In May 2017, delegations from a wide and diverse array of international stakeholders with interests in Somalia gathered in London to attend a high-level multilateral conference, the third major conference to be held on Somalia since 2012. Hosted by the British Government in conjunction with the United Nations Secretary-General, more than forty organisations and nations ultimately met to outline the relationship between the international community and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) over the next four years.
To this end, the conference participants unveiled a New Partnership for Somalia (NPS) and a Security Pact (SP) whose objectives -the continuing pursuit of a stable and secure Somalia- did not really differ from the outcomes of the two previous high-level conferences. Indeed, they were very much in accordance with all such gatherings held since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991. From the points of view of the conference organisers, international and local media and the newly elected FGS President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed, the conference was deemed a success, attracting as it did pledges of additional financial assistance, training and material support, as well as deadlines for achieving the full realisation of national security architecture within a federalised governance structure.
For Kenyans, however, news coming out of the actual conference, as well as in the days preceding and after the event, was much less positive and considerably more ominous. The Head of State, President Uhuru Kenyatta, facing a tough campaign for re-election in August 2017, seemed to commit the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) to remaining in Somalia until the objectives of Operation Linda Nchi, the invasion of Somalia launched in October 2011, and which had since been folded into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), had been achieved. Mr. Kenyatta was quoted as saying that “Our ultimate objective is to ensure the country’s (i.e. Somalia’s?) security is guaranteed. We cannot exit without accomplishing our goal of bringing stability and have a secure nation.” President Kenyatta was reported as asking the international community to significantly enhance its support to AMISOM; alternatively it was suggested that the UN take on much more of the funding responsibility for AMISOM. It was unclear whether KDF assigned to AMISOM would be withdrawn along with other troop- contributing nations’ military and police units as of 2020, as previously announced by the African Union; President Kenyatta was reported as stating that greater UN support would accelerate the planned draw down of AMISOM soldiers.
Back home neither the Kenyan media nor any of the opposition leaders took much notice of the president’s declarations that the KDF would stay in Somalia to pacify and stabilise Somalia; editors were happy to express patriotic sentiments supporting continued KDF presence because, as the Sunday Standard stated, “Al Shabaab strikes when we relax and retreats when we advance, the idea being to wear down the KDF to desperation and withdrawal. This is why President Uhuru Kenyatta has made it clear that the army is in Somalia for the long haul. Withdrawal would mean loss of national face and a propaganda coup for the Al Shabaab.” And that was that as everyone turned all their attention to politics and the price of ugali.
Operation Linda Nchi
On Sunday, 16 October 2011, a column of approximately 1,800 Kenya Army troops crossed into Somalia from their bases in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa. Although supported – when weather permitted – by helicopter gunships and Kenya Air Force F-5s, this was essentially a conventional motorised assault against Al Shabaab terrorists. During the five weeks prior to the cross-border assault, suspected Al Shabaab militants had allegedly attacked Western tourists in Lamu and had also abducted two Spanish Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers from the vicinity of the Dadaab refugee camps. Throughout 2011, there had also been an upsurge in-fighting inside Somalia between AMISOM, Somali government forces and the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab militia. The latter had been pushed out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and was relinquishing control over towns in central Somalia where much of the population was experiencing serious famine. Further south, Al Shabaab had retained control of Kismayu with its strategic functioning port facilities and, in the areas adjacent to the Kenya border, held increasing sway over the population.
Although I initially viewed Operation Linda Nchi as a legally permissible punitive strike against Al Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, the longevity and development of the operation, as well as evidence that Al Shabaab terrorists were not involved in attacks on tourists in Lamu or in the kidnapping of the two Spanish MSF employees in Dadaab, caused my views to shift to more prosaic and indefensible reasons.
This cross-border incursion had limited objectives and the columns’ various combat elements – armoured fighting vehicles, towed artillery, troop transports, donated American Humvees, lorries, British supplied tanks, Land Rovers – were not accompanied by ambulances, fuel trucks, combat support engineers, water bowsers, mobile kitchens, specialised command-and-control armour-proofed vehicles or heavier artillery pieces. The numbers of troops initially committed and the configuration of the attack column gave no indication that the KDF had planned a campaign to last beyond Christmas 2011.
The very limited objectives of Operation Linda Nchi included recovery of those kidnapped ostensibly by Al Shabaab terrorists, pushing the group’s units away from the international border and retaliating for previous terrorist attacks against targets within Kenya, however infrequent and sporadic they may have been; in fact Kenya had largely escaped the sort of Al Shabaab terrorism unleashed against civilians in Uganda in 2010, which had troops actively engaged in combat with Al Shabaab on behalf of the Mogadishu authorities.
Within two weeks of the Kenyan troops crossing into Somalia, Al Shabaab launched a still ongoing, albeit intermittent, campaign of terrorist attacks on mainly civilian targets in and around Nairobi and Mombasa, as well as throughout the counties of the former North Eastern, Eastern and Coast Provinces. Al Shabaab also increased recruitment within Kenya and a local branch developed, seemingly focused on exploiting domestic alienation and historical anti-government grievances among Muslim communities who viewed themselves as being largely marginalised and discriminated against by successive post-independence governments. Attacks against soft targets inside Kenya have waxed and waned. Though Nairobi has been spared similar attacks to that on the Westgate Mall in 2013, which killed at least 68 people, Al Shabaab has since 2012 massacred students, civil servants and workers across Mandera, Wajir, Garissa and Lamu counties. Continuing assassinations of chiefs and subchiefs, as well as occasional successful attacks on isolated police posts and ambushes within Kenya of KDF convoys and police patrols, are clear evidence that Al Shabaab’s somewhat minimal presence in 2010 inside the four counties bordering Somalia has developed into a self-sustaining domestic insurgency.
The situation in Mombasa has also become increasingly confused since 2011, mainly because of heavy-handed government repression and extrajudicial executions targeting radical Imams and alleged Jihadist recruits, apparently with the tacit support of foreign intelligence agencies.
Operation Linda Nchi – A Confluence of Interests?
During the thirty-six years since I first arrived in Kenya, the security relationship between Washington and Nairobi has undergone substantial changes in scope, in activities undertaken and in financial support given, as well as in the expectations and motivations of all participants and stakeholders. Between independence in 1963 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kenya had been a reliable, albeit not terribly strategically important, ally of the West against the spread of communism, whether in East Africa or throughout the Greater Horn of Africa region. All Kenya had the port of Mombasa and its relatively stable and peaceful political environment in which a host of service industries (i.e. finances, logistics, education, communications, light manufacturing built on import substitution, and export-oriented agricultural enterprises) seemed to operate reliably and efficiently, especially when compared to the rest of the region. Kenya had also attracted the only UN Headquarters located in Africa, numerous foreign correspondents and both major and minor international media institutions. During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, international NGOs and development agencies established regional offices and substantially increased the inflow of donor dollars, whether for project support or simply to conduct daily operations. The country also experienced a genuine tourism boom which benefited from – by African standards – her superior infrastructure (i.e. all-weather roads, international and domestic air connections, seaport, etc.) and a well-developed hospitality industry. Despite her one-party government, price and exchange controls, and a growing movement advocating greater democracy, increased economic opportunities and an end to rising levels of government corruption, Kenya was a haven of stability and pragmatic African nationalism.
None of the foregoing should be dismissed as a somewhat irrelevant backstory. The same factors that made Kenya a moderately useful ally during the Cold War can still be found today. Kenya remains an essential hub for major humanitarian and relief operations in the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)and Burundi, and is a vital component in international antipiracy operations. She has become increasingly important to the conduct of US counterterrorism operations focusing on the Al Qaeda leadership co-located with Al Shabaab elements within Somalia and elsewhere in the region.
Although I initially viewed Operation Linda Nchi as a legally permissible punitive strike against Al Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, the longevity and development of the operation, as well as evidence that Al Shabaab terrorists were not involved in attacks on tourists in Lamu or in the kidnapping of the two Spanish MSF employees in Dadaab, caused my views to shift to more prosaic and indefensible reasons.
The launch of Operation Linda Nchi substantially altered the relationship between the Kenyan and US governments.
Just as Operation Linda Nchi effectively constituted a “declaration of war” on Al Shabaab and other radical Islamic terrorists – and changed Kenya forever – the successful Al Qaeda attacks in September, 2001, on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon transformed how the US government perceived global threats to homeland security; much of the language used to describe the global danger to America of radical Islamic Jihadist terrorism is eerily reminiscent of the views of threats posed by international communism in the aftermath of the Second World War. The “enemy” then was exemplified by the Soviet Union and mainland China, as well as such bit players as Cuba, Vietnam (North until 1975) and North Korea. Because all of these enemies were essentially state actors, American responses could be characterised as merely adaptations of traditional statecraft (e.g. diplomatic, political, military, economic, etc) somewhat modified to fit post-war United Nations conventions.
