around injustice or to organise movements.

While these shutdowns are often linked to temporal events such as elections, they may sometimes persist indefinitely. In June 2021, Nigeria indefinitely banned Twitter after it enforced its ToS against President Buhari and deleted one of his tweets for violating its policies. Since the ban, researchers have estimated that Nigeria has lost US$366 million due to a decrease in economic activity which ordinarily took place through the platform. To lift the ban, Nigeria is requiring Twitter to comply with a raft of measures such as registration in Nigeria, payment of local taxes, and appointing a representative. In the past two years alone, internet shutdowns have been reported in Algeria, Burundi, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Togo, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Bearing in mind the persisting pandemic and the centrality of digital interactions during this time, these shutdowns have set a dangerous precedent, both for public health and for political speech.

Safeguarding civic space online

Earlier this year, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Coordination of National Government publicly assured Kenyans that the government would not shut down the internet. A few months later, he cast doubts over the strength of this assurance by stating that the government would not hesitate to shut down mainstream media involved in disseminating harmful content by invoking the Public Order Act. For this reason, such assurances ought not to detract from ongoing efforts to remain vigilant of suppression of content online, whether by platforms or governments. Organisations such as Access Now and the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) have been tracking internet shutdown trends across the world and raising awareness – Access Now through its #KeepItOn program and OONI through its publicly accessible probe and shutdown reports. These efforts ought to be amplified by civil society in Kenya and could be plugged into by regulators such as the Communications Authority (CA) to demonstrate the goodwill in the Cabinet Secretary’s commitment not to shut down the internet. It would also be prudent for the CA to commit to transparency in any takedown requests they make to social media platforms. On their part, these platforms should also work with the electoral body—the IEBC—and the CA to make transparent the moderation tools they intend to deploy in Kenya during the elections. Such a collaboration ought to also involve civil society so as to boost accountability.

This is the fourth of a five-part op-ed series that seeks to explore the use of personal data in campaigns, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, social media censorship, and incitement to violence and hate speech, and the practical measures various stakeholders can adopt to safeguard Kenya’s electoral integrity in the digital age ahead of the 2022 elections. This op-ed series is in partnership with Kofi Annan Foundation and is made possible through the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund.

Continue Reading

Politics

Dumped E-Waste Threatens Kenyan Lives, Contributes to Global Warming

Thousands of old refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners containing hazardous substances are finding their way into the country, putting the lives of Kenyans at risk and contributing heavily to global warming.

Published

on

Dumped E-Waste Threatens Kenyan Lives, Contributes to Global Warming

On a cold Friday afternoon in July, Wambui is standing in the doorway of her roadside shop scrolling on her tablet. The street outside is empty. A woman wrapped in a Maasai shawl sits in a white plastic chair inside the shop. In front of her are plastic toys, vacuum cleaners, and electronic cutting equipment. A CCTV camera is mounted in the ceiling.

The shop is on a busy street in Ngara, Nairobi, and as I approach, Wambui calls to me to have a look at her wares.

“UK fridges are of high quality,” says the shopkeeper. A small refrigerator with no brand name is going for KSh20,000. “But I’ll sell it to you for KSh18,000. It is the best I can do,” she says.

Wambui has been in the business of selling imported second-hand appliances for about a decade. She says it is impossible to recall the number of cooling appliances she has sold, all imported from the UK through a middleman.

Inside the freezer compartment of one of the fridges are phone numbers in blue; 0870 is a premium help number for Domestic and General, a repair company in the United Kingdom, 0121 is a Birmingham number for spares. Birmingham is the United Kingdom’s second largest city.

Large imports

Despite being a signatory to international treaties regulating and banning the dumping of damaged and end-of-life electronics, Kenya still imports large quantities of electronic and electrical goods that are considered too inefficient to be sold in the country of origin. The appliances enter the country legally and a tax is paid to customs for their clearance.

Nairobi, Mombasa and Eldoret have thriving second-hand markets for cooling appliances, numerous repair shops and dealers in scrap. I visited some 20 shops, the majority of which were selling appliances from the United Kingdom while others were trading in appliances from Germany, United States, India, and even Sweden in one case.

Nearly all the shops have an online presence, either on Facebook, on Instagram, Pigiame.co.ke, and Jiji.co.ke, while some use WhatsApp groups to post photos of appliances and their prices.

