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ON WHOSE ORDERS? Torture as an instrument of repression in Uganda

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Four police operatives who were charged with torturing a local politician were on May 30 granted bail, hardly a week after they had been remanded to Uganda’s biggest prison, Luzira.

In Uganda, bail is treated as a constitutional right, granted at the discretion of a judge/magistrate and subject to the accused fulfilling certain conditions. But the speed with which the accused policemen were granted bail will leave you agape, especially since the same court that restored the policemen’s temporary freedom – Buganda Road Chief Magistrate’s Court – had dilly-dallied and in the end taken 33 days to release on bail one of President Yoweri Museveni’s leading social media critics.

I will digress into this peculiar case for a split second.

Stella Nyanzi, a researcher at Makerere University, uses colourful language on her Facebook page. Her posts, especially before her incarceration beginning early April, are littered with phrases many consider lewd and obscene. She ventured into largely uncharted territory, berating Museveni and his family, especially his wife Janet; to many an observer that was courting real danger. Some of Nyanzi’s classic phrases may not be appropriate for this article, but suffice it is to note that her charge sheet indicated that she had referred to the president as “a pair of buttocks”.

As Museveni marked 31 years in power on January 26, which is a public holiday, he told the people gathered to celebrate his unprecedented feat that, contrary to what some (referring to his opponent Kizza Besigye) had said, he was not a servant of Ugandans. A boiling Nyanzi wrote the post as a rejoinder to the president, for which she was eventually charged.

Opinion was split over Nyanzi’s case; those who back Museveni and moralists admonished her over what they called obscenity, while Nyanzi’s following and support of activists disenchanted with Museveni’s long rule grew astronomically.

Some of Nyanzi’s classic phrases may not be appropriate for this article, but suffice it is to note that her charge sheet indicated that she had referred to the president as “a pair of buttocks”.

On the other hand, the country was galvanized in condemnation and shock after pictures of the tortured local politician, Geoffrey Byamukama, were leaked on social media. His knee and ankle joints had been hammered and pounded, and by the time he was delivered to Nakasero hospital in Kampala, all the skin around them was dead and mounds of pus, as he would later tell members of parliament, were rapidly inching towards his bones. Medical workers at the hospital had to urgently peel away the dead flesh and drain the pus immediately and, according to Byamukama’s narration to the MPs who visited him as he recuperated at the dreaded Nalufenya police station in Jinja, his doctors feared that they would need to amputate his legs.

If for a moment we keep on the court’s decision to immediately grant bail or delay it, it is hard to miss the irony in all this. The chief magistrate hesitated to grant Nyanzi bail because the prosecution had, based on a colonial-era law, argued that, given what she had written about the president, the accused was probably insane and asked the court to order that she undergo a mental examination. Arguing this application took a lot of the court’s time on the first day, leaving no time for Nyanzi to apply for bail.

The same prosecution, however, did not find it appropriate to seek leave of court to examine the mental states of the four policemen – who are part of a force whose motto is to “protect and serve”, but who were accused of visiting the most savage torture imaginable on a suspect.

Nothing unusual

As far as the unlucky Byamukama is concerned, it is easy to conclude that his tormentors had just done a bad job of torturing him, as opposed to him being an isolated case.

Byamukama, as we would later learn from the MPs that interviewed him at Nalufenya, was accused by his tormentors of having played a part in the gruesome murder on March 17 of former police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi. The flamboyant police publicist, who was at the rank of Assistant Inspector General of Police and was an unmissable embodiment of power in the force, was, the postmortem report showed, shot 27 times. He was killed together with his driver and bodyguard shortly after leaving his home in a Kampala suburb.

The chief magistrate hesitated to grant Nyanzi bail because the prosecution had, based on a colonial-era law, argued that, given what she had written about the president, the accused was probably insane and asked the court to order that she undergo a mental examination.