Since 9/11 traditional statecraft, whether modified or adapted, has been pretty much thrown out the window, the “enemy” in our Global War on Terror seems mainly comprised of non-state actors fighting to impose their ideology of radical Islam wherever an opportunity arises. Although violent Jihadists may be sponsored or supported by established nations and may even seek to overthrow existing governments (e.g. Mali, Somalia, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan), the received wisdom and emerging doctrine within ascendant Western security establishments views the current conflict as being both global and forever. This has led to new ways of assessing “victories” and conducting operations whose effect on US-Kenya bilateral relations may not be obvious but is nonetheless pervasive and with consequences that are unintended and little commented on.
Despite occasional statements paying lip service to promoting good governance, countering insurgency (i.e. hearts and minds activities, developing partners’ security capacities, etc.) and promoting a human rights agenda, short-term success is measured by the elimination of “wanted” Al Qaeda/Al Shabaab terrorists with little or no loss of American lives; financial considerations are secondary. In addition, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 “nation building”, as a modern term for either small wars or counter insurgency campaigning, has fallen completely off the charts used by American and nearly all Western leaders. For example, in Somalia the US is following a policy of stabilisation which is inherently short term in nature and which has no overall strategic objectives.
In this scenario, Kenya, as a stable geographical entity with a friendly government, has assumed much greater importance than at any time in its nearly 40 years of military cooperation with Washington. In fact the nature of America’s “Forever War” since 9/11 gives the Kenyan government much greater influence in its relationship with Washington than was ever the case even at the height of the Cold War when American efforts in Africa concentrated on suppressing threats posed by the Soviet Union, Cuba or East Germany and such proxies as Libya and Ethiopia.
Another thing that is seldom appreciated is how many “survivors of terrorism” are driving America’s post 9/11 security agenda. For example, the present US Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, survived the Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi on 7 August 1998 and his career assignments since then have involved various aspects of the US government’s Global War on Terrorism. His immediate predecessor, Scott Gration, was on duty at the Pentagon on 9/11 when hijacked aircraft slammed into the building; he was also a senior officer who witnessed the terror bombing in the early 1990s of the Khobar Barracks used by US Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia.
Further, I believe an appreciation of the connections and links between the individuals running the US security agenda in the Horn are critical to any assessment of the US government’s assistance to Kenyan security agencies. When Operation Linda Nchi was launched, Ambassador Scott Gration, a retired Major General in the US Air Force, was the US Ambassador to Kenya; he had previously served as the Obama administration’s representative in Juba, South Sudan. Ambassador Gration had grown up in Kenya and, as a US Air Force Major, had from 1983 to 1984, worked closely with Julius Karangi, then a Kenya Air Force Major, when the US government supplied Kenya with F-5 jets and instructors. Major Karangi, who was then in charge of US-Kenya military assistance programs, had risen to the Chief of Defence Forces when Operation Linda Nchi was launched.
US training and logistics assistance to Kenya increased substantially during 2012, although Gration resigned on 21 June 2012. Gration remains active in business and missionary circles in Kenya. General Karangi retired from KDF in 2015 but remains highly influential inside the government and its security architecture, as well as in business circles.
The political class in Kenya is oblivious of the existential security threats confronting Kenya; there is an ingrained belief in the nation’s exceptionalism and resilience based on little more than hope and an unwillingness by the media, government, civil society and the private sector to demand accountability from their friends, relatives and colleagues occupying senior positions of power, influence and responsibility when things go wrong.
Although Scott Gration served as Senator Obama’s military aide during the latter’s visit to Nairobi in 2006 and was one of the first generals to support Obama for president in 2008, he has close ties to Dr. Jendayi Frazer, a former Republican Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs serving through January 2009; Dr. Frazer has been associated since 1990 with the Kenyatta family and does business in East Africa – especially in Rwanda – and is a strong proponent of fighting Islamic Jihadist terrorism, especially in East Africa. During her tenure as Assistant Secretary of State, the Kenyan government allowed the recruitment of ethnic Somali Kenya citizens and Somali refugees from Dadaab who were trained in Manyani by retired US personnel and serving Kenya Army officers and then sent in Somalia National Army uniforms to fight Al Shabaab; this project was eventually abandoned and by August 2011 some wounded survivors made their way to Mandera. This entire operation remains shrouded in secrecy but seems to have fallen apart when funds for salaries and logistics were stolen, with the fighters in Somalia being literally abandoned and left to their own devices; an unknown number of these trained soldiers were alleged to have defected to Al Shabaab. The financing of these sorts of shadowy military operations, which date back in concept to the late 1940s, has always been “off the books” and not subject to normal financial and performance audits.
While researching KDF “Order of Battle” reports compiled by various professional risk analysts, I noticed that there are 100-110 T-72 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) still listed in Kenya Army inventories; the KDF has never purchased or deployed the Soviet era tanks although the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) Juba government took possession of such equipment when Scott Gration was the US government representative. Somali pirates had inadvertently captured a vessel carrying 33 T-72s, which was rapidly freed and made its way to Kenya where its cargo was offloaded in Mombasa from where the tanks, ammunition, spare parts and accessories were transported by rail and road to South Sudan; the Kenyan military would have been the only Kenyan government agency with the necessary means and capabilities to ensure safety and security of this and previous transfers of heavy war materials and weapons to the SPLA in Juba even before South Sudan formally achieved independence. (Whether the Auditor General has ever queried how over a hundred MBTs were added to the KDF assets register and whether this procurement, including payment to the supplier, was properly documented remains unknown.)
The launch of Operation Linda Nchi substantially altered the relationship between the Kenyan and US governments. Washington had not been formally advised about the incursion and the seemingly open-ended nature of this punitive expedition -which had failed by Jamhuri Day, 2011, to accomplish any of its limited objectives- presented the Obama administration with an unforeseen dilemma as it opened up another front in the US Global War on Terrorism. Kenya increased its forces inside Somalia to 4, 660 and announced that the main objective of the campaign was to seize the port of Kismayu after clearing Al Shabaab forces from an expansive zone –Gedo/Juba – adjacent to the international border. In addition, the government negotiated the permanent inclusion of some 3,600 KDF troops into AMISOM; this “rehatting” was essential if Kenya were not to be bankrupted by its invasion of Somalia.
An additional consequence of Operation Linda Nchi was a nearly immediate upsurge in Al Shabaab terrorism, not only in the four frontline counties along the Somali border but increasingly directed against civilian targets in and around Nairobi as well as in Mombasa. the Kenyan security forces’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities became obvious, which prompted more financial assistance from the United States and its Western allies to Counter Violent Extremism/Counter Jihadist Terrorism.
Similarly, well-documented governance issues and failures of the Kenyan government to manage basic administrative functions normally associated with a modern nation state – and essential for any success to be achieved in countering insurgency or fighting terrorism – have merely attracted more money for more quick fixes, community-based development solutions as well as increased joint training opportunities for selected KDF elements and, occasionally, counterparts from the United States (e.g. Massachusetts Air National Guard – September 2016). There are also ongoing deployments of US Special Forces personnel to “train, advise and assist” their KDF Special Forcescounterparts; the only time such activities come to light is when a US service member dies while temporarily deployed to Kenya and a notice briefly appears in some home town media outlet. Correspondent Margot Kiser has also reported in the Daily Beast about US soldiers in the Boni Forest / Lamu area.
On the Kenyan side of the bilateral relationship, there is a permanent, long-standing community of diverse political, social, economic and commercial interests, all of which derive benefits from continuing participation of the Kenyan government in America’s Forever War as it plays out in the Greater Horn of Africa. As will be explained in greater detail, regardless of the initial factors that motivated Operation Linda Nchi, there is no longer any reason to believe that the Kenyan government’s actions since 2011 have anything to do with strengthening Kenya’s national security within the context of the 2010 Constitution and in accordance with legitimate and acceptable national interests. The political class in Kenya is oblivious of the existential security threats confronting Kenya; there is an ingrained belief in the nation’s exceptionalism and resilience based on little more than hope and an unwillingness by the media, government, civil society and the private sector to demand accountability from their friends, relatives and colleagues occupying senior positions of power, influence and responsibility when things go wrong.
In 2014, I wrote about how Kenya had become a nation of “spin” and PR:
“… Kenya has developed into a nation where shameless deception and lying have become standard operating procedure in both public and private sectors; the effects of this Orwellian dystopia we have learned to accept initially means that we fail to identify and fix problems and ultimately suffer increasingly greater financial losses… our economy fails to grow and .. youth radicalization, crime and insecurity increase nationally.”
Although I was referring to the reporting in the media of bank failures, financial fraud and regulatory incompetence, it is true that the spinning of reality and PR whitewashes have replaced news reporting and analyses of all matters security.
With hindsight, Operation Linda Nchi was launched to put Kenya firmly on the side of the US and other western allies in the Global War on Terrorism but with little thought given to the country’s national security needs, capacities and capabilities.
