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The Death of Kerbino

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Was the former child soldier and businessman-cum-philanthropist killed for harbouring political ambitions?

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The Death of Kerbino
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On 14 June 2020, a Sunday afternoon, a young South Sudanese entrepreneur-turned-insurgent died a macabre death in the Lakes region. By Monday morning, gruesome pictures of Kerbino Wol Agok had already circulated on social media, especially in the WhatsApp groups of South Sudanese all over the world and soon, from Adelaide in Australia to Boston in the United States, to Khartoum in Sudan and Nairobi, Kenya, speculation was rife about who had killed him. But outside South Sudan and South Sudanese circles, not many people had heard of Kerbino, a soldier-turned-businessman who had lived in the United States and had trained with the American Special Forces.

One gruesome picture was of Kerbino lying on the ground in the bush surrounded by men in military garb, with a man who seemed to be their leader taking a photo of the dead Kerbino with his smartphone as his colleagues looked on. Another was a close-up of Kerbino’s face showing a bloodied hole in his left cheek, a jungle cap next to his balding head. A third picture was of Kerbino lying on the ground, dressed only in a sweatshirt and boxer shorts.

The official explanation by the South Sudan government is that Kerbino was an insurgent who had been killed in a skirmish with the government security forces. According to the army spokesman, “SSPDF [South Sudan People’s Defence Force] had succeeded in containing a rebellion in its infancy”.

But my interviews with South Sudanese nationals living in Nairobi and South Sudan paint a different picture altogether. Examining the ghastly pictures with a South Sudanese medical doctor in Nairobi, the consultant physician said that the hole on his left cheek suggested Kerbino may have been shot by his captors at close range, the bullet entering the right side of the head and exiting through the left cheek.

Kerbino had the muscular body of one who took his exercise regime seriously. He was born in 1982, just before the rebellion broke out in southern Sudan in 1983, and would later join the “Red Army”, the child-soldiers who were used in the war against the dominance of the North.

In 2010, five years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, Kerbino, went back to South Sudan and founded Kerbino Agok Security Services (KASS), headquartered in Juba and which by the time of his death had spread its operations to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nairobi. He had also started Kerbino Executive Conferences, as well as a philanthropic organisation, The Nile Foundation. In total, Kerbino’s organisations employed about 2,000 people.

Despite not being well-known outside the borders of South Sudan, Kerbino was a fast-rising star, at least, according to many South Sudanese who live inside and outside South Sudan. They may not have entirely agreed with his modus operandi, but many of the South Sudanese I interviewed agreed on this one thing: the 38-year-old man was destined for greater things.

Kerbino’s problems seem to have started when he was detained in April 2018, held incommunicado at the Chinese-built Blue House, the headquarters of the National Security Services (NSS) in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan.

In a recorded testimony, American academic Robert A. Portada, who had forged a lasting friendship with Kerbino, said that, “on April 27, 2018, Kerbino was arrested without charge and incarcerated inside the infamous and notorious Blue House. Despite getting closer to signing the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), the summer of 2018 saw the arbitrary arrests, most prominently of the political activist Peter Biar Ajak in July”. Ajak was a PhD student at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

Ajak, who has been in Nairobi since his release alongside his friend Kerbino, told the BBC on 24 July 2020 that Kerbino was captured and executed by government security forces. He also said that the National Security Service (NSS) has been sending him threatening messages telling him that they will kidnap and send him back to Juba. That NSS officers roam the streets of Nairobi is an open secret. Two years ago, they kidnapped some South Sudanese youth from the streets of Nairobi and ferried them back to Juba, where it is believed they were imprisoned and tortured. Their crime? They had been posting criticism of President Kiir on their Facebook timelines.

Kerbino was among seven detainees at the Blue House who faced trial. In the “Testimony of Kerbino Wol”, Portada, an Associate Professor of political science at Kutztown University, wrote: “Since March 21, 2018 seven prisoners have sat for trial in Juba. From their cells in the Blue House, the headquarters of the NSS, they are escorted to and from the courtroom while closely guarded by the NSS officers. Among the seven is Kerbino Wol, the young South Sudan entrepreneur and philanthropist. Though the trial is being held in a civilian court, each day NSS soldiers surround the building, armed with automatic weapons. NSS officers are stationed at all entrances to the court, and roam the courtroom during the proceedings”.

