On March 5 and 6, 2020 I was given the opportunity to be part of the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and Search for Common Ground’s (SFCG) conference on “Rethinking Approaches to Chronic Crises in Africa: American and African Perspectives,” followed by a day of consultations with government agencies and think tanks in Washington DC. The conference on the first day consisted of a panel discussion on “Understanding Chronic Crises,” involving Dr. Christelle Amina Djouldé, an APN alumnus from Cameroon, and Titilope Ajayi, another APN alumnus and Nigerian doctoral student at the University of Ghana, and myself. The consultations on the second day involved discussions with state agencies, think tanks, and non-state institutions where we discussed various issues to do with displacement, media, and policing in Kenya.
During the first panel I shared some of my research findings on refugees and participatory media in the Dadaab refugee camps and the expected closure of the camp by the Kenya government. Dadaab is a refugee complex in Kenya which was established more than three decades ago. It hosts over 200,000 refugees currently, mostly of Somali origin. The discussion focused on the refugee camp as central to peace and security not only between Kenya and Somalia, but more especially for Kenya’s terrorism threat. Since 2016, debates of closure of the camp by the Kenya government have characterized Dadaab. The main reason for Kenya’s threat to close the camp was the rising insecurity due to terrorism, with Dadaab being cited as both a training ground and a mobilizing space for the Somalia-based Al Shabaab militia. This proposal to close down the camps was opposed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and later declared an illegality by Kenya’s high court. The high court’s decision was welcomed by both local and international human rights organizations. With the conflicting demands on Dadaab’s closure, I discussed encampment as a wanting policy in the handling of refugees in Kenya. In my presentation, I discussed the need to consider alternative ways that may end encampment, including voluntary returns (if the security situation permits), creation and executing of a plan of re-integration, and a path to citizenship. In particular, I underscored the reality that refugees are a people who are productive, and most of the time, law abiding. Drawing from my research, I explained not just how photography provided a window to the lived realities of flight and displacement, but more importantly, they evidenced the aspirational imperative by refugees to realize personal and corporate dreams. Too often, refugees have been represented as objects of compassion, “a bare humanity” waiting for donor support. This is not accurate. Refugees, like other human beings, have agency that needs to be tapped into by host countries and host communities.
This issue was further explored the next day. Together with APN Program Officer Duncan Omanga, (who also happens to be an alumnus of the program) we held meetings and consultations with state officials and policy analysts. The back-and-forth challenges of reintegration as a policy posed were discussed. We also had the opportunity to engage with perspectives to the unstated fears that the Government of Kenya had with the continued existence of the camp. Local Kenyan politics, and the complicated question of both proximate and offshore Somali nationalism – a problem also shared with Ethiopia – appeared to be the driver in Kenya’s position towards the Daadab camp. Notably, the terror campaign launched by Al-Shabaab, which has often used cultural and social ties with ethnic Somalis to infiltrate the Northern frontier provinces of Kenya, has not helped matters. Indeed, unlike Kakuma refugee camp, inhabited mostly by refugees particularly from South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya’s government (and by extension) public perception toward Daddab Camp (a mostly Somali enclave) is characterized by belligerence and suspicion. We discussed possibilities of demystifying the negative portrayals of refugees in the media. However, we concluded that a historical, longitudinal look at the portrayal and framing of Somalis, refugees, and terrorism has shifted across time and the stereotypical, prejudiced portrayal of Somalis in local media had become less common. Also, drawing from my research and findings on participatory photography, I highlighted how this can be useful in demystifying negative representations of refugees.
We also held discussions on the role of local and regional media in crafting a more accurate representation of the Horn of Africa, which has suffered decades of instability. Pointedly, we highlighted how the different areas in this region, though connected by thousands of years of interaction, cultural intermingling, and shared histories, were equally different in many ways. Working with local media practitioners and giving locals a voice in telling their own stories, is among the first most reliable way towards getting a holistic picture.
On the final leg of the second day, we had the opportunity to meet with state officials representing a wide variety of interests in East Africa. During a lunch meeting, we held discussions with officials who have had a deep experience working on the role of women in peacebuilding in the region. In particular, they were fascinated with my research on participatory media among refugees, and the role of self-representation as a peacebuilding tool. The meeting with officials also focused on the recommendations for using the media in ways that help build sustainable peace. In addition, I also shared findings from my APN-funded project on radio and peacebuilding after the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya to show that the role of media needs to be seen beyond the narrow confines of its perceived destabilizing influence. I also highlighted the important aspect of voice and how voice needs to be appreciated on its own and as an important tool in convening people who would otherwise not meet and at worst, people who would ordinarily be representative of ethnicities on opposite ends of the political differences in the country. As such, the role of radio and its impact on peacebuilding is sometimes the unintended inorganic, unexpected, and spontaneous outworking of the community radio. From this research, I highlighted the importance of peacebuilding efforts that emanated from radio fan clubs. Citizen dialogue through call-in shows was therefore seen as the best practice in encouraging grassroots peacebuilding beyond the policies and practices of Kenya’s political elite. All the consultative meetings offered a good opportunity for networking. In addition, some of our discussions focused on policing, and the role that the US may play in training police, especially in the Northern frontier parts of Kenya. Dr. Duncan Omanga drew from his research on policing in Kenya to comment about policing histories, the confluence of digitality, and the important questions of human rights concerns within the force.