Further, Kenya’s failure to implement anti-money laundering policies and procedures has gone well beyond inhibiting economic growth and facilitating corruption. “Kenya on US blacklist over terrorism laws,” the Daily Nation reported in March 2012. The country had been found to not be lax in enactment of legislation criminalising the financing of terrorism. Nearly eight months later, Kenya remained on watch lists of countries failing to make sufficient progress to curb money laundering and to counter terrorist financing.
An example of how half full – even nearly empty – water glasses can be described as opportunities to turn lemons into lemonade can be found in an article in the Standard on Sunday by Prof. Peter Kagwanja. In the piece, titled “Latest move by USAID a warning to end dependence on aid”, he characterised the recent US suspension of $21 million earmarked for the Ministry of Health (after the Auditor-General found that billions of shillings in the ministry could not be accounted for) as being done on political grounds, ostensibly because corruption is a major campaign plank of the opposition; the suspension, he argued, presented an opportunity for Kenya to wean itself off aid.
However, Prof. Kagwanja finishes up by mentioning the US government’s commitment to spend $30 million on the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), implying that such spending constitutes approval rather than acquiescence. He also described the donation to the KDF of eight unarmed light transport helicopters and State Department approval of a controversial and seemingly hugely overpriced $418 million purchase of close air support aircraft, as examples of positive American support for the Kenyan government’s efforts to deal with terrorism and violent extremism.
Prof. Kagwanja is considered an international relations and security affairs expert and has presented his analyses and opinions on governance and security at the Washington DC Africa Center for Strategic Studies – an influential think tank affiliated with the Pentagon. As a senior and respected scholar, his views count and his credibility is seldom questioned by Americans active in the post- 9/11 Forever War on Global Terrorism. Whether US aid to Kenyan security forces is used effectively or KDF procurement decisions contribute to countering terrorism within East Africa is less important to the US officials involved than is protecting the American Homeland against Jihadist terrorism originating overseas. As will be explained, such disconnects between reality and fantasy, as well as different views on objectives to be achieved and relevant timelines, have created a perfect storm for national insecurity in Kenya as well as elsewhere throughout the Greater Horn of Africa.
Kenya’s War on Terror: Scorecard and Evaluation
The KDF Defence White Paper 2017, launched by President Kenyatta on 3 May 2017, emphasises threats to national security posed by neighboring states’ armed forces, as well as the existential threats in the form of radicalised Islamic youth tragically influenced by external Jihadist forces to become terrorists at home and abroad. Local influences and issues that motivate violent extremism, regardless of religion or political affiliation, are glossed over and no mention is made of the sort of counterinsurgency operations conducted by the British colonial authorities in Kenya in the 1950s against Mau Mau freedom fighters –then also referred to as terrorists – who were often executed as criminals when captured rather than treated as enemy combatants. There is no reference at all to counterinsurgency operations that focus on domestically-instigated conflicts.
This White Paper perfectly captures the thinking of the government’s and the country’s political class and corresponds to local interpretations of the place of Kenya in America’s Global War on Terrorism. Al Shabaab is essentially an insurgent group primarily fighting to take power in Somalia. It may have irredentist ambitions to establish a Greater Somalia within the Horn of Africa, and no doubt sees the frontline counties of Kenya adjacent to the international border as well as Tana River County and significant portions of the former Coast Province as being included in its area of operations. From a strategic perspective and remembering its main objectives, it is very likely that US military commanders view all of the Greater Horn of Africa as being one area of operation in the Global War on Terror -whether coordinated by Africom in Germany or US Centcom in Tampa, the enemy is Al Qaeda and its affiliate Al Shabaab, both of which are deemed to pose threats to Americans at home. The one stakeholder that has failed to embrace this expanded geographical combat zone has been Kenya which relies on borders, its role in a globalised war on terror and a notionally separate chain of command in AMISOM, to explain away the lack of progress in defeating Al Shabaab and improving domestic peace and security. It is the only actor seemingly without its own national objective.
A recent Transparency International (TI) report on Nigeria examined the negative effects of massive corruption within military procurement, troop support and administration on the war against Boko Haram. -Nigerian officials are literally stealing their soldiers’ capabilities to defeat Boko Haram! Kenya is now on the cusp of Nigerian-style military procurement corruption.
Conceptually, Operation Linda Nchi was flawed from the very beginning, and not because conventionally trained soldiers cannot defeat guerrillas. There was no reason to believe that Al Shabaab would engage in direct combat with the better armed and equipped Kenya Army professionals. Al Shabaab has historically disengaged on its own terms when in contact with AMISOM forces. And like AMISOM, the motorised road-bound KDF units occupied space without significantly diminishing Al Shabaab’s tactical capabilities.
Even assuming that the strategic objective underlying Operation Linda Nchi was to ultimately establish a permanent presence in support of a client semi-autonomous Jubaland Administration, the inevitable terrorist blowback within Kenya since the end of October 2011 has exposed massive cracks and gaps within Kenya’s entire security architecture, which have yet to be comprehensively considered or resolved despite fairly significant expenditure on new equipment and training by foreign experts of KDF and National Police Service (NPS) units and personnel.
With the assault on the KDF-manned camps in El Adde in January 2016 and Kulbiyow a year later, Al Shabaab has shown it can still mass sufficient numbers of trained fighters to successfully assault fixed defensive positions. Such conventional attacks have revealed shocking tactical deficiencies and lack of war fighting skills among KDF company grade officers and soldiers deployed to AMISOM. This latter revelation was completely unexpected and can be fixed but only if the KDF leadership believes there is a problem. Foreign military personnel generally avoid publicly commenting on these issues although they agree in private and off the record that the security leadership is either in deep denial or is simply not interested. There is no real disagreement about incompetence and poor military skills at all levels of the KDF.
With hindsight, Operation Linda Nchi was launched to put Kenya firmly on the side of the US and other western allies in the Global War on Terrorism but with little thought given to the country’s national security needs, capacities and capabilities. For example, as KDF troop numbers increased to nearly 4,600 and the Kenyan government announced its intention to join AMISOM, the government’s budgetary constraints and unanticipated consequential post- Operation Linda Nchi expenditures security operations nationwide nearly broke the bank; it became clear that much more financial support from friendly allies was required. Although Kismayu was seized at the end of September 2012 and the KDF withdrew some 800 troops, 3,660 remain assigned to AMISOM whose budgetary support (i.e. reimbursement for operational expenses, equipment losses, wear and tear, etc) remains critical to the government’s cash reserves and liquidity.
Further, opportunities for corruption abound whenever military procurement and security sectors’ expenditures take on lives of their own. Kenya is no exception although on a much smaller scale than in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. Corruption saps morale and discipline but also keeps conflicts from being concluded. Though the secrecy surrounding security spending makes it difficult to question its effectiveness and accurately track financial flows, it is not an impossible task. However, the media in Kenya has shown little willingness to undertake these sorts of investigations.
That the 7,000 Al Shabaab main force militiamen retain their ability to carry out attacks is not testament to their training or professionalism; Al Shabaab is just not that good. Rather, their continued resilience and successes on the battlefield shows how bad Kenya is at handling existential security threats.
Why Kenya’s War on Terror Failing
In January, much media attention was focused on looming cuts in foreign assistance to African countries announced by the incoming Trump Administration, citing the need to save taxpayers’ money for use at home, as well as corruption, ineffectiveness and the seemingly open-ended nature of US funding for democracy and governance programmes. Notably, Trump was asking why “we” hadn’t defeated Al Shabaab after spending “hundreds of millions” on a wide range of military activities within the Horn of Africa. Divorced from the source and disregarding the so called complexities of the Global War on Terror and the much studied internal dynamics of Somalia, Trump’s question is absolutely valid and worth asking not only in relation to Al Shabaab in Somalia but, more importantly, also in relation to Kenya’s Forever War On Terror. To be precise, how can the abysmal performance of Kenyan security forces in its war against Al Shabaab be explained?
As this article is being written, Al Shabaab militants have ramped up their terror campaign in the counties of Mandera and Garissa; at least fourteen police officers were killed in three roadside explosions this week with many more wounded. In March this year, Al Shabaab announced its intention to disrupt the Kenya General Elections scheduled to be held in August. In fact, since early May attacks on soft targets have occurred with increasing frequency.
Regardless of all the renewed expressions of financial and military assistance coming out of the London Conference, Al Shabaab continues to launch terror attacks in and around Mogadishu with relative impunity. Its forces in southern Somalia move freely, and when Ethiopian forces not assigned to AMISOM withdrew without notice from towns and villages they had occupied, Al Shabaab quickly reasserted control.
In many ways, the conditions that allowed an Al Qaeda sleeper cell to destroy the US Embassy in 1998 have become even more favourable for Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, narcotics traffickers, poachers and international fraudsters.