The country was terrified. Police chief Gen. Kale Kayihura pensively sat out the whole day at the scene of the crime, and President Museveni a day later paid a visit to the bereaved family to pay his respects. Museveni observed on that occasion, and not for the first or last time, that the police had been infiltrated by criminals, and charged Kayihura to clean up his house.

Kaweesi was mourned but the arrests began even before he was buried. Kayihura would announce at the burial that at least three suspects had been arrested in connection with the murder, and that one of them had been nabbed as he tried to escape to the Democratic Republic of Congo. More arrests followed but we have no accurate count of the people arrested in connection with this high profile murder.

Appearing before a magistrate for mention of their case, 13 of the suspects complained that, contrary to the court’s remand order for them to be detained in Luzira, they had been taken to Nalufenya and tortured, “both physically and psychologically”.

The case had just come up for mention, the magistrate would tell the complaining suspects, adding that the court had no jurisdiction to hear them out. Security Minister Henry Tumukunde would later remark that it was prudent for the forces to release suspects and even apologise to them if it was discovered that their arrest was a mistake.

Byamukama told MPs that after suffering terrible beatings that left him thinking he was dead (if there is such a thing), he pleaded with his tormentors to shoot him right away instead of raining the painful beatings on him. He later found out that he was suspected because his phone number was found in the contacts list of one of the arrested suspects.

Byamukama is a man of some standing, a ruling party supporter and mobiliser at the local level in Kamwenge, Western Uganda, where Museveni and most people in positions of power and authority in the political and security circles hail from. He, therefore, does not fit the profile of a torture victim under the current circumstances.

Torture as an instrument of rule

Before his torture story came to the fore, those who had alleged torture during Museveni’s regime either supported the opposition, had scores to settle with influential people in government or security circles who had set them up for torture, or were genuinely suspected of committing crimes and were being tortured to reveal information the investigators would otherwise not access.

In a “safe house”, we were told, one would get savagely beaten up, carried though a mock execution, shocked with electricity, threatened with vile reptiles, have fingers or toe nails pierced with needles, among other torture methods. There was widespread outcry for the torture chambers – “safe houses” – to be shut down, but they tended to be located in the most unexpected of places in upscale neighbourhoods of Kampala and so could not be easily identified.

Mid last year, for instance, the magistrate’s court at Makindye in Kampala issued criminal summons for Gen. Kayihura and other police commanders to appear before it and answer to charges of torture. The court appearance, which was set for August 10, 2016, did not happen because the court was besieged by goons who argued against Gen. Kayihura being summoned by a court of law. The lawyers who had spearheaded the private prosecution, including opposition politician Erias Lukwago, who is also lord mayor of Kampala City, had to be sheltered in the magistrate’s chambers as the mob bayed for their blood, until they were whisked away.

Richard Mafabi, the magistrate who took the unprecedented step of summoning a top general to answer to torture charges, died two months later of a cardiac arrest as he was being rushed to hospital. He was aged 51.

The complainants, who through a private prosecutor had moved Mafabi’s court to summon Kayihura, were supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who at the time was protesting against what he said was a stolen election. Many of his supporters had been rounded up, and many told horror stories of torture during incarceration.

Before Kayihura shot to prominence, there was Nobel Mayombo, a brigadier who headed the chieftaincy of military intelligence and who was the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence at the time of his death in 2007. His critics accused him of being in charge of torture chambers, ironically dubbed “safe houses”.

In a “safe house”, we were told, one would get savagely beaten up, carried though a mock execution, shocked with electricity, threatened with vile reptiles, have fingers or toe nails pierced with needles, among other torture methods. There was widespread outcry for the torture chambers – “safe houses” – to be shut down, but they tended to be located in the most unexpected of places in upscale neighbourhoods of Kampala and so could not be easily identified.

The word “safe house” has now almost gone out of use in Uganda, but multiple sources within the police and accounts by people who have been subjected to torture recently suggest that such places still exist. In his narration to the MPs, the tortured Byamukama said the beating that nearly ended his life did not happen in Nalufenya, for instance. He was blind-folded and driven to a location within Kampala City where he was tortured and was only dropped in Nalufenya after the fact.

