Democracy Lab

Why East Africa's Borders Are Blowing Up

Lines between countries used to have little importance in Africa's most dynamic region. How times have changed.

In one short week in July, tension along East Africa's borders yielded nearly 120 deaths and one nasty lawsuit -- offering along the way vivid evidence of the dynamics that are shaping the region's future.

On July 3, an anonymous farmer from the Gambella region on Ethiopia’s border with South Sudan began legal action in the British courts. The claimant accused the British government of complicity with its Ethiopian counterpart’s policy of forcibly relocating thousands of Ethiopians. On July 5, nearly 30 people were killed near the shores of the Indian Ocean during an attack on a village and police post close to Kenya’s border with Somalia. On the same day more than 90 people were killed during raids on police posts close to Uganda’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Here are three different events spanning half a continent, each reported as a distinct episode. But a closer look suggests there is a common thread connecting these and countless similar incidents and stories occurring every day in the borderlands of Northeast Africa.

Violence and instability are hardly unknown along the frontiers of this region. For more than a century, rulers in Northeast Africa -- be they European colonialists, Ethiopian imperialists, or the successors of both -- have seen the frontier as a buffer zone.

The mostly arid buffer has protected the agriculturally productive, more densely populated heartlands of each state from the destabilizing effects of conflict in neighboring states. Infrastructure and investment were historically concentrated in the heartlands and state interactions with the peoples of the frontier were coercive rather than cooperative. This buffer zone also marks the meeting point of Christianity and Islam. The footprint of state authority was therefore much smaller than the territories demarcated on a map.

Much has changed over the past decade. Economic growth, energy exploration, Chinese-funded infrastructure, and American- and European-funded security operations have given Northeast Africa’s states the means and ambition to conquer the frontier. The goal is clear: capture the resources that will sustain economic growth.

But this attempt to expand the state is setting governments across the region against the inhabitants of the frontier, who have spent the last century attempting to escape state control. A closer look at Kenya and Ethiopia helps explain the pattern.

The recent violence in Lamu in Kenya is the most obvious manifestation of this new trend and is indicative of the ways in which this regional process is being overlooked by an emphasis on either global terrorism or local politics. Although the attacks in Lamu by militias linked to al Shabaab in June and July are clearly tied to both the situation in Somalia and local politics, Lamu has long been the site of tensions between Kikuyu migrants from central parts of the country and communities with much longer histories of residence on the coast. But these tensions are intensifying because of new infrastructure developments around Lamu, particularly the construction of a new $5.5 billion port. Construction of the port, which is supposed to become an export hub for oil from the wider region, has inflated local land values over the past two years, sharpening existing inter-ethnic conflicts in Lamu and its neighboring counties. (In the photo above, Lamu residents protest the port construction project, chanting, "Our land, our rights!")

Tension between communities in the borderlands used to be met most commonly with indifference by the government in Nairobi. But Kenya’s once-marginal northern region has become critical to the achievement of the double-digit growth promised by the current government. Northern Kenya hosts the country’s onshore oil reserves. It is also the site for the ambitious Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia (LAPSSET) transport corridor connecting Lamu’s new port and oil refinery by road, rail, and pipeline to the Northeast and Central African interior.

Attempting to protect investment in such projects, the Kenyan government is aggressively defending the borderlands. The most obvious part of this effort is the ongoing military mission in Somalia. But military deployments within Kenya have increased in recent years as the capacity of the Kenyan military has grown.

Military spending more than doubled from between 2000 and 2013. The reach of civilian officials has increased too. Devolution under the terms of the 2010 constitution has led to a proliferation of bureaucrats as disputes over the responsibilities of local and national government have resulted in a duplication of powers across the country.

For many local and national governments, what is taking place is the essential modernization of a backward region of the country. Few would disagree with the words of then-member of parliament for Turkana Central (and now-Senate Speaker) Ekwee Ethuro in 2011: “I don’t see any major backlash, but if there is a single-minded pursuit of the capitalist mode of production, the people might lose their traditional way of livelihood and their humanity. However, it is a necessary evil that we must live with.”