On 7 August 1998, Al Qaeda terrorists blew up the US Embassy located in Nairobi’s central business district; a simultaneous attack on a similar target in Dar es Salaam was less successful. Investigations into the Nairobi attack showed that an Al Qaeda sleeper cell had entered Kenya in 1993/94, acquired Kenyan IDs and passports, registered companies, opened bank accounts, established families and conducted business at the coast; all their documentation had either been obtained fraudulently or lawfully because of lapses and oversights in enforcing regulations and applicable laws in place 20 years before. In 2002 surviving Al Qaeda terrorists still in place in Kenya were able to successfully detonate a vehicle borne IED in the reception of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel on the north coast of Mombasa. Another Al Qaeda team managed to drive next to the runway at Mombasa’s Moi International Airport when an Israeli charter flight was taking off for Tel Aviv with a full load of tourists and fired surface-to-air missiles, smuggled over land from Somalia, at the plane. The missiles failed to hit the 747 but the terrorists also managed to elude capture. In 2010, Al Shabaab successfully detonated explosives in Kampala during which two venues crowded with World Cup spectators were hit. Subsequent investigations showed that much of the Al Shabaab planning, organisation and financing took place in Kenya where alleged terrorists were arrested and renditioned to stand trial in Uganda.
A recent Transparency International (TI) report on Nigeria examined the negative effects of massive corruption within military procurement, troop support and administration on the war against Boko Haram. -Nigerian officials are literally stealing their soldiers’ capabilities to defeat Boko Haram! Kenya is now on the cusp of Nigerian-style military procurement corruption. The acquisition of much needed IOMAX Air Tractor Close Air Support aircraft referred to by Prof. Kagwanja has been delayed – possibly irrevocably – because the original equipment manufacturer contends that the KDF is paying $125 million more than it should and getting them from a US Defence Contractor, L3 Technologies, that has no track record of supplying this sort of aircraft; in effect a “super broker” eating up to $125 million of Kenyan taxpayer money. The allegations are yet to be substantiated, though the US Air Force has been accused of not cooperating with congressional investigations.
As previously mentioned, the US has castigated Kenya for not doing enough to tackle terrorist financing; Kenya remained for another three years on a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) watch list of countries failing to enact legislation to curb money laundering and other assorted financial crimes. The still unresolved scam at the National Youth Service, dating back to early 2016, showed 28 commercial banks failing to report cash transactions in excess of $10,000 to the Central Bank of Kenya’s Financial Reporting Centre, as required by laws designed to curb money laundering.
The administrative chaos and regulatory confusion in Kenya militates against the prevention of the sorts of criminal activity that has brought down Dubai Bank, Imperial Bank, Chase Bank, Tsavo Securities, Discount Securities, Loita Asset Managers, Ngenye Kariuki Stockbrokers, and others. Vast amounts of money have gone missing through clever manipulation of existing laws and regulations, lax and/or complicit GOK regulators, and an overburdened outdated judicial system.
Three years ago, 18 foreign heads of mission, including US Ambassador Godec, jointly issued a letter demanding that the government put its financial house in order by enacting laws and actually implementing its own legislation. However, no timelines were set nor any punitive action described.
In many ways, the conditions that allowed an Al Qaeda sleeper cell to destroy the US Embassy in 1998 have become even more favourable for Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, narcotics traffickers, poachers and international fraudsters. Yet this has seemingly had no effect on how American tax money is spent in Kenya. The only logical explanation is that the consistent and short-term protection of the [American] Homeland is the overarching priority of the US Government; Kenya is a sovereign country and what the natives do with our “training, assistance and advice” is really not something we can or should dictate. In any case the real dilemma is that Kenya – the government, the political class, the private sector and its mainstream media – is its own incubator of national insecurity and the situation can only get worse.
The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?
The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher.
It has been more than two weeks since former Vice President Joe Biden was able to scrap and claw his way to a damaged and awkwardly narrow victory over Donald J. Trump. Despite the margins becoming clearer, the win is still ringing out hollow and empty as Trump muddies the US presidential election with claims of electoral fraud.
Biden has repeatedly come out and called for calm and reconciliation – principles of the Democratic Party that almost seem laughably archaic when viewed through the lens of Trumpism. In the bare-knuckle brawl that is modern American politics, the Democratic Party seems to have shown up wearing woolen mittens, not wanting to draw any blood from its opponent.
And what an opponent the Republican Party has proved to be! Despite everything, it managed to seemingly hold the Senate (pending crucial run-off elections in Georgia in January of 2021) and actually decreased the Democratic lead in the US House of Representatives. The big prize – the White House – was won (due to our strangely outdated system) by a factor of 200,000 votes in four key states (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada). It was entirely within the realm of possibility that Trump would have won the electoral college and massively lost the popular vote yet again – a black mark against the strategy of the Democratic Party.
So the lingering question in the air remains: what now? For something so “certain”, a great many things seem to be up for debate. Many political insiders are wringing their hands on network TV channels over whether Trump will leave the White House at all, but this may be overblown. Unless there’s an outright electoral college coup when the electors meet to vote in mid-December of this year, Trump doesn’t’ really have much of a choice. It looks as though he’ll have to retreat into a gilded cage of media-driven anger and of riling up supporters, never truly conceding that he lost, the bitterness clanging back and forth in his head beneath a sweaty mop of hair plugs and spray tan.
If the coronavirus response can be nothing else than a sort of a political bellwether, then this outcome is objectively the best. The response has been nothing short of a day-by-day horror show, the bar being drenched in petrol, set alight and then thrown rudely from a cliff.
Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics, all playing out on the whims of a petulant moron who can’t accept his own shortcomings and instead will sit on his tiny thumbs.
As has been said before, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was destroyed in a much shorter timeline. The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher. Moratoriums and stop gaps are expiring or have long since run their stimulus bill-guided course. All too many could be kicked out of their houses in short order. Businesses that relied on economic assistance during this bizarre period have already begun to close permanently. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of all non-chain restaurants may never reopen their doors.
The coming harsh winter
It seems far-fetched to many that any kind of brutal humanitarian crisis could ever play out in a country that is so excellent in marketing itself as the greatest nation on earth. However, many of those who believe that Americans cannot possibly experience suffering haven’t experienced the brutality of an American winter. It is hard to describe just how rough this four-month period can be for people during normal times. The temperature can fall to minus 10 degrees Celsius and remain there for two months. There can be 30 centimetres of snow in a single a night. Brutal ice storms entrench cars and encase entire buildings. All that happens during periods of normality, but this is far from normal and now global warming has made the weather patterns all the more strange and beyond accurate forecasting.
Without the benefit of foresight, the unfortunate equivalent of this coming winter seems to be that of 1932-1933. During this period, the Great Depression was in full swing, and an American President who had denied the extent of the economic damage had just been resoundingly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover sat on his hands until the change of power, which led to untold deaths and poverty across the country.
Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics…
Trump just lost the election by the widest by an incumbent since that same election of 1932. Did he lose it by a frightfully small margin? Absolutely, but if any tea leaves can be read, had the election taken place in March 2021 instead of November 2020, he may have been electorally obliterated beyond recognition.
There is an essence of tragedy in America during this time – to have had all the power to do everything and all the misguided cheap instincts to do absolutely nothing. Both parties to date have sat back and have seemingly done nothing but bitch and snipe at one another since May of this year. Meanwhile, an entire generation has been doomed to a sort Sisyphus-style financial purgatory. As has happened in innumerable societies before it, within America, a reckoning could already be well on its way – much to the utter surprise of baby-boomer generational elites who have been calling for normalcy while padding up their retirement portfolios.
There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram. The last several months have been a sort of rapids for them to negotiate, bouncing around corporations downsizing, fighting their way through unemployment websites that crash with regularity, racking up credit card debt to eat, then protesting for their future on weekends.
It is only so far that people can be pushed to survive. This is all without mentioning the spark to this tinder – the coronavirus pandemic itself, one that it burning out of control to an almost unfathomable degree, a continuous upwards tsunami that has never crested, and now looks to crash forth in perpetuity for the foreseeable future as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. By mid-December, the absolute true extent of the crash will become apparent (as COVID-19 cases often take around two weeks to truly surface).
There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram.
The medical system is already running well beyond the point of exhaustion that they ever thought to be possible. Many people, including the current administration, currently just isn’t listening. With a state of political deadlock seemingly certain, the safe bet would be to throw your money on nothing at all happening, and for such horrors to simply continue as they have. Despite the recent developments of two vaccines being rolled out, the question remains how they will be administered and distributed.
Meanwhile, Trump and his ilk have not acknowledged the incoming Biden administration, let alone started the transition process. In the last two weeks, every possible media talking head on the cable news left is screaming and hollering about norms and then turning around and being polite to complicit officials. The real human tragedies do not get mentioned: the bank accounts wiped out, the families shattered, the debts accrued, the suicides committed. It is a tired, bullshit charade that is now reaching the tentacles deeper into the lives of American homes by a rate of nearly 200,000 new COVID cases everyday.
