Some 75pc of East Africans born of war are out there; let’s give them passports

Monday December 04 2023

A cartoon illustration. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Last week, the East African Community heads of state admitted Somalia as the eighth member of the bloc. There is still a lot of paperwork for it to do before it is fully settled in. If it had been a traditional African wedding, Somalia would now be working on completing the payment of the bride price.

Who is this fellow who has married into the East African family? There are the things we know about Somalia, the kind of happy stories told about the groom at a kwanjula (pre-wedding introduction ceremony), and the hard truths revealed later in the night when the guests have left and family and friends who remained behind are drunk.

And there are the pregnant stories the wise elders sitting in the corner know but don’t speak. This is one of those stories.

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Somalia has a resident population of nearly 18 million. Nearly a similar number of Somalis are scattered all over the world, as a result of the dispersal caused by nearly 30 years of civil war, drought and famine, and the quirks of colonial borders.

Just in the wider East Africa, there are over eight million Somalis who are citizens of Ethiopia. The Kenyan-Somali population at the 2019 census was 2,780,502, and some project that it will be far north of four million by the next count. There are nearly 600,000 Somalis in Djibouti, representing 60 percent of the population of the country. Tanzania has nearly 62,000 Somalis, and their number in Uganda is close to 43,000 today.


The number of Somalis in Yemen is projected to reach one million within the next five years. Adding the large populations in Oman, USA, the UK, and other countries in Africa, they are equal to, or slightly more than, those in the homeland.

Somalia is therefore a nation, and less a country. It would be the second country in the EAC to have such a large diaspora as a percentage of the domestic population.

The other is Rwanda. While its population today is estimated to be 14 million, the same forces of peculiar colonial borders, dispersal starting from 1959, and earlier 18th and 19th African state formations, and wars between kingdoms, some scholars suggest that there are far more Rwandese speakers and people of Rwandan ancestry in other parts of East and Central Africa than in what is the Republic of Rwanda today.

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In 2014, when Rwanda first deployed troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, they went to a suburb in the capital Bangui and got a big surprise. They found whole neighbourhoods of Rwandans in unexpected numbers.

They had fled to DRC during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. But when the genocidaires were defeated in the Rwanda war, and they escaped to eastern DRC, their victims who had taken sanctuary there earlier took off farther north and got on boats across the Ubangi River into the CAR. Some even spilled over into Cameroon.

Conflict, or what Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni sometimes euphemistically calls “bad politics,” also uprooted people from his country from 1966 to 2006.

Bad politics has also scattered the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, millions of them, in southern Africa and eastern Africa. Conflict in Burundi did the same.

That leaves only two of the EAC’s eight countries, Kenya and Tanzania, as the only ones whose populations haven’t been displaced to various corners of the world by internal conflict. Strictly speaking, it is only Tanzania, as many Kenyans were driven out by the politics of, especially, Daniel arap Moi, between 1980 and 2000.

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With Kenya and Tanzania the two countries that remain symmetrical, with the entry of Somalia, 75 percent of the EAC are asymmetrical or hybrid. If the latter are a substantial number, what is an East African?

If the EAC is a community of peoples, then the eight million Somalis in Ethiopia, the 600,000 in Djibouti, and the over 500,000 in Yemen are EAC citizens, although the countries whose passports they hold are not members of the Community. There are millions of Congolese who, over the years, have become Angolan and Zambian citizens. They too would have equal rights to claim to be EAC people.

The EAC could pull off a world first, and create a ninth member state, which exists as a legal virtual aggregation of multifaceted East Africans (and their offspring) who have, over the years, become citizens of other lands, because they would have been killed or starved to death if they had hung around.

Their passport wouldn’t be light blue, but grey to connote neutrality. They would be issued by the member states and, in some special cases, the EAC Secretariat in Arusha. It would come in handy if a bout of madness breaks out in a member state, and citizens flee as refugees.

The nearly two million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, for example, would not have to make do with UNCHR cards but get grey passports on which they can travel the world. Neighbouring countries would also be released from the diplomatic headache of issuing a travel document to an opposition leader who has run away to its territory, causing a dispute with a Dear Brother/Sister Leader from across the border. Arusha could do that. That is how an enlightened region would govern its hybrid world.

When all is said, thinking of the above complexities, it is remarkable how gunmen — state armies, rebels, and machete-wielding militia — have defined the EAC.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3