But this trade in obsolete and inefficient second-hand cooling appliances that are harmful to the climate is not regulated. In effect, Kenya lacks a proper e-waste law and does not have the capacity to manage hazardous substances from cooling appliances that have reached the end of their life. An Electronic Waste Bill was formulated in 2013 but was never passed into law.

“Heavy metals like mercury, zinc, cadmium are harmful when they come into contact with the human body or natural resources like water,” says Boniface Mbithi, the Chief Executive Officer of WEEE Centre, an e-waste recycling company. “When plants absorb water that is already contaminated with heavy metals, and people eat these plants, [this] causes cancer, kidney failure, or even leads to mental disorders.”

This trade in obsolete and inefficient second-hand cooling appliances that are harmful to the climate is not regulated.

Tony, a fridge repairman, sells fridge compressors and freezers from Germany and the United Kingdom. He cannot afford direct shipments like Wambui but he has his way of getting around that obstacle; sourcing his goods from towns like Mandera and Garissa that border Ethiopia is his best alternative. He is unaware that old, inefficient refrigerators can leak harmful gases into the atmosphere during repair.

“I have to check if they are working before they are released into the market. Some come broken. I repair them, refill the gas, and change the compressor,” Tony said. But despite his best efforts, not all appliances are reparable. Those, Tony says, are sold as scrap in the informal recycling sector.

Unaware of the harm refrigerants can cause, scrap dealers release the gases into the atmosphere as they try to recover valuable components from the appliances, contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer and to climate change.

Improper disposal

Brian Waswala Olewe, an environmental education specialist at Maasai Mara University, notes, “Improper disposal of the refrigerant into the environment destroys air quality and affects health. . . . Freon, an odourless gas, cuts off oxygen supply to organs and cells and leads to cardiac arrest and death when deeply inhaled.”

Yet, Kenya does not have accurate data on imports of cooling appliances, especially refrigerators and air conditioners. The Customs Department of the Kenya Revenue Authority claims that it does not have specific records of the second-hand cooling appliances entering the country because most imports of these electronics come in consignments together with other goods.

Although Kenya is a signatory to the Montreal Protocol – an international treaty to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances that are responsible for ozone depletion, such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which may be contained in cooling appliances – these refrigerants are still finding their way into the country.

A common trend in the Kenyan second-hand market is the sale of electronics without appliance specifications, making it impossible for consumers to determine the quality of the products they are buying. Without these details, it was impossible to identify the refrigerants present (the compounds that provide refrigeration in air conditioners and fridges) in the appliances sold at Hoist Refrigeration Services, a major dealership in Utawala, along the Eastern Bypass in Nairobi.

However, investigations show that the presence of R134a, a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant is rife. Although R134a does not pose a threat to the ozone layer because it does not contain chlorine, it is still a potent greenhouse gas with a very high potential to cause global warming and its production is being phased out under Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

“We call it an Ex-UK fridge,” explains a saleswoman who is clearly ignorant of the chemical makeup of the electronics on display at Hoist Refrigeration Services. “I have sold so many ex-UK fridges and have never had a complaint about the energy consumption,” the seller said. But contrary to the seller’s claims, a UNEP report on energy efficiency standards states that Kenyans spend an additional US$50 to US$100 on electricity every year because of using obsolete and inefficient second-hand equipment and appliances.

Banned substances

An environmental dumping report released in 2020 by the environmental campaign group CLASP and the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development revealed that the air conditioners sold in Kenya contain banned and environmentally harmful substances, with 37 per cent not meeting energy efficiency ratings above 3.0 W/W, a common standard around the world.

According to the report, Kenya imported between 30,000 to 40,000 air conditioners, of which 27 per cent contained R-22 (Freon), a refrigerant that contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer and is being phased out; 4 per cent contained R-32, a refrigerant that contributes highly to global warming; and 69 per cent contained R410a. (One kilogram of this refrigerant has the same greenhouse impact as two tonnes of carbon dioxide.)

The obsolete and harmful refrigerants and appliances were imported from China, Malaysia, Thailand and India.

Tad Ferris, Senior Counsel for the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and lead author of the joint report, said the units are “energy vampires”, sucking up vital energy needed to recover from the pandemic and the economic slowdown, and inflating consumer spending on electricity bills.