As of November 17th, 2020, the total number of COVID cases in the US stood at over 11 million. The lines on the graph are essentially vertical and all people are burnt out on this weirdness. What the breaking point will be I cannot predict, but there certainly is no leadership or directive to correct it. Could the pandemic kill a million Americans by next April? That may be a stretch, but at the moment all things seem possible. Could more than a million people die as a direct or indirect result of the botched COVID-19 response and bungled economic assistance?
Take, for example, the incomplete patchwork facing Americans staring down the barrel of eviction notices; some will get respite, many, if not most, will not. Where will they go? Into crowded homes of distant family members or shelters with a multitude of strangers? Will they turn to robbing grocery stores? Will they languish and freeze in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburgh? Could there be an ugly wave of suicides, private deaths of lives that no one bothered to check in on? Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.
At least twenty million or more ugly little tales will play out this winter. These will not be necessarily deaths from COVID, but of families cast out into mourning and entire trajectories of lives forever altered. There is no rescuing many, and they’ll remain down in the cracks of society.
Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.
In random states that are flown over and exploited for votes (places like my home state of Wisconsin), such situations are already in a full-blown tailspin. Despite Wisconsin only having a population of around five million, it has numbered in the top 10 states for new COVID cases for several consecutive weeks. This was already occurring when Trump held a large campaign rally on October 30th in the city of Green Bay just ahead of election day. It is that action of callously adding fuel to the fire that has raised eyebrows the highest. It is one thing to largely ignore a crisis, as the current government has done, it is another altogether to actively help the situation to deteriorate in states without large-scale public health capabilities. Make no mistake, this period will be referred to in textbooks as the “The Dark American Winter”. The only question is just how bleak it will become before the spring.
While many in the West are looking at the current state of the US teetering and gasping with shock and horror, most in East Africa simply shrug, knowing they are one bad leader away from reaching the same precipice. Maybe next time the US will listen. But holding one’s breath is not recommended.
Why BBI Will Not Promote Peace or Prevent Violence
The BBI report is not a document for building durable peace in Kenya because it ignores the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges, and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has touted the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report as the panacea for peace that will end political and/or election-related violence in Kenya. Mr. Kenyatta has not given Kenyans his definition or understanding of peace, but his lines of argument affirm his minimalist understanding of peace or what peace studies (PS) call negative peace. Students of peace studies caricature this concept of peace as akin to peace between the proverbial happy slave and the slave master.
Overall, Mr. Kenyatta’s arguments on peace and political violence in Kenya are based on flawed premises, among them a very naïve essentialist view of ethnicity, and a tunnel vision of Kenya’s social divides. But that is a topic for another day. Rather, this commentary aims to assess whether BBI is a panacea for peace and whether it can prevent political and/or election-related violence in the future. I will comment on the BBI process and analyse who perpetrated the past political violence and why, and then evaluate BBI’s response to that political violence. The article will end with a comment on an observed and horrifying pattern of current events that negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.
A core dictum in peace studies, which originates from Mahatma Gandhi’s moral philosophy, is the unity of processes and ends. The dictum posits that the process that is used to engender social change should be consistent with the goal. This means that if the end goal is inclusion, then the process for attaining this goal should be inclusive because an exclusive process cannot attain inclusion.
The BBI process fails this test because it started as an exclusive and opaque process driven by two men, President Kenyatta and Mr. Raila Odinga. For example, out of the 14 members and 2 co-chairpersons who comprised the BBI task force, 9 were political affiliates of either Kenyatta or Odinga. Therefore, one can infer that the process was heavily skewed towards the interests of the two men and all the public hearings were just a ploy to rubber-stamp a predetermined outcome. We can discern this predetermined outcome from the BBI report’s proposals on past political violence.
Sections on political violence
While the BBI report’s proponents tout it as the solution to past political and election-related violence, neither the 2020 edition nor the 2019 draft mentions or analyses the causes of that violence. However, there are three sections that relate to the issue: i) The section on Ethnic Antagonism and Competition (pages 4-5); ii) the section on Divisive Elections (pages 9-12); and iii) the section on Kenya National Guide on Combating Impunity (pages 43-45) in Annex A. However, the latter section deals with disobedience of the law and court orders by senior civil servants and rich Kenyans; it does not address the nexus between impunity and political violence. Therefore, I will assess the other two sections.
The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.
Further, the report mentions divisive elections, but the section is baffling because it provides a very simplistic, almost sophomoric, comment on past elections in just two paragraphs on pages 9 and 10. It then blames “foreign models” adopted from “the democratic West” for engendering what it terms “Us versus Them” election competition, with “Us” and “Them” being based on ethnicity. It adds that “lack of inclusivity” is the “leading contributor to divisive and conflict-causing elections”, and claims that Kenyans associate “the winner-takes-all system with divisive elections”.
The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.
From these cursory assertions, the section recommends the expansion of the Executive branch to comprise a president, a deputy president, a prime minister, and two deputy prime ministers as the solution. Supposedly, an expanded executive will be “more inclusive” and will not “generate the same bitterness and tensions as we see when the fight is for the position of the President”. The surprising aspect is its reference to “the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government” as the standard.
The other paragraphs of the section on pages 10 and 12 do not deal with political violence. Rather, they deal with parliamentary representation and the introduction of Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP).
Reading these two sections is really perplexing. Who perpetrated the past political violence in 1992/93, 1997/98, and 2007/2008, and why? Did peasants die in the Rift Valley in 1992/93 and 1997/98 because the country had no prime minister? Did the rural subaltern wake up one day and attack each other because they were ethnically different? Did the rural and urban subalterns die in 2007/2008 because of the winner-take-all system?
This article applies a peace studies framework to understanding how the form of violence that occurred in Kenya in the 1990s and 2007/2008 is organised. The framework postulates that the social construction of political violence is a discursive process that is based on five pillars. First, violence organisers discursively construct boundaries of exclusion using pre-existing markers such as ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, or religious identities. Second, they rally the common identity within the exclusion boundary around imminent “threats” or “dangers”. That is, they articulate threats and victimhood narratives within the constructed boundaries. Third, they target those outside the constructed boundary as the “threats” and the “enemy-other”, and they demonise and dehumanise them. Fourth, they discursively renegotiate norms of violence. And fifth, they suppress counter-hegemonic and anti-violence voices.
This social construction of violence requires moments of social uncertainty, especially political and economic crises. Using this framework, the pattern of violence in the 1990s was pretty straightforward.
Moments of uncertainty
Over the years during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, Kenya became a full-blown autocracy where the party, government, and civil service essentially fused into a single hierarchical structure of power under the personal control of the president. The system was opaque and centralised around the personality of the president. As a result, political practice revolved around personalities and one-on-one closed-door dealings, instead of a predictable public stand on policy issues and coherent ideological positions. The system was a spiral pyramid of patron-client relations, with the president at the apex as the chief patron. Below the president were his clients at the provincial and district levels, who functioned as patrons in the regions.
The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty. Some scholars have referred to this style of controlling a country as retail politics.
The system was reinforced by political intimidation and instruments of repression, including detention laws and political assassinations. Therefore, those who articulated and pursued alternative forms of organisation, especially social class mobilisation, were either intimidated, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, detained without trial, or assassinated.
When the struggle for multiparty democracy intensified in 1990/91, the Moi regime turned to these oppressive methods. Thus, the police violently repressed public protests in Nairobi and its environs, killing at least 50 young men. Some democracy proponents were detained, others run away into exile, and publications supporting pluralism were banned.
The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty.
However, the demand for democracy coincided with two factors. First, worsening economic performance and, thus, a decline in revenue and resources for buying loyalty. Second, a greater international concern over human rights violations, which limited the use of formal repression. The resultant political and economic crises created a moment of social uncertainty that shook the Moi regime. In turn, the regime changed its strategies for the looting of the state and enforcing informal forms of repression.
Organised political violence
The central plank of informal repression was unleashing “ethnic” militias and gangs on the innocent civilian population. At first, a group of senior government ministers and KANU politicians would hold a series of public rallies in certain geographical locations, especially in the Rift Valley. The dominant message in these rallies would be hate narratives centred on nativist thinking and autochthonous notions of identity. The narratives would disparage national citizenship and its accompanying rights and instead divide the population into two groups: natives (indigenous or locals) and guests (settlers, immigrants or outsiders). Framing the latter as threats, they would demonise and dehumanise the “guests” as the “enemy-others”. Then they would threaten violence against them. To suppress anti-violence voices, they would label natives who rejected such violence as “ethnic traitors”.
Subsequently, armed militias would attack the innocent civilian population. In some instances, the militias would be dressed in “traditional clothes” and would be carrying “traditional weapons” to disguise the killings as ethnic. Thereafter, government officials, the police, and the pliant media would portray the killings as spontaneous “ethnic clashes” or “land clashes”.
To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims. A few days later, an opposition politician or activist would be arrested. This was the pattern in the 1992/93 and the 1997/98 violence.