Portada also wrote that, “adding to the repressive environment in which the seven prisoners are being tried, the United Nations released a report on April 30 stating that it is highly probable that Dong Samuel Luak, a prominent South Sudanese lawyer and human rights activist, and Aggrey Ezbon Idri, a member of the opposition SPLM-IO [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition], were abducted and killed by the NSS in 2017. It is no secret that the NSS has committed atrocities with impunity in South Sudan. But now, Kerbino Wol and his fellow prisoners must sit for trial in the full presence of a national security agency revealed to have executed and disappeared nonviolent activists”.

South Sudanese sources that cannot be named because of the sensitivity of the information they shared and to protect their identities, alleged that Kerbino was executed by NSS officers. “Kuol Fidel, head of NSS, which also acts as the internal security bureau, and one his officers known as Akol Khor, did not get along with Kerbino. They had always been thinking of how to neuter him. So, when news came through that he had been found dead and considering the circumstances that had led to his confrontation with the NSS, many South Sudanese couldn’t fail to immediately connect Kerbino’s death with NSS”. Why would Kerbino pick a quarrel with top ranking NSS officers? Kerbino, Kuol and Akol are all Dinkas who come from Tonj, which is north of Lakes region.

“Kerbino as a civilian was rising all too fast. It was suspected he had political ambitions in his home region of Lakes. Kuol, too is believed to harbour political ambitions, if the peace agreement between Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar holds, there could be a general election in 2023”. With his rising star, popularity, youth, access to big money and international connections, Kerbino posed a threat to certain individuals were he to choose to contest the governorship of Lakes region, for example.

One of the first things that Kuol and Akol are alleged to have done, as they continually harassed Kerbino, was to close his businesses before throwing him into detention. Portada’s testimony says that “Kerbino Wol’s businesses and bank accounts were shut down by NSS”. In justification, the NSS alleged that Kerbino was supplying arms to Riek Machar. “But this is a spurious allegation”, said a South Sudanese source in Nairobi. “All this time Kerbino is alleged to have been sending arms to Riek, he was holed up in South Africa. It is evident and obvious that there are some people in the NSS who were hell-bent on nailing Kerbino”.

“On September 27, 2018”, wrote Portada, “the President of the Republic, H.E. Salva Kiir Mayardit, issued Republican Order Number 17, ordering that all political prisoners be released with immediate effect under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nevertheless, detainees including Kerbino and Peter were locked in the Blue House”. The next time the world would hear of these cases and of Kerbino in particular was during the prison break incident that took place on 7 October 2018 “to call attention to their illegal detentions”, said Kerbino during his trial.

“The Blue House already had earned a notorious reputation as one of the several sites where NSS authorities had arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, and ill-treated people to the point of death according to a report released by Amnesty International”, explained Portada’s testimony. “On October 7, for the first time, prisoners in the Blue House were able to communicate with the international media and testify to these conditions themselves”.

What happened at the Blue House on 7October 2018? Some South Sudanese who knew Kerbino’s character well said Kerbino had become increasingly incensed with his continued detention and harassment by some of the NSS officers, and had demanded that they either release him or charge him so that he could defend himself in a court of law. “On this day, a fracas ensued at the Blue House and Kerbino is believed to have staged a kind of a Rambo-style prison break in which he led a group of fellow prisoners into storming the warehouse which also acted as an armoury”.

In his notes, Portada says that, “though the state security responded by encircling the Blue House and repeatedly firing on the compound, the nonviolent prisoners negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff”. It is after the “prison break” that the state now decided to take Kerbino to court and charge him with the criminal offence of causing a skirmish within the NSS precincts”, explained my South Sudanese interlocutor. That now became his main charge. “Kerbino was taken to court in April 2019 and charged with causing mayhem on 7 October 2018”.

In his testimony, Portada says, however, that “following the October 7 incident the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU), working with friends and associates of Kerbino Wol, immediately brought his case before the East Africa Court of Justice (EACJ), seeking justice for his unlawful arrest and illegal detention. In suing the Government of South Sudan, PALU asked the EACJ to order GoSS to produce Kerbino Wol before a competent and impartial court, and to restore to him his properties and stop attacks and seizure of Kerbino’s businesses. Though GoSS acknowledged the authority of EACJ by sending a representative to a hearing on March 25, 2019, they have not produced Kerbino before the regional court nor accounted for the circumstances of his incarceration or seizure of his property”.