Kenyans spend an additional US$50 to US$100 on electricity every year because of using obsolete and inefficient second-hand equipment and appliances.

However, the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) has denied the existence of electronics without labels in the market. In an email response EPRA, which is responsible for monitoring and labelling of quality standards and energy performance of electronic equipment in Kenya, said, “The Authority does compliance inspections on a monthly basis across the country and has not seen any household refrigeration appliances and split-type non-ducted air conditioners lacking labels.” The email further said, “not all cooling appliances are governed by the standards and labelling scheme.”

In Kenya, the energy efficiency label is a red and green tag that awards a maximum of five stars on electronics and electrical appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators. Minimum Energy Performance Standards are outlined in KS 2464: 2020 by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), the country’s quality and standards body. To enter the market, appliances must be inspected and cleared by KEBS and other enforcing agencies, including the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and Customs.

The Energy (Appliances’ Energy Performance and Labelling) Regulations were introduced in 2016 and promoted by CLASP and the Kenyan government under the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (KCEP). However, although Kenya has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 per cent by 2030 to comply with the Paris Agreement under the revised National Determined Contributions (NDCs), it has yet to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal protocol that restricts the production, entry and use of HFCs such as R134a.

Not only do second-hand cooling appliances consume more energy and rely mostly on fossil-based energy to power them, they contain refrigerants that have the capacity to warm the atmosphere thousands of times more than carbon dioxide. A Study shows that the cooling appliances industry contributes significantly to climate change and accounts for 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Dr Collins Odote, an environmental lawyer and Associate Dean at the Faculty of Law of Nairobi University, for Kenya to reduce greenhouse emissions and combat climate change, the country must eliminate the importation and use of banned substances, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and use clean energy. Kenya is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. The country’s economy depends largely on tourism, agriculture, forestry and fishing, all sectors that are susceptible to climate change, Odote says, adding that the increased temperatures contribute to the loss of billions of shillings through droughts, famine, floods and human displacement.

Bribery and corruption

In order to get a sense of how these operations run under the radar of the authorities, I presented myself to some of the dealers as a prospective player in the business. It turns out that for bulk imports, which are cheaper, a contact — often a relative — in the exporting country is required.

Moreover, money to bribe your way out of the port is a necessity some said, and there were allegations that not bribing certain officials could result in clearance delays or impounded goods.

One of the dealers was open to doing business with me against payment of KSh10,000 for a connection to a middleman based in the UK. The deal didn’t go through, however, as a few days later, the middleman declined.

The obsolete and harmful refrigerants and appliances were imported from China, Malaysia, Thailand and India.

Experts say that rich countries are dumping e-waste in developing countries such as Kenya under the guise of exporting second-hand appliances. Exporting e-waste, non-functioning or near-end-of-life, or environmentally harmful refrigerants is a criminal act under the Basel Convention and the European Union Waste Shipment Regulation.

Yet according to a United Nations University study of transboundary movements of used and waste electronic and electrical equipment (UEEE), between 2008 and 2013, 184 tonnes of used freezers and fridges worth €1.5 million were exported to Eastern African countries, including Kenya.The study analysed EU exports of second-hand refrigerators, freezers, laptops and desktop computers considered as waste using trade statistics from the EU COMEXT database. The analysis revealed that most exports came from Germany and Great Britain. The study did not capture data on electronics exported unconventionally and therefore the number of cooling appliances could be higher.

This indiscriminate dumping of e-waste from developed countries is exacerbating the problem of e-waste management in Kenya where just one per cent of the 51.3 tonnes of e-waste generated domestically is properly managed and recycled while the rest is discarded carelessly in dumpsites and in rivers, incinerated, thrown into pit latrines or left in homes.

Speaking in an interview, Dr Ayub Macharia, Director of Environmental Education in the Ministry of Environment said, “Kenya is a victim of illegal movement of e-waste from developed countries.”

To curb dumping of e-waste in Kenya, Dr Macharia declared a ban on the importation of second-hand electronic devices starting January 2020. But the ban mainly affected old cell phones, computers and laptops sent by donors to schools and institutions and not obsolete cooling appliances.

Kenya’s biggest dumpsite

Dandora is Kenya’s fourth largest slum and home to the biggest dumpsite in Kenya. It is high noon but the sky here is grey from the swirls of smoke rising from burning waste.