But there has been a backlash. The recent violence in Lamu is just the latest in a series of incidents across Kenya’s borderlands -- including oil-rich Turkana and in Wajir and Mandera -- since the largely peaceful elections of March 2013. For all the modernizing rhetoric, the spending on security, and the ambitious infrastructure projects, the state continues to rely on coercion when attempting to exert control over the peoples of the frontier.

Across Kenya’s border with Ethiopia, a similar state-building project is taking place. Over the past decade the Ethiopian government, controlled by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has made significant strides to overcome its structural economic challenges and to increase the capacity of the state. This has focused in particular on physical infrastructure -- roads, rail, telecommunications, and electricity -- as part of an effort to transform Ethiopia from its current status as a net importer to a net exporter. The government aims to overcome Ethiopia’s dependence on foreign aid and to guarantee the country’s stability.

The strategy is bearing fruit: The value of Ethiopia’s exports tripled between 2005 and 2012, to nearly $6 billion, as the government has overseen an average growth in export volumes of about 9.4 percent per year since 1995. Nevertheless, continued dependence on imports means that the country’s trade deficit has been widening; it topped $3 billion in 2013. The government sees the solution as lying, in large part, in the country’s peripheral areas.

Since the middle of the 20th century, Ethiopian governments have tried -- largely unsuccessfully -- to tap the economic potential of these parts of the country. After an initial push to improve the performance of widespread smallholder agriculture, the government has shifted its focus to promotion of larger scale commercial agriculture -- including in Gambella Region, the Awash basin in the Afar Region, and the Lower Omo River basin in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR). Agribusiness has already spread across the Shewan plateau in range of the capital Addis Ababa, and its more developed transport linkages.

Although often discussed in the terms of the global debate about “land grabs” -- usually portrayed as a process whereby large commercial interests (often foreign) take over vast tracts of land for exploitation, with local populations severely disadvantaged as a result -- it appears that Ethiopian-led deals are driving the expansion of commercial agriculture. The state itself is a major player, responsible for about one-third of the 1 million hectares reportedly leased for large plantations. Sugar is a key crop being grown for export, but projects also include rice and cotton.

Irrigation for these projects is one reason for the construction of large hydroelectric dams on the Lower Omo River in SNNPR. But those dams, and the even larger Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Blue Nile, will also enable Ethiopia to earn hard currency by selling power to its neighbors.

However, the Omo dams are set to have a major, negative impact on the Lake Turkana region, according to an Oxford University study, but both Kenya and Ethiopia are prioritizing the benefits of electricity production over environmental and social impacts. Hundreds of thousands of people are affected in the regions where such projects are underway. The government's plans to deliver modern services -- e.g. clean water and schooling -- to new villages to which populations are being relocated appear to have fallen short of promises.

Compared to the demographic density and political salience of the highlands, the range of smaller groups most negatively affected does not constitute a significant threat to the government’s overall control. However, the EPRDF appears to be creating trouble for itself, and there are emerging signs that donors are uneasy about the forced resettlements involved in the process. An indicator of this came in April and May, when protests broke out at university campuses in the Oromiya Region against the expansion of the footprint of Addis Ababa into Oromo areas. Dozens were reported killed.

Critics of such projects have largely focused on halting them in order to prevent what appear to be inevitable side effects. But states in Northeast Africa will not turn aside from their plans to develop and exploit the resources of their frontiers, and increasingly have the means at their disposal to follow through.

Governments are focused on the overall benefits of the modernization agenda, which should not be discounted. Governments have stressed their sovereign right to pursue development in the national interest, although with little clear definition of how the benefits of such projects will be distributed. Nevertheless, for states long perceived as heavily dependent on donors -- and open to their influence -- a new sense of economic independence is a welcome shift.