Therefore, Uhuru Kenyatta and his BBI brigade are dead wrong. The 1990s violence was not ethnic or “tribal”; it was not about ethnicity or cultural or linguistic differences. Rather, it was politically organised and the villains were senior politicians and bureaucrats in the Moi regime. Incidentally, the chairman of the BBI process, Mr. Mohamed Yusuf Haji, was the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner at the time, while another BBI member, Mr. Amos Wako, was the Attorney-General. Further, the impunity enjoyed by the implicated politicians partly contributed to the violence of 2007/08.
Actually, studies on the 2007/08 violence have noted that President Mwai Kibaki’s biggest failure was his inability to dismantle the structures of informal violence, and their supporting discursive practices, which emerged in the 1990s. Instead, these structures of extra-state violence diffused during the NARC era such that by 2007, politicians were patronising and funding urban gangs that had emerged as a result of autonomous processes of urbanisation, unemployment, and the vacuum of control in urban areas. A key consequence of this impunity was the erosion of confidence and trust in state institutions, especially security and electoral institutions. It is this mistrust that predisposed politicians and their supporters to view elections as a do-or-die zero-sum game.
To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims.
In other words, the 2007 election turned disastrous due to the convergence of several factors. Among these was President Kibaki’s failure to address impunity and the discursive practices of the 1990s. Another factor was the intensification of ethnic mobilisation and the generation of new hate narratives by all political formations.
Studies show that vernacular FM radio stations were some of the main propagators of the hate campaigns. For example, a Rift Valley-based vernacular FM station aired materials of a xenophobic nature against the Kikuyu, while FM stations from Central Kenya promoted a siege mentality and disparaged members of the Luo and Kalenjin communities. Studies have also documented some Central Kenya FM radio stations framing one presidential candidate as a murderer and a latter-day Idi Amin Dada.
In essence, therefore, the so-called “tribal violence” and “tribal divisions” are not a reflection of conflicts between distinct and well-organised cultural communities. Rather, they are outcomes of deliberately organised political violence. Indeed, there are reliable reports that have recommendations on these issues, including the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report, the Waki report, and the Kriegler report. Similarly, the 2010 Constitution established several independent institutions to address these issues. It’s quite revealing that Mr. Kenyatta chose the BBI instead of implementing these reports or strengthening the existing independent institutions, including the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC).
Not a peace document
Even though its proponents have hailed the BBI report as being the pathway to peace, it is evident that there is no linkage between the report’s recommendations and the quest for peace and an end to political violence in Kenya. The section on divisive elections proposes an expanded executive and cites the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government as the reference point. Yet that model was extremely shaky and the prime minister was always complaining.
However, this proposal is horrifying for more fundamental reasons. First, it does not address state-orchestrated violence and impunity that have been the bane of Kenya’s politics since 1990.
Second, nothing in the proposals nor the entire BBI report would stop the losing candidates from perpetrating violence.
Third, the report assumes good faith on the part of the appointing authority and presumes that the president, deputy president, prime minister, and deputy prime ministers will come from different ethnic groups. But good faith cannot be legislated, as President Kenyatta has demonstrated through his multiple actions and omissions that have violated the 2010 Constitution, and his contemptuous disregard of the current Deputy President, William Ruto, since 2018.
Fourth, the proposed expansion of the Executive is perilous as it will validate and reify ethnic boundaries because ethnicity is the assumed basis for allocating the added executive positions. A key lesson from the 2008-2013 era is that the key players in the coalition government became the chief proponents of ethnic mobilisation, hate speech, and impunity in both the 2013 and 2017 elections.
Fifth, the proposal to appoint ANY of the MPs from the majority party or coalition of parties to be prime minister and any other persons as deputy prime ministers is a recipe for factional fighting because it undermines the authority of political parties to choose their own representatives.
Sixth, the proposed structure will perpetuate the current patron-client system and codify the president’s ability to entrench patrimonial and clientilist rule. Indeed, it echoes the late Mobutu Sese Seko’s strategy in Zaire of co-opting would-be opponents, letting them feed at the state trough, rotating them in and out of office, and encouraging them to become wealthy through corruption to neutralise them. But as the collapse of Mobutu’s Zaire shows, such a strategy does not foster durable peace.
The section on ethnic antagonism and competition proposes the inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum. But it is baffling how this will stop impunity, top-down political tribalism, or stop the clients of a president from perpetrating violence when it suits them.
Also, the section recommends criminalisation of hate speech and of the use of violence before and after elections. This is equally bizarre because both hate speech and the use of violence during elections are already criminal under current laws. However, hate speech and threats of violence remain rampant in the country primarily due to impunity and selective application of the law. Indeed, there is a horrifying pattern of political practice that outrightly negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.
Keen observation of current events shows that President Uhuru Kenyatta is using the 1990s playbook. His handshake rapprochement with Raila Odinga split his Jubilee Party into two wings. Since then, his Jubilee wing has been consistently articulating threats and narratives of victimhood. They are always demonising and dehumanising the targeted “enemy-other”. They are subtly and discursively renegotiating the norms of violence, and they are blatant in their attempts to suppress alternative voices.
Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year. One can infer that the failure of the police and the NCIC to hold any of them to account is a dead giveaway.
Meanwhile, the president is always lecturing Kenyans about peace, praising the handshake as a precursor to peace, and accusing others of threatening peace. Four examples centred on Kenyatta and the interior ministry will illustrate these observations.
On 29 October 2020, The Standard and The Star quoted Kenyatta’s self-styled adviser and Jubilee Vice Chairman, David Murathe, criticising the Deputy President, William Ruto. Referring to Ruto as an “outsider” in the Mt Kenya region, he accused the deputy president of radicalising the youth in the region using the rich-poor narrative and compared the narrative to the re-invention of the outlawed Mungiki sect. Murathe’s argumentation strategy was not just articulating threats and victimhood and demonising Ruto and those who support him; he was subtly raising and justifying the spectre of state violence against the deputy president’s supporters the way previous administrations dealt with Mungiki adherents.
On 21 October 2020, the Daily Nation quoted Uhuru Kenyatta rebuking the Abagusii people for not protecting their “son”, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, from insults by “outsiders”. His argumentation strategy was in reality articulating four things. First, he was constructing a boundary of exclusion around ethnic identity by classifying the population into “locals” and “outsiders”. Second, he was articulating a victimhood narrative that was portraying Matiang’I, and to an extent the “locals”, as victims of those he was demonising as “outsiders”. Third, he was privileging ethnic identity and diminishing national identity. And fourth, he was renegotiating the norms of violence so that the “locals” would use “defence of their son” as their justification if violence erupted.
On 13 October 2020, the media quoted Fred Matiang’i speaking in Nyamira, which he called his “home”. In his speech, he admonished “outsiders”. While his remarks were directed at Deputy President William Ruto, he, in essence, sought to emphasise the Kisii ethnic identity over Kenyan national identity, erect a boundary of exclusion around the ethnic identity, and portray “locals” who supported those he was calling “outsiders” as ethnic traitors.
On 4 October 2020, a group of hired youth attempted to violently disrupt a church function graced by the deputy president at Kenol in Murang’a. Instead of arresting the youth, the police violently dispersed the locals and fired tear gas canisters at innocent civilians in the church. The few violent youths whom the local people arrested confessed in front of cameras that they had been hired by well-known Kieleweke politicians from Murang’a. Further, the organisers of the event publicly claimed that some bureaucrats from the Office of the President financed the perpetrators.
Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year.
While the media framed the violence as a “clash between two rival groups” to create the impression of spontaneity, the police initially blamed two MPs who are not favoured by the regime. A few days later, the National Security Advisory Council (NSAC), comprising the same bureaucrats who had been mentioned as the financiers of the violence, lectured Kenyans about the government’s commitment to peace and security. The NSAC then blamed the deputy president’s political wing and revived the discarded Public Order Act to curtail his activities.
Subsequently, the police blamed politicians from “both sides”, but they never explained why no one was arrested or why the NCIC had not acted. Incidentally, a careful reading of Article 7 (1) (a) of the Rome Statute shows that the violence in Murang’a had all the elements of what would qualify as a crime against humanity.
The BBI report is not a document for ending political and/or election-related violence or building durable peace in Kenya. The relevant sections ignore the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution. Therefore, the only inference that one can draw is that the purpose of the BBI process is to recommend the expansion of the Executive.
Moreover, there is a pattern that shows that the president and his acolytes have borrowed from the 1990s playbook on politically-instigated violence. But they would do well to remember that the widespread use of informal violence, massacres, new wars, and genocides in the 1990s led to the development of international norms, standards, and instruments to deal with these challenges. These norms and standards include those codified in the Rome Statute, whose institutional representation is the International Criminal Court (ICC). Therefore, under the command responsibility principle, the president, senior officials in the interior ministry and state security forces can be held to account for crimes under international law that could result from their court jesters’ hate-mongering and informal violence mobilisation.
Making Sense of #FakeNews and #CovidBillionaires
Given the allegations of COVID-related graft in Kenya, it is not surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in their government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and that some believe that the government is paying for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for COVID funds.