Kevin, a scrap dealer, sits in front of a shack constructed from rusty corrugated iron sheets held together with cable and wire mesh. The middle-aged man agrees to divulge the secrets of his business anonymously.

“A client who imports sells me the broken ones. I get ex-UK, Japan and German-made appliances,” Kevin says. “I remove the copper and sell to jewellers or I take the copper to industrial Area, Mlolongo or Cabanas, to be exported to China.”

Kenya does not mine copper but the copper collected at scrapyards like this one is exported to countries like China and the UK, generating significant revenues for the country.

Kevin says he is just a tiny fish in the pond that is Kenya’s copper export market; politically connected people run the big deals. Security operatives visit his shop on a daily basis to collect bribes; he has secretly stashed away a large amount of copper in a storeroom somewhere to avoid exploitation from corrupt “CID” officers.

Utachukua dawa? (Will you buy copper?) ,” an e-waste scavenger asks Kevin.

The copper trade is flourishing despite the harm caused to the environment and people by the release of refrigerants into the air. Kevin doesn’t have a degassing machine; he doesn’t see the need for one. He leaks refrigerants directly into the atmosphere as he recovers valuables like copper or steel.

One of the dealers was open to doing business with me against payment of KSh10,000 for a connection to a middleman based in the UK.

“There is no harm. The gases don’t have odour,” an ignorant Kevin says, adding, “That is a scientific theory. Even if it had, you cannot compare such pollution with one caused by a motorcycle.”

Kenya does not mine copper, so Kevin cannot get a licence to trade in the mineral. But the illegal trading, the harassment from corrupt government officials and the information that refrigerants cause harm to people and to the climate have not deterred him. Kevin says he’s already teaching his son the business.

Utachukua dawa?” (Will you buy copper?), another waste scavenger asks Kevin.

This new business deal brings our chat to an end.

In another area of the dumpsite, James is sitting in his wood and corrugated iron shanty extracting copper from a fridge using a hammer. Around him are sacks containing various bits of scrap. To extract the copper from the appliances, the scavengers around Dandora use crude equipment, exposing other heavy metals and releasing gases into the air in the process. They complain of chest pains that they say are caused by the dark smoke emanating from the dumpsite.

James says he already has KSh200,000 worth of copper in a secret storeroom. The scrap copper is from fridges, construction sites and other sources. He hopes to collect KSh1,000,000 million worth of copper and maybe sell it by the end of the year. The copper will be exported to the United Kingdom, he says.

E-waste scavengers come carrying loads of copper that James weighs and pays for. He cannot tell where the copper brought to him has come from.

As I leave the dumpsite, rain falls from the heavy clouds above. In a few minutes, the water will flow in ditches and find its way into the Nairobi River a few miles away from the slum.

Hazardous substances

Scientific studies have confirmed the presence of dangerous elements, such as lead, which present a serious hazard to human health at the dumpsite. A study commissioned by UNEP found high levels of heavy metals in the surrounding environment and in the bodies of local residents.

Rich countries are dumping e-waste in developing countries such as Kenya under the guise of exporting second-hand appliances.

Lead and cadmium levels were 13,500 ppm (parts per million) and 1,058 ppm respectively, compared to action levels in the Netherlands of 150 ppm and 5ppm for these heavy metals.  But because of the economic gains that they derive from the business, residents and collectors are not willing to abandon it or to move from the site.

To make matters worse, Kenya “[does] not have regulations that guide in e-waste management and disposal, we have them in draft,” says Dr Catherine Mbaisi, acting deputy director at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

This means that influxes of obsolete cooling appliances through porous borders will continue to flood the market. According to Dr Mbaisi, the Ministry of Environment has formulated Extended Producer Responsibility Regulations that will render the manufacturer responsible for the entire life cycle of a product including a take-back scheme, recycling, and final disposal. She hopes the bill will be enacted.

Controlled Substances Regulations 2020 have also been formulated but have yet to be enacted. The regulations will promote the use of ozone-friendly substances and products, and ensure the elimination of those that deplete the ozone layer. They need to be urgently enacted because lack of regulation and the lax control of energy-hungry, toxic goods is putting Kenyan lives at risk and harming the environment.

This article was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project. Additional research by Leslie Olonyi

Continue Reading

Trending