During the pre-colonial period, for instance, Susan Miers, in a book published in 1988, refers to a practice of mistreating slaves in Buganda which sometimes led to the mutilation of parts of their bodies. The author quotes an earlier book, which provides the origin of a popular Luganda saying: “Muddu awulira; y’awangaaza amatu” (“A slave who is obedient gives long life to his ears”).

Museveni, as the public huffed and puffed about Byamukama’s savage torture, wrote a widely publicised letter to the security agencies, warning them against torture and pointing out that it is a backward and ineffective method of investigation.

But, in all honesty, a revolted Fountain of Honour would be expected to do more under such circumstances. How, to begin with, would he let Kayihura’s leadership of the police, which he had renewed only weeks earlier, continue after such a terrible scandal? And even if he were to let it continue, what demonstrable steps were taken to ensure that such torture does not continue?

The four policemen referred to earlier were charged, of course. But that would, contrary to the reports that have continually come through, suggest that that the instance of torture was an isolated occurrence, which is not the case.   The Uganda Human Rights Commission, the statutory body charged with overseeing the observance of human rights in the country, for instance, has consistently pointed out that torture is the single most prevalent violation of rights by state organs.   In its 2015 report, for example, the rights body noted that nearly 38 percent of all reported rights violations by security agencies involved torture.

The facts suggest that what is going on is just a furtherance of the way those who have held power in Uganda across time have reproduced it. During the pre-colonial period, for instance, Susan Miers, in a book published in 1988, refers to a practice of mistreating slaves in Buganda which sometimes led to the mutilation of parts of their bodies. The author quotes an earlier book, which provides the origin of a popular Luganda saying: “Muddu awulira; y’awangaaza amatu” (“A slave who is obedient gives long life to his ears”). There are tales of servants in ancient Buganda having their ears cut off if they disobeyed their masters; others were summarily put to death. The story of Kabaka Mwanga putting to death disobedient subjects who had embraced Christianity (and would later be regarded as Uganda Martyrs) towards the end of the 19th Century is very widely told.

“Ankole”, according to a publication by the British aid agency DFID, “became a class-based society in which the Bahima controlled the use of violence…” The old Ankole kingdom is the only one whose restoration Museveni has blocked until now, citing the possibility of resurrecting inter-ethnic tensions between the Bahima (Museveni’s ethnic group) and the Bairu, who were previously oppressed.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission, the statutory body charged with overseeing the observance of human rights in the country, for instance, has consistently pointed out that torture is the single most prevalent violation of rights by state organs.   In its 2015 report, for example, the rights body noted that nearly 38 percent of all reported rights violations by security agencies involved torture.

In a working paper titled “Taking orders from above: Police powers, politics and democratic governance in post-Movement Uganda,” Makerere University law don Joe Oloka-Onyango takes a look at how the police have been used as an instrument of repression in Uganda through time. Oloka-Onyango writes:

“If the police played an essentially coercive role under colonialism, after independence it became even more overtly politicised and draconian. In other words, the police became an instrument of direct political repression in the competition for state power among the Ugandan elite. This witnessed the proliferation of sub-branches of the police, such as the Special Force in Obote I (1960s), or the Public Safety Unit (PSU) and State Research Bureau (SRB) under Idi Amin.”

No single Ugandan, going by recorded history, personifies torture, repression and outright murder more than Idi Amin, who seized power in 1971 and held on to it until April 1979 when a combined force of the Tanzanian army and Ugandan exiles shot him out. The figure is disputed, but it is estimated that about half a million Ugandans were killed by state agents during Amin’s time. Many of the victims were severely tortured. Some of these gruesome murders are documented in a book with a depressing title, A State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin, by Henry Kyemba, who served as a minister in Amin’s government but later fell out with the dictator and ran into exile.

“The basic role of these agencies was to use state resources to terrorise political opposition, to carry out covert intelligence operations that could barely be sanctioned by the law, and to spread and maintain a high level of terror and intimidation among the general public,” writes Oloka-Onyango.