As parts of the world begin to deal with a second wave of COVID-19 infections, it has become apparent that it is not just the virus that is not going away, but related outbreaks of “fake news” and allegations of fraudulent activity have also persisted.
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” lamented Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), back in February. He suggested that the parallel outbreak of misinformation “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”. Since then, all manner of dubious stories about coronavirus have been circulating around the world, along with fake cures, fake testing kits, imitation drugs and rising reports of COVID-related fraudulent actions, from scams and price inflations to bogus companies and accusations of fraud along transnational chains of medical suppliers and subcontractors.
Fakes, forgeries and fraud are certainly not new phenomena, and nor are they limited to the current pandemic. Fake news exists in a wider ecosystem of disinformation (deliberately intended to deceive), misinformation (false information that is mistakenly circulated), clickbait and propaganda. Though so old that it predates the printing press, fake news has been of rising concern in the era of social media and since Donald Trump popularised the term by using it as a criticism of any reporting he didn’t like.
As the 2020 pandemic escalated, powerful organisations, such as WHO and Interpol reported an increase in fake news and fake medical products. Though the corruption monitoring organisation Transparency International has noted the increased likelihood of fraud in the wake of the huge influx of COVID-19 donor funds, this is arguably a continuity and extension of the last three decades of rising economic trickery and fraud during the neoliberal period.
Along with other researchers, our work has shown how, rather than reducing economic malfeasance and increasing efficiency, the years of economic deregulation, privatisation and marketisation that underlie neoliberalism have actually seen an increase in instances of fraud and fakery, rather than the reverse. Observers have also noted that the prevalence of fake news has increased alongside rising socio-economic inequality generated by neoliberalism, and the forms of political populism that it has sparked. Notably, this “age of fraud” has seen an accompanying emphasis on transparency, accountability and proliferating anti-fraud measures that, far from helping, may have further contributed to the fraud pandemic.
Nevertheless, coronavirus allows us to consider these long-standing concerns in new ways. In particular, as we sift through the growing pile of allegations and counter-allegations about COVID fakes, fraudsters and liars, we are interested in how COVID-related fake news might help to shed light on what anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith has called “cultures of corruption”. That is, how debates about corruption, fraud and fakes can have different meanings and effects in different socio-political contexts around the globe and what the root causes might be. Whilst recognising COVID-related fraud as a global phenomenon, including in the countries we come from and live in (Germany and the UK), here we examine cases from Kenya, where one of us has recently conducted research on “fake buildings” and other “fake debates”. We start with two stories that went viral on Kenyan social media earlier this year.
Brenda and Benson
In April, Brenda Cherotich was trending on Twitter. She was considered to be COVID-19 Patient One in Kenya, having flown back from the United States via London. After three weeks of isolation and recuperation, she was medically deemed to have recovered.
Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”. Despite vigorous official denials, numerous stories circulated that Brenda appeared in the media as a government PR exercise, that she was an actress and not a real COVID patient, that she’d been paid by the government to share her fake case to enable Kenya to access newly available donor funds for fighting the coronavirus.
In June, a new Twitter storm broke around Benson Musungu, the National Youth Coordinator for the opposition party ODM. He tweeted from hospital to say that he had been receiving treatment for COVID-19, and had been admitted to the ICU. Musungu was widely lampooned, and his illness dismissed as fake news. He was rumoured to have received a large pay-out (some said from the opposition, some said from the government) to “go public” about his case in order to persuade Kenyans of the dangers of COVID-19, allegations which he strenuously denied.
Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”.
How to make sense of these two cases? Firstly, they suggest that some Kenyans remain sceptical about the genuineness and gravity of the novel coronavirus, to the extent that the government would pay people to convince the public of its reality. That COVID-19 is a “fake” disease is one of the recurring themes of the fake news “infodemic” that has proliferated alongside the global fight against the virus.
During discussions with Nairobi residents in recent months, it has emerged that there remain at least some Kenyans who are convinced that COVID is either a fake disease or hugely inflated as an issue by the government (or related authorities), a situation also reported by the BBC. And indeed it does seem that, as yet, coronavirus in Kenya has not reached the severity that many predicted back in March. This makes it a little easier to understand why some people could believe that Brenda and Benson were fake patients or government stooges. If Brenda and Benson were really paid to promote a government message about coronavirus, then they would not be the only ones: it emerged in August that the UK government, for example, was paying reality TV stars and social media influencers to endorse its public health campaigns. But beyond this, what are the circumstances that would make these stories believable enough to gain traction with a sizeable section of the Kenyan public?
One reason fake news goes viral is when it seems to offer people an explanation, particularly in times of uncertainty or anxiety. The most effective stories are not completely fictitious but are grounded in the possible: they perhaps spin off from a widely accepted narrative or recent mainstream news story. In other words, they make sense to these readers in a given context. In Kenya, as elsewhere, that context is a considerable lack of public trust in the motives and actions of state institutions.
One recurring theme of the Twitter storm around Brenda and Benson was that many commenters made a link between the phenomena of fake news and alleged government dishonesty and corruption. The stories accuse the government of not only peddling fake news, but also of mishandling official funds. And yet, the denials in turn also dismissed the stories as fake news, rebuffed by the individuals involved as well as government officials.
As each side accuses the other, do we just declare an impasse? Or is there something to glean here about the particular character of popular critique in Kenya, and the interpretations of financial management and public politics that allow such narratives to take root? We suggest that by looking at the claims of COVID-related fakery, fraud and corruption and the context from which they emerge, we can go beyond the utilitarian guidelines of international anti-fraud institutions and anti-fake news initiatives, whose statements tend to revert to simplistic binaries of truth/lies, genuine/fake, accountable/corrupt. Exhortations from agencies like the United Nations to “take care before you share’” do little to get to the root of why certain (mis)information goes viral and how it is embedded in particular moral and political-economic landscapes. Instead, we suggest, we should look to how such stories seek to challenge moral and political authority, revealing deeper anxieties about absence of trust, the conduct of the powerful, personal gain and what forms of misconduct a global pandemic might facilitate.
The economy of a pandemic
Since April, Kenya has been the recipient of huge sums in loans and grants from various international agencies to address the socio-economic as well as health impacts of COVID-19. This included $739 million credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), $50 million from the World Bank, a total of $162 million from the European Union (EU), as well as further disbursements from WHO. As this money flooded in, there had been growing allegations from the media and civil society organisations about procurement mismanagement, unqualified companies winning tenders, and inflated costs of COVID-related goods and services.
Meanwhile, some Kenyans have claimed they are not seeing the benefits of these funds and that there is little to be seen on the ground. In late August, Nairobi’s Uhuru Park was the location of two demonstrations. The first marked the start of a Kenyan doctors’ strike over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), non-payment of salaries and substandard working conditions in public hospitals that unions said were putting doctors at risk of contracting COVID-19. (There has been a flow of substandard PPE and fake equipment in Kenya, some of which carry dubious safety marks or have been through mismanaged quality control procedures.)
The second protest was mobilised online around the hashtag #arrestcovid19thieves to protest what the organisers claimed was massive corruption and misappropriation of coronavirus funds in Kenya. “We are tired of an endless stream of news detailing how much money is being lost in the emergency response efforts. This money could be used in a better way to fight the pandemic,” said organiser Wanjeri Nderu.
The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration. By September, there were state investigations ongoing into the “KEMSA scandal”, with updates about the allegations and investigations into COVID-corruption becoming almost daily news.
Kenya is not unique in this. The UN has acknowledged that we are likely to see an increase in fraud and mismanagement in 2020, particularly because donors and governments have “relaxed safeguards by trading compliance, oversight and accountability for speed of response and achievement of rapid impact, thus leading to the creation of significant opportunities for corruption to thrive”. This seems to have occurred in the UK, where the Good Law Project has initiated proceedings alleging breaches to procurement law, which the government defends as emergency response.
Globally, WHO and Interpol have also reported a growing volume of fake treatments: uncertainty about the new virus and how it spreads, as well as lack of access to healthcare, has made people susceptible to supposed “cures” for coronavirus. False remedies that have been circulating in Kenya range from the relatively benign, such as boiling onions with lemon, to the more risky, including a range of herbal treatments, to the downright lethal.
The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration.
The rumour that drinking bleach protects against infection has gathered strength worldwide. In Uganda, an American pastor distributed a “miracle drink” containing industrial bleach to 50,000 Ugandans, while in the US, Donald Trump has disturbingly suggested injecting disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment.
Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish what is genuine and what is counterfeit. As the world went into lockdown, the vast global supply chain feeding the pharmaceutical industry began to unravel. With registered companies operating at reduced capacity, supplies of raw ingredients for all kinds of medicines diminished and prices rocketed. This led to a spike in drugs where key ingredients were substituted with unapproved or illegal others, or which made false claims. For example, a drug circulating in the Democratic Republic of Congo was allegedly manufactured in Belgium by “Brown and Burk Pharmaceutical limited”. However, Brown and Burk, who are registered in the UK, said they had “nothing to do with this medicine. We don’t manufacture this drug, it’s fake”
Taking this into account, even if the particular cases of Brenda and Benson may not be accurate, the way the stories connect fake news to corruption does ring true with at least some in the Kenyan context, where a swirl of stories and rumours about fakes, counterfeits, corruption and fraud circulate and overlap. Given the emerging scandals and allegations of graft, it is perhaps less surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in official management of the pandemic. Nor does it seem so strange that some could believe that the Kenyan government might pay for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for funds.
Addressing the symptoms, not the causes
So what next? Recognising that fake news, fraud and corruption can have serious, even deadly, effects (WHO has likened corruption around procurement of PPE to “murder”) what has been the response? Firstly, we suggest, many of the measures proposed by international agencies address only the symptoms rather than the root causes of the phenomena. Secondly, unlike the stories of Brenda and Benson, they tend to treat fake news and fraud as very separate issues, masking the ways they might be rooted in similar public concerns.
In response to the fake news infodemic, WHO has advocated the need for fact-checking and “mythbusting”. Enlisting internet giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as the news agency AFP, their project analyses search results and filters out content that they regard as unfounded medical opinion or fake news. Similarly, BBC Africa and German state media have launched fact-checking and misinformation services about COVID-19. Such initiatives have in turn been scrutinised by other parties who are sceptical about the mix of power, interests or politics that could be at play, and instead offer alternative analyses.
Rather than addressing this scepticism, powerful institutions continue to claim their impartiality: A spokesperson from UNESCO stated that their approach to fake news was to increase the supply of “truthful information”. “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”
In a similar vein, Kenyan journalist Waihiga Mwaura, who has been writing a series of “Letters from Kenya” for BBC Africa, has observed in relation to fake news in Kenya that “more emphasis needs to be placed on answering the questions of people, and encouraging collaboration with the government in order to save lives. Once people understand the basic facts they will become the best amplifiers of the core messages within their communities”.
What these responses have in common is the emphasis on facts and information, supposing that fake news only works because the public doesn’t have enough access to data. They also seem to assume that the public is unaware of political “spin”, information management or even the interest of international agencies in covertly influencing online opinion. The measures also assume that government involvement will lead to better health communication and that the public will circulate officially approved material.
All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare? Is the citizen likely to believe the authorities’ statements on what is true or not true in relation to the coronavirus?
On the global trade in counterfeit medicines, Interpol’s Operation Pangea, in collaboration with a mix of state agencies around the world, is developing a public information campaign on the dangers of buying pharmaceuticals from unregulated online sources. The OECD has issued a policy brief stating, “Governments need to ensure the legitimate and safe provenance of pharmaceutical products, both online and in pharmacies, so that citizens can trust the medicines they use.” Similarly, a BBC News investigation into the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic reported that “the circulation of fake and dangerous medicines would only increase unless governments around the world present a united front”.
All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare?
But once again, things are more complicated than such powerhouse institutions suggest. Crucially, these public declarations again presume that there is a trustworthy state system in place for monitoring the quality of goods and products. And yet state agencies in various countries are themselves linked to allegations about unknown provenance and unenforced quality standards, including in the UK where medical supplies contracts have been issued to dormant companies that seem not to exist, as well as the German government’s implication in the VW emissions scandal, and their alleged failure to ensure standards were enforced.
In Kenya, the official Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is embroiled in accusations that it is involved in fraudulent quality control testing of PPE, with claims that shadowy “cartels” are pulling the strings to gain favourable reports for their substandard products. Such claims are not new: a 2018 investigation by the Nation newspaper (since taken offline) found that KEBS had been running a counterfeiting scam of its own, faking the certification mark that authorises items for sale and making it impossible to tell which products were genuine and which were not.
On fraud and financial misconduct, the UN and Transparency International have each circulated recommendations for anti-fraud measures (AFM) for donors. These emphasise the need for clear communication strategies, transparency initiatives and preventive safeguards in procurement, including the use of technology for greater accountability and more comprehensive auditing and reporting mechanisms.
Transparency International advocates open contracting as one model for increasing accountability in procurement. Their “Open Contracting for Health” model has been deployed in five countries, including Kenya, and according to the project leads, in the context of COVID-19 they are now seeing “the results of efforts to increase the transparency of emergency procurement and combat corruption. Transparency International chapters, including Kenya…are tracking financial commitments to the COVID-19 response to ensure that promises are kept, and money is actually used to tackle the pandemic”.
Kenya is here held up as a best-practice example of emergency health procurement, which to some members of the public might be surprising given the current local news. It is also interesting to note the overlap in vocabulary between measures proposed to address fake news and AFMs. The emphasis is again on clear communication, sharing transparent and accurate data, and use of technology. This language of transparency, accountability, auditing and efficiency has become familiar with the liberalisation of economies around the world, and particularly in relation to neoliberal lending and financing. Yet research suggests these approaches may be of limited value in addressing the deep-rooted challenges of fraud and corruption, and that AFMs themselves are regularly claimed to be vectors of fraud. Likewise, anthropologists have noted how, in the same era that “transparency” has become a watchword for good governance, the inner workings of authority can nevertheless remain opaque. In such circumstances, popular suspicions of power, such as conspiracy theories or fake news, can become ways of making sense of things.
Rather than reducing economic malpractice, research suggests that economic liberalisation has actually seen consistently high levels and sometimes increasing instances of fraud across various regions and sectors. The rise in AFMs in Africa and elsewhere gives the impression of industrious efforts to combat such fraudulent activities, and indeed many genuine efforts exist. But underneath, various fraud-active state and business actors continue to find ways to circumvent AFMs and thus often the problems persist.
In light of this, AFMs and their calls for greater transparency and accountability can seem more like a sticking plaster, “masking the problem rather that addressing the root causes” of fraud. This is partly because the technocratic approach favoured by AFM agencies does not take into account the fraud-conducive moral economy of neoliberal capitalism and the particular socio-historical and political terrain from which fraudulent activities (and AFMs) take shape.
In Kenya, researchers have rightly noted that graft has long history, in part going back to colonial land expropriations and other forms of dispossession that meant the very idea of the Kenyan state was birthed from a colonial system that abused the public it was meant to serve. The vested interests of public office continued during the regime of President Moi and beyond. In a process Joe Kobuthi has described as the “bureaucratisation of corruption”, leaders adopted a tough anti-graft stance in public, establishing numerous anti-corruption committees, policies and taskforces, but economic deceptions persisted.
Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa, which since the 1990s has seen the implementation of new regimes of privatisation, audits and accountability across the continent, has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources. He argues that while on the surface, reliance on symbols of democracy, authenticity or transparency – such as election results, quality certification marks, procurement contracts, or audit trails – has increased, in fact trust in their efficacy has been hollowed out. We are left with a situation where a surface veneer of compliance has become increasingly detached from meaningful action, leaving a space for all kinds of fraudulent and counterfeiting activities to take shape. At a practical level, this can lead to “state capture”, or the repurposing of state institutions for private gain, which some researchers suggest can entrench corruption as indictments and prosecutions become weaponised.
Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa…has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources.
For many citizens, understanding this landscape is complicated, as different actors can seem to be working beneath the surface, but always out of sight. In this context, debates over whether an issue is “fake news” or not can, for some, be part of wider anxieties about what is “really” going on. As further research has explored, in Kenya debates about fakes are more nuanced than just detecting whether something is counterfeit or genuine. After all, consumers often choose “fake” goods for cost or convenience, even if they are known to be less durable or of poorer quality. Instead, “fake” can become a term of critique and commentary, associating certain activities, products and politics with immoral action or suspect forms of wealth accumulation. In an article titled “Kenya, land of fake goods, fake leaders, fake smiles”, Dennis Otieno noted that in Kenya, “you must be very cautious, lest you pay a fake owner”. In such circumstances, everything is entangled in processes of doubling: opaque and potentially counterfeit, but nevertheless reliant on symbols of formality. Here, fake debates can be understood as some citizens’ attempts to understand more deep-seated deceptions at play in the moral and political system they live within.
In this way, anxieties about the “faked” cases of Brenda and Benson reveal public concerns not just about veracity, but more broadly about the agendas and operations of the powerful, self-enrichment and what is going on beneath the surface. In a country where state officials repeatedly cannot account for the disappearance of significant sums, and where corruption is believed by many to be endemic across all levels, it becomes more understandable why some Kenyans might start to look for #covidbillionaires behind all kinds of news stories, reasoning that coronavirus is simply another façade for concealing financial malpractice.
To decry a story as fake news is not to dismiss it as unreal, but to try to identify its doubleness; that its surface claims might be enabling other kinds of actions to occur underneath. Whether or not we believe them, by bringing fake news and corruption into one frame, the stories of Brenda and Benson indicate how the moral and political climate of fraud and fakery are deeply entangled.
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