However, being lost in between are the populations of the frontiers, whose options are becoming increasingly constrained. A shift in the debate from prevention to mitigation would appear to be in order, from both governments and critics. The geographic frontiers may be the new focus of development, but social and economic frontiers are not so easily constrained in a “buffer zone”: the effects of these more assertive policies will be felt in the centers as well.

SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Is It Now Legal to Be Gay in Uganda?

The country's infamous anti-homosexuality law has been struck down -- but homophobia is still dangerously enshrined in the country's penal code.

When Uganda's Constitutional Court declared the notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act "null and void" on August 1, the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community and human rights activists breathed a collective sigh of relief. Since President Yoweri Museveni promulgated the law in February, it had cast a long shadow. But the real fight is not over -- not in Uganda, nor in many other countries that have been passing anti-LGBTI measures into law.

After Uganda's parliament passed the law seven months ago, one of Africa's most vibrant and outspoken LGBTI communities experienced a notable increase in arbitrary arrests, police extortion, loss of employment, evictions, and homelessness. Health providers were forced to reduce essential services for LGBTI people, who sometimes were harassed or even arrested when seeking care. Scores sought asylum outside the country, trading the risk of arrest or harassment in Uganda for the difficulties of asylum procedures overseas or even in northern Kenya's barren Kakuma refugee camp. Others ended up on the run in Uganda, particularly those "outed" by unscrupulous tabloid newspapers in photo montages of "Uganda's Top Homos." They moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, house to house, to avoid vigilantes, extortion, or arrest. 

Even before the president signed the bill into law, however, lawyers and activists had begun drafting a constitutional challenge -- one that any independent court would have had a hard time rejecting. The petition raised concerns of procedure and substance.

It pointed out the myriad ways the Anti-Homosexuality Act violated well-enshrined rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, as well as privacy. The act criminalized the undefined "promotion of homosexuality." Its ambiguous phrasing and seven-year criminal sentence could be used to silence speech in support of rights or health services for LGBTI people. The law also banned "aiding and abetting homosexuality" and keeping any home, room, or place "for the purposes of homosexuality," provisions which led some Ugandan landlords to evict their LGBTI tenants.

The petition also noted that parliament passed the bill without a quorum. The parliamentary rules of procedure require at least one-third of all members to be present to pass a bill. During the vote on the Anti-Homosexuality Act, Rebecca Kadaga, the parliament speaker and one of the bill's biggest cheerleaders, flagrantly ignored objections from the prime minister and another legislator that there was no quorum. A violation of parliamentary rules, according to the constitution, renders a law null and void.

It was on these narrow procedural grounds that the Constitutional Court struck down the law last Friday.

While it was unfortunate that the court did not address the substantive concerns at stake, the ruling was remarkable. In Uganda many petitioners wait years for a hearing on a constitutional matter. In January 2009, activists filed a challenge to discriminatory aspects of the law establishing the Equal Opportunities Commission -- but the case did not have a hearing until October 2011, and the court still hasn't ruled in it. In short, that the court struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act on the quorum issue was a victory in itself for the rule of law: Parliamentary procedure is frequently flouted, and lawmakers rarely see any consequences.

Understandably, human rights advocates applauded the ruling. "I am officially legal," gay activist Frank Mugisha, one of the petitioners in the court case, proclaimed on Twitter shortly after the ruling.

But in reality, this isn't entirely true. The Anti-Homosexuality Act did not make it illegal to be gay, but rather created a series of new "crimes" such as the ambiguous "promotion" of homosexuality. While those crimes are no longer enforceable, the law's nullification does not protect LGBTI people from ongoing discrimination, arrest, and prosecution, despite misleading international headlines to the contrary. In fact, penalties for same-sex conduct remain very much enshrined in Uganda's existing penal code. 