He adds: “In this context, the prevention of and tracking of crime took a back seat, unsurprisingly leading to higher levels of criminality as the attention of the police was focused elsewhere.”

That crime surges as the police focuses more on repressing the regime’s opponents than catching criminals is as true today as it has ever been in Uganda’s history. The police have not released a crime report for over three years now, so it is hard to prove this scientifically, but there has been a surge in shootings and petty crime, especially house break-ins in and around Kampala in recent months. For this reason, President Museveni has on at least three occasions in a space of three months talked about the police force being infiltrated by criminals.

I will give you an example. Someone I know personally had her mobile phone grabbed in the streets of Kampala two weeks ago. She went to a nearby police post and told a police officer that she desperately needed her phone back. The police officer told her she would actually get it back, but at a fee, which she agreed to pay. She described to the police officer the person who had grabbed her phone and left. Hours later, the police officer called her and she picked up her phone, with all her data already deleted.

One policeman, Stephen Mugarura, went public about what he calls criminality within the police force, but the force he serves is instead trying him for the exposé instead of investigating his claims. Speaking to police officers like Mugarura, you discover that as far as investigations are concerned, there are at least two, not one, police forces in Uganda.

There are so many Ugandans with similar stories these days. Thieves broke into one man’s house and stole his electronics while he was asleep. . When he reported the incident at the police station the following morning, there was no policeman to follow him to the scene of the crime. He was just asked whether he was interested in having his phone tracked, for which he would have to pay.

One policeman, Stephen Mugarura, went public about what he calls criminality within the police force, but the force he serves is instead trying him for the exposé instead of investigating his claims. Speaking to police officers like Mugarura, you discover that as far as investigations are concerned, there are at least two, not one, police forces in Uganda. Those who call themselves “professional” investigators distance themselves from acts of torture, which they say are perpetrated by rogue groups closely connected to the topmost leadership of the police but have nothing to do with the directorate charged with criminal investigations. These “rogue” police operatives, other policemen say, were either former criminals or informants who were irregularly recruited into the force. But this doesn’t matter so long as they do the job.

After the fall of Amin, Obote II came up with the dreaded National Security Agency (NASA), which was directly under the Security Minister Chris Rwakasisi. Rwakasisi would, after Museveni took power, be convicted for murder and condemned to death, only to be released on presidential pardon. He was later named presidential advisor and campaigned for Museveni in the 2011 elections.

During the early hours of Museveni’s bush war, one man who would pay for hailing from the same region as Museveni and who backed him in the impugned 1980 elections, was Kizza Besigye, now Museveni’s fiercest challenger. Besigye has since told his story: He was picked up and tortured in the dreaded Nile Mansions for, he would later find out, being suspected of supporting Museveni’s rebel activities; he later teamed up with Museveni in the bush.

The point in all this is that the state is, as has always been the case, unwilling to stamp out torture in its entirety. In the wake of Byamukama’s torture, for instance, parliament sent a team of MPs to inspect the dreaded Nalufenya police station. But the inspection took just a day after which the MPs reported back to their colleagues. Some things were said and that will be about it; of course until another serious case of torture pops up.

In such a case, parliament should have charged a select committee with conducting an inquiry, hearing from victims and summoning accused persons and heads of security agencies accused of torture. We would, through such a process, get to know much more about the anatomy of torture in Uganda, and those carrying it out would be deterred for a while or forced to change their approach.

That was a lost opportunity in the war against torture. And, if Museveni is keen on launching an assault on the Constitution to remove the 75-year age cap to the presidency as it is widely feared, torture against his opponents could escalate and provide even more space to mourn this lost opportunity.

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The writer is a journalist based in Uganda.

Politics

A Dictator’s Guide: How Museveni Wins Elections and Reproduces Power in Uganda

Caricatures aside, how do President Yoweri Museveni and the National Revolutionary Movement state reproduce power? It’s been 31 years.