Instead, what the court in Juba did was to begin the prosecution’s case on the same day the EACJ asked that Kerbino be presented before it. On 25 March the South Sudan government representative said the Juba trial removed the necessity for adjudication in the EACJ.

“Called to the witness stand by the defence at the Juba court, Kerbino spoke in both Arabic and English as he delivered his testimony”, said Portada. On 11 May, after two weeks of imprisonment, NSS officers accused Kerbino his security company to conspire against the state. The NSS placed Kerbino in solitary confinement with the threat that, “we have other means of getting the truth”. But in a surprising twist of events, President Kiir offered a presidential amnesty to Kerbino.

Kerbino went home, but something had been implanted in his mind, said a South Sudanese who knew Kerbino personally. “Kerbino started toying with the idea of forming a movement that would agitate for political change. He called his movement 7th October”. Friends and foes have faulted Kerbino for seemingly acting in a rush. A South Sudanese who knew Kerbino told me that “Monydiar Maker, the youth leader of the ethnic group called Rup, duped Kerbino that he could mobilise young men for him to form a ragtag army and it seems Kerbino, in his unprocessed anger against what he considered to be inhuman treatment from the state, believed he could orchestrate change by forming a guerilla army in present day South Sudan”.

Monydiar was killed four days before Kerbino’s sudden death, possibly by the same people who killed Kerbino.

Trapped in the bush and possibly realising his folly that forming a guerilla army is not the same as starting a security company, Kerbino contacted one of his friends for help. “It is believed that Kerbino reached out to a friend, one Omar Isaak, and asked him to hire a helicopter to airlift him to Khartoum”, said my South Sudanese source. “Kerbino could have given Omar upward of $200,000 for the job”. Many South Sudanese believe Omar betrayed Kerbino and that is why he was captured.

The circumstances leading to Kerbino’s death reflect those of the death of George Athol Deng. Deng was a Dinka from Jonglei state. Short of stature but a lethal soldier, he was a favourite fighter of John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).. In 2010 Deng, who was in his 50s, ran for the Jonglei governor’s seat. When he lost the election he returned to the bush, but is believed to have been captured by government forces and summarily executed.

Despite the return of Riek Machar, leader of the SPLM-IO, to his old job as Vice President – which has however been split into five positions – South Sudan is a country still very much ill at ease with itself. “As we are talking, the country is on fire”, said a South Sudanese in Nairobi “Militia gangs are roaming South Sudan with abandon, because Kiir is a lame duck president. He does not have the control of the country beyond Juba”.

My friend said South Sudan is currently on fire: “There could be at least 10 – 15 internecine wars going on in South Sudan. The greater Dinka of Gumuruk and Pibor is at war with Murle. The Murle, who are viewed as a war-like ethnic community in South Sudan hence, always seen as an aggressor community is at war with a coalition of Dinka and Lou Nuer”. The South Sudanese also said the internecine wars have not spared intra-community’s wars.

“The Dinka sub-clans of Apuk and Aguok that come from the President’s home county of Gogrial are at war with each other. The intra-communal war among the Agar people has been going on for nearly 20 years. The Nuer of Bentiu are busy fighting the Dinka Twic Mayardit”. The Nuers, observed my friend, just like the Dinka have been fighting among themselves. “The Nuers from Bentiu have been warring with the Nuers from Warrap state. So, if the ethnic communities are not fighting between themselves, they are fighting among themselves. These inter-state fights and unrests, have made South Sudan seem ungovernable”.

Said the South Sudan national: “As if the internecine wars inside South Sudan are not enough, there has been unrest between Sudan and South Sudan. “The Malual Dinka have been quarrelling with the Missinya Arabs of Sudan. The picture coming from South Sudan is not good at all. It is from this backdrop that Kerbino met his untimely death”.

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Culture

The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema

In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?

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With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.

The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.

African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.

In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.

Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”

For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.

Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra KaiThe Karate KidAmerican History XThe Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The MercenaryThe African DoctorThe Boy Who Harnessed the WindTsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.

Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and  editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.

There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.

Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.

Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.

On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.

As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Culture

The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19

Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
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Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.

I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.

Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.

By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.

In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”

Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”

In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.

With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).

The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.

Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,

discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.

This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.

Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”

Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.

Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).

This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders

Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.

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Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders
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Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.

Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.

After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’

What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’

Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.

The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.

‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’

Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’

Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.

After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.

Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.

On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.

Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.

But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.

As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.

Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.

‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’

In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’

Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’

Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.

Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.

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