Article 145 of the code, on the books since British colonial days, criminalizes "carnal knowledge against the order of nature." That crime, too, can lead to a sentence of life in prison -- meaning Uganda retains one of the most severe penalties in the world for homosexual conduct. This provision has been rarely enforced, but there have been cases: An LGBTI activist, Sam Ganafa, is fighting charges filed in November under Article 145. Jackson M. and Kim M., two young people arrested on January 27 after they fled from a threatening mob, also face charges, as does a well-known sports figure, Chris Mubiru.

Article 145 has had far-reaching implications. It leaves Uganda's LGBTI people without access to effective remedies to abuse in the face of homophobic mobs and corrupt officials preying on vulnerability and fear. It was also the justification for the recent, deeply problematic High Court ruling in what became known as the "Lokodo" case. Activists filed a civil suit against Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo after he and police forcibly dispersed a human rights and advocacy workshop in February 2012, organized by Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women's organization.

The judge ruled that Lokodo had the right to shut down the workshop, alleging that participants, simply by talking about human rights for gay people, were "promoting" or "inciting" same-sex acts that were prohibited by Article 145. The judge even suggested that condom distribution to gay people could be unlawful -- a decision that is especially inflammatory given Uganda's high HIV rates and failure in recent years to make progress in tackling the spread of the virus. The Lokodo ruling set a dangerous precedent not only for LGBTI advocacy but for all human rights and governance advocacy; under the court's odd logic, educating people about any law would incite them to commit crimes, and thus be illegal.

Ultimately, the Ugandan government could appeal the ruling against the Anti-Homosexuality Act to the country's Supreme Court. And certainly, the law could return as a new bill in parliament at any time. Given the controversy surrounding the law, the widespread international condemnation, and the cuts and diversions of aid money that resulted from its passage, it is unlikely to come back too quickly, but some parliamentarians are pushing for its rapid return. Clearly, anything is possible in the current climate, and activists will need to remain prepared and vigilant to fight the fight on the substantive grounds.

Thus, Ugandan LGBTI people still face a highly polarized and dangerous social and political environment. Speculations that the court decision was tailored to appease donors from the Global North -- in particular, U.S. President Barack Obama, whom Museveni is meeting at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this week -- hardly help the cause of LGBTI Ugandans, given that the law's proponents scurrilously cast homosexuality as a "Western imposition." World leaders who condemned the Anti-Homosexuality Act, and in some cases withheld or redirected aid while assessing the law's impact, did the right thing -- but in failing to condemn other serious human rights abuses by Museveni's regime, such as torture by the police and military, the killings of unarmed protestors in 2009 and 2011, and ongoing threats to civil society, they leave the impression of prioritizing the rights of LGBTI people over other concerns. This inconsistent approach to rights violations ultimately leaves all Ugandans more vulnerable.

Sadly, LGBTI people in Uganda are not alone. A 2011 BBC documentary sensationally labeled Uganda "the world's worst place to be gay," but many LGBTI Ugandans reject that depiction as oversimplifying a complex local context in which activists have managed to hold hard-earned ground in the face of hostility. Certainly, there are plenty of other contenders for the moniker: Nigeria, despite having passed an equally egregious anti-gay law that criminalizes acts such as "the public show of same-sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly" has received only a fraction of the international condemnation directed at Uganda. In Cameroon, meanwhile, LGBTI people are frequently sentenced to prison on allegations of consensual sex, often after being subjected to forced anal exams that purport to "prove" homosexuality.

In Egypt -- the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in Africa -- more and more reports have emerged of gay men being arrested on "debauchery" charges since the military's July 2013 ousting of Mohamed Morsi, without a peep of public objection from the United States. In Russia, too, gays must contend with brutality from vigilante groups while fighting legislation that prohibits making positive statements about homosexuality -- legislation that is spilling over into nearby countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, which has proposed even harsher laws against so-called gay "propaganda."

Successfully challenging homophobia and transphobia, in Uganda and beyond, requires an enduring commitment to working with local civil society activists to challenge myriad anti-LGBTI policies -- not simply fleeting attention to a one-off cause célèbre such as defeating Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act.

ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images