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Recent weeks have seen increased global media attention to Uganda following the incidents surrounding the arrest of popular musician and legislator, Bobi Wine; emblematic events that have marked the shrinking democratic space in Uganda and the growing popular struggles for political change in the country.

The spotlight is also informed by wider trends across the continent over the past few years—particularly the unanticipated fall of veteran autocrats Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Yaya Jammeh in Gambia, and most recently Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—which led to speculation about whether Yoweri Museveni, in power in Uganda since 1986, might be the next to exit this shrinking club of Africa’s strongmen.

Yet the Museveni state, and the immense presidential power that is its defining characteristic, has received far less attention, thus obscuring some of the issues at hand. Comprehending its dynamics requires paying attention to at-least three turning points in the National Resistance Movement’s history, which resulted in a gradual weeding-out of Museveni’s contemporaries and potential opponents from the NRM, then the mobilisation of military conflict to shore up regime legitimacy, and the policing of urban spaces to contain the increasingly frequent signals of potential revolution. Together, these dynamics crystallised presidential power in Uganda, run down key state institutions, and set the stage for the recent tensions and likely many more to come.

The purge

From the late 1990s, there has been a gradual weeding out the old guard in the NRM, which through an informal “succession queue,” had posed an internal challenge to the continuity of Museveni’s rule. It all started amidst the heated debates in the late 1990s over the reform of the then decaying Movement system; debates that pitted a younger club of reformists against an older group. The resultant split led to the exit of many critical voices from the NRM’s ranks, and began to bolster Museveni’s grip on power in a manner that was unprecedented. It also opened the lid on official corruption and the abuse of public offices.

Over the years, the purge also got rid of many political and military elites—the so-called “historicals”—many of whom shared Museveni’s sense of entitlement to political office rooted in their contribution to the 1980-1985 liberation war, and some of whom probably had an eye on his seat.

By 2005 the purge was at its peak; that year the constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits—passed after a bribe to every legislator—saw almost all insiders that were opposed to it, summarily dismissed. As many of them joined the ranks of the opposition, Museveni’s inner circle was left with mainly sycophants whose loyalty was more hinged on patronage than anything else. Questioning the president or harboring presidential ambitions within the NRM had become tantamount to a crime.

By 2011 the process was almost complete, with the dismissal of Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, whose growing popularity among rural farmers was interpreted as a nascent presidential bid, resulting in his firing.

One man remained standing, Museveni’s long-time friend Amama Mbabazi. His friendship with Museveni had long fueled rumors that he would succeed “the big man” at some point. In 2015, however, his attempt to run against Museveni in the ruling party primaries also earned him an expulsion from both the secretary general position of the ruling party as well as the prime ministerial office.

The departure of Mbabazi marked the end of any pretensions to a succession plan within the NRM. He was unpopular, with a record tainted by corruption scandals and complicity in Museveni’s authoritarianism, but his status as a “president-in-waiting” had given the NRM at least the semblance of an institution that could survive beyond Museveni’s tenure, which his firing effectively ended.

What is left now is perhaps only the “Muhoozi project,” a supposed plan by Museveni to have his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba succeed him. Lately it has been given credence by the son’s rapid rise to commanding positions in elite sections of the Ugandan military. But with an increasingly insecure Museveni heavily reliant on familial relationships and patronage networks, even the Muhoozi project appears very unlikely. What is clear, though, is that the over time, the presidency has essentially become Museveni’s property.

Exporting peace?

Fundamental to Museveni’s personalisation of power also has been the role of military conflict, both local and regional. First was the rebellion by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, which over its two-decade span enabled a continuation of the military ethos of the NRM. The war’s dynamics were indeed complex, and rooted in a longer history that predated even the NRM government, but undoubtedly it provided a ready excuse for the various shades of authoritarianism that came to define Museveni’s rule.

With war ongoing in the north, any challenge to Museveni’s rule was easily constructed as a threat to the peace already secured in the rest of the country, providing an absurd logic for clamping down on political opposition. More importantly, the emergency state born of it, frequently provided a justification for the president to side-step democratic institutions and processes, while at the same time rationalising the government’s disproportionate expenditure on the military. It also fed into Museveni’s self-perception as a “freedom fighter,” buttressed the personality cult around him, and empowered him to further undermine any checks on his power.

By the late 2000s the LRA war was coming to an end—but another war had taken over its function just in time. From the early 2000s, Uganda’s participation in a regional security project in the context of the War on Terror, particularly in the Somalian conflict, rehabilitated the regime’s international image and provided cover for the narrowing political space at home, as well as facilitating a further entrenchment of Museveni’s rule.

As post-9/11 Western foreign policy began to prioritise stability over political reform, Museveni increasingly postured as the regional peacemaker, endearing himself to donors while further sweeping the calls for democratic change at home under the carpet—and earning big from it.

It is easy to overlook the impact of these military engagements, but the point is that together they accentuated the role of the military in Ugandan politics and further entrenched Museveni’s power to degrees that perhaps even the NRM’s own roots in a guerrilla movement could never have reached.

Policing protest

The expulsion of powerful elites from the ruling circles and the politicisation of military conflict had just started to cement Musevenism, when a new threat emerged on the horizon. It involved not the usual antagonists—gun-toting rebels or ruling party elites—but ordinary protesters. And they were challenging the NRM on an unfamiliar battleground—not in the jungles, but on the streets: the 2011 “Walk-to-Work” protests, rejecting the rising fuel and food prices, were unprecedented.

But there is another reason the protests constituted a new threat. For long the NRM had mastered the art of winning elections. The majority constituencies were rural, and allegedly strongholds of the regime. The electoral commission itself was largely answerable to Museveni. With rural constituencies in one hand and the electoral body in the other, the NRM could safely ignore the minority opposition-dominated urban constituencies. Electoral defeat thus never constituted a threat to the NRM, at least at parliamentary and presidential levels.

But now the protesters had turned the tables, and were challenging the regime immediately after one of its landslide victories. The streets could not be rigged. In a moment, they had shifted the locus of Ugandan politics from the rural to the urban, and from institutional to informal spaces. And they were picking lessons from a strange source: North Africa. There, where Museveni’s old friend Gaddafi, among others, was facing a sudden exit under pressure from similar struggles. Things could quickly get out of hand. A strategic response was urgent.

The regime went into overdrive. The 2011 protests were snuffed out, and from then, the policing of urban spaces became central to the logic and working of the Museveni state. Draconian laws on public assembly and free speech came into effect, enacted by a rubber-stamp parliament that was already firmly in Museveni’s hands. Police partnered with criminal gangs, notably the Boda Boda 2010, to curb what was called “public disorder”—really the official name for peaceful protest. As police’s mandate expanded to include the pursuit of regime critics, its budget ballooned, and its chief, General Kale Kayihura, became the most powerful person after Museveni—before his recent dismissal.

For a while, the regime seemed triumphant. Organising and protest became virtually impossible, as urban areas came under 24/7 surveillance. Moreover, key state institutions—the parliament, electoral commission, judiciary, military and now the police—were all in the service of the NRM, and all voices of dissent had been effectively silenced. In time, the constitution would be amended again, by the NRM-dominated house, this time to remove the presidential age limit—the last obstacle to Museveni’s life presidency—followed by a new tax on social media, to curb “gossip.” Museveni was now truly invincible. Or so it seemed.

But the dreams of “walk-to-work”—the nightmare for the Museveni state—had never really disappeared, and behind the tightly-patrolled streets always lay the simmering quest for change. That is how we arrived at the present moment, with a popstar representing the widespread aspiration for better government, and a seemingly all-powerful president suddenly struggling for legitimacy. Whatever direction the current popular struggles ultimately take, what is certain is that they are learning well from history, and are a harbinger of many more to come.

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

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The Enduring Blind Spots of America’s Africa Policy

America should move way from making the military the face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.

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The Enduring Blind Spots of America's Africa Policy
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While Donald Trump’s administration completely neglected America-Africa relations, the blind spots bedeviling America’s Africa policy preceded his 2016 election. Correcting the systemic flaws of the past 30 years will require a complete rethink after the controversial President’s departure.

To remedy America’s Africa policy, President Joseph Biden’s administration should pivot away from counterterrorism to supporting democratic governance as a principal rather than as mere convenience, and cooperate with China on climate change, peace, and security on the continent.

America’s Africa policy 

America’s post-Cold War Africa policy has had three distinct and discernible phases. The first phase was an expansionist outlook undergirded by humanitarian intervention. The second was nonintervention, a stance triggered by the experience of the first phase. The third is the use of “smart” military interventions using military allies.  

The turning point for the first phase was in 1989 when a victorious America pursued an expansive foreign policy approach predicated on humanitarian intervention. Somalia became the first African test case of this policy when, in 1992, America sent almost 30,000 troops to support Operation Restore Hope’s humanitarian mission which took place against the background of the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991.

On 3-4 October 1993, during the Battle of Mogadishu, 18 US servicemen were killed in a fight with warlords who controlled Mogadishu then, and the bodies of the marines dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The media coverage increased pressure on the politicians and six months later America withdrew from Somalia — a case of the New World Order meeting the harsh reality of civil conflict.

The chastening experience resulted in America scaling back its involvement in internal conflicts in far-flung places. The result was the emergence of the second phase — non-engagement when Rwanda’s Genocide erupted in 1994 and almost a million people died in 100 days revealed the limitations of over-correcting the Somalia experience. This “non-interference” phase lasted until the twin Nairobi and Dar es Salaam US embassy bombings by Al Qaeda in 1998.

This gave way to the third phase with the realisation that the new threat to America was no longer primarily from state actors, but from transnational non-state actors using failing states as safe havens. The 2002 National Security Strategy states: “the events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states . . . can pose as a great danger to our national interests as strong states.”

Counterterrorism training and equipping of African militaries is the central plank of this new security policy. As a result, counterterrorism funding has skyrocketed as has America’s military footprint in Africa. As a result, Africa has become the theatre in which the Global forever War on Terror is fought.

The counterterrorism traps 

The reflexive reaction to the events of September 11 2001 spawned an interlocking web of covert and overt military and non-military operations. These efforts, initially deemed necessary and temporary, have since morphed into a self-sustaining system complete with agencies, institutions and a specialised lingo that pervades every realm of America’s engagement with Africa.

The United States Africa Command (Africom) is the vehicle of America’s engagement with the continent. Counterterrorism blurred the line between security, development, and humanitarian assistance with a host of implications including unrelenting militarisation which America’s policy establishment embraced uncritically as the sine qua non of America’s diplomacy, their obvious flaws notwithstanding. The securitisation of problems became self-fulfilling and self-sustaining.

The embrace of counterterrorism could not have come at a worse time for Africa’s efforts at democratization. In many African countries, political and military elites have now developed a predictable rule-based compact governing accession to power via elections rather than the coups of the past.

“Smart” African leaders exploited the securitised approach in two main ways: closing the political space and criminalising dissent as “terrorism” and as a source of free money. In Ethiopia, Yonatan Tesfaye, a former spokesman of the Semayawi (Blue) Party, was detained in December 2015 on charges under Article 4 of Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation ((EATP), arguably one of the the country’s most severe pieces of legislation. But Ethiopia has received millions of dollars from the United States.

The Department of Defense hardly says anything in public but gives out plenty of money without asking questions about human rights and good governance. Being a counterterrorism hub has become insurance policy against any form of criticism regardless of state malfeasance.

Egypt is one such hub. According to the Congressional Research Service, for the 2021 financial year, the Trump Administration has requested a total of US$1.4 billion in bilateral assistance for Egypt, which Congress approved in 2018 and 2019. Nearly all US funding for Egypt comes from the Foreign Military Finance (FMF) account and is in turn used to purchase military equipment of US origin, spare parts, training, and maintenance from US firms.

Another country that is a counterterrorism hub in the Horn of Africa is Ethiopia. For the few months they were in charge, the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU) brought order and stability to the country.  Although they were linked to only a few of Mogadishu’s local courts, on 24 December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to contain the rise of Al Shabaab’s political and military influence.

The ouster of the ICU by Ethiopia aggravated the deep historical enmity between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab — initially the youth wing of the ICU — subsequently exploited through a mix of Somali nationalism, Islamist ideology, and Western anti-imperialism. Al Shabaab presented themselves as the vanguard against Ethiopia and other external aggressors, providing the group with an opportunity to translate their rhetoric into action.

Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia could not have taken place without America’s blessing. The intervention took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, met with the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.  The intervention generated a vicious self-sustaining loop. Ethiopians are in Somalia because of Al Shabaab, and Al Shabaab says they will continue fighting as long as foreign troops are inside Somalia.

America has rewarded Ethiopia handsomely for its role as the Horn of Africa’s policeman. In both Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s case, on the score of human rights and good governance, the net losers are the citizens.

Drone attacks 

In keeping with the War on Terror being for forever, and despite departing Somalia in 1993, America outsourced a massive chunk of the fight against Al Shabaab to Ethiopia primarily, and later, to AMISOM. America is still engaged in Somalia where it has approximately 800 troops, including special forces that help train Somalia’s army to fight against Al Shabaab.

America carried out its first drone strike in Somalia in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Under the Trump administration, however, the US has dramatically increased the frequency of drone attacks and loosened the oversight required to approve strike targets in Somalia. In March 2017, President Trump secretly designated parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”, meaning that the high-level inter-agency vetting of proposed strikes and the need to demonstrate with near certainty that civilians would not be injured or killed no longer applied. Last year, the US acknowledged conducting 63 airstrikes in the country, and in late August last year, the US admitted that it had carried out 46 strikes in 2020.

A lack of transparency regarding civilian casualties and the absence of empirical evidence that the strikes lead to a reduction in terrorism in Somalia suggest that expanding to Kenya would be ill-advised. The US has only acknowledged having caused civilian casualties in Somalia three times. Between 2016 and 2019, AFRICOM failed to conduct a single interview with civilian witnesses of its airstrikes in Somalia.

Despite this level of engagement, defeating Al Shabaab remains a remote possibility.

Containing the Chinese takeover 

The Trump Administration did not have an Africa policy. The closest approximation of a policy during Trump’s tenure was stated in a speech delivered by John Bolton at a Conservative think tank decrying  China’s nefarious activities in Africa.  Even with a policy, where the counterterrorism framework views Africa as a problem to be solved by military means, the containing China policy views African countries as lacking the agency to act in their own interests. The problem with this argument is that it is patronising; Africans cannot decide what is right for them.

Over the last decades, while America was busy creating the interlocking counterterrorism infrastructure in Africa, China was building large-scale infrastructure across the continent. Where America sees Africa as a problem to be solved, China sees Africa as an opportunity to be seized.

Almost two years into the Trump administration, there were no US ambassadors deployed in 20 of Africa’s 54 countries even while America was maintaining a network of 29 military bases.  By comparison China, has 50 embassies spread across Africa.

For three consecutive years America’s administration has proposed deep and disproportionate cuts to diplomacy and development while China has doubled its foreign affairs budget since 2011. In 2018, China increased its funding for diplomacy by nearly 16 per cent and its funding for foreign aid by almost 7 per cent.

As a show of how engagement with Africa is low on the list of US priorities, Trump appointed a luxury handbag designer as America’s ambassador to South Africa on 14 November 2018. Kenya’s ambassador is a political appointee who, when he is not sparring with Kenyans on Twitter, is supporting a discredited coal mining project.

The US anti-China arguments emphasize that China does not believe in human rights and good governance, and that China’s funding