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Kenya has imposed strict measures at the border points after many drivers from Tanzania and Uganda turned positive for COVID-19.

Corona Virus

Stop criminalising truck drivers in war against COVID-19

Investors in truck and long-distance road business are counting huge loses in the current standoff between Kenya and Tanzania in escalating border tensions in the war against the COVID-19 pandemic.

All countries have introduced stringent mandatory coronavirus testing at the main border points, with a net effect of reducing clearance for trucks carrying essential goods to less than 50%.  The current cross border tensions are escalating and are cobbled around the safety of truck drivers, the discrimination and criminalization of the business is hampering the business and seeing the harassment of people who are many times victims of circumstances.

In addition to the harassment and inhumane conditions truck drivers who are critical in food movement across the borders are going through, truck drivers have been made to incur extra fuel expenses, increased mileage per trip and even truck and cargo security, which have caused an escalation in the drivers’ monthly costs. The long queues that have been witnessed in places like Malaba and Busia border points and now the criminalized and inhuman treatment being meted on truck drivers has led to Lengthy Turn Around Times (TAT) that in turn lead to huge financial pressure on truck drivers and by extension investors in the business, some of which are defaulting on loans. 

The manner in which truck drivers are being treated presents them as people who are irresponsible and opposed to diligent business practices and testing taking place to stop the spread of the virus across the borders; are belligerent and rogue characters who are not cooperating with border officials to ensure the containment of the COVID-19. This is criminalization and discrimination of a section of the society in the war against COVID-19 outbreak, for reasons purely outside their control including poor information sharing and surveillance of health issues across the borders. Prioritizing a security approach rather than a public health intervention in a region that different democratic dispensation was going to create tension across the borders.

Among the shortcomings of previous approaches to dealing with cross border human right violation, security and peace has been the use of military interventions per se to challenges that are economic, social and cultural.  For a long time, border conflicts have been defined and approached through security policies and practices that place the state as the only player ignoring other perspectives and stakeholders.  Such an approach has denied the interventions the much-needed citizen ownership and support, which derives from both traditional knowledge and leadership practices.

In the latest on the war on COVID-19 outbreak, truck drivers are now the face of the interventions, including now being used as the melting point of frictions within the East Africa region. Within the standoff especially between Kenya and Tanzania and statistical  discrimination  in Uganda positive cases against truck drivers.

Days after President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the closure of the border with Tanzania, a senior regional official in Tanzania banned Kenyan trucks from entering the country and warned their citizens against purchasing goods in Kenya.

The Regional Development and Cooperation Strategy (RDCS), USAID/Kenya and East Africa (USAID/KEA) notes that to protect communities from the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, regional health and cross-sectoral systems must be strengthened and cross-border collaboration must increase including the facilitation of health information-sharing across borders and transport corridors and to sustainably finance health systems that address management of the migrant populations.  

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The USAID/KEA strategy notes that for evidence-based policies, regulations and standards adopted for best practices to be implemented throughout East Africa, national governments must have shared priorities that drive the development of harmonized policy.

More importantly, the strategy notes that the health needs of mobile and vulnerable populations along the borders must be addressed to prevent the spread of infectious diseases across borders.  

Given the interdependency of our countries and citizens living along borders, the closure of borders and slow of movement of trucks across the borders will definitely lead to increase in illegal businesses through illegal routes along the borders, which poses a bigger challenge of promoting the sale of illicit trade and substandard goods.

Already, trucks have been spotted using those illegal routes in Kajiado and Kwale counties, with goodies without going through tests by relevant standards bodies, drivers avoiding COVID-19 tests and denying countries revenues through import taxes.

Given the tensions between the states in the region over COVID-19 pandemic handling, it is time civil society organizations (CSOs) along the borders get involved in solving the conflicts. There is growing evidence showing how CSOS are deeply involved and leading interventions addressing human rights, land tenure and environmental issues, particularly in many developing countries.

Given their level of leadership, knowledge, grasp of local issues, expertise and influence, CSOs need to come out and advocate for peaceful handling of the current cross border tensions for the sake of the citizens living along the borders.

Suffice to note that borderlands in Africa are sites where the state, citizens, special groups, criminal groups, and all manner of groups compete at one time and cooperate at different times to achieve diverse interests. They are perpetually in conflict. Listening to the speech by the Tanzania Minister for Foreign Affairs addressing Parliament early this week, you could see the latent ill feelings within the region. 

The African Union has created structures to deal with such cross border conflicts, which interestingly no country in the East African region has bothered to domesticate. The Niamey Convention is in line with the agreement that was established by the Agenda 2063 under the aspiration of a continent of seamless borders, and management of cross-border resources through dialogue.

It complies with the actions highlighted in the road map, which consists of implementing joint cross-border investments to exploit shared natural resources and silence the guns by 2020, through enhanced dialogue-centered conflict prevention and resolution, to make peace a reality for all people. Signing the Convention is a way to concretely anchor the Agenda 2063 at national and local levels.

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The writer works at the Media Council of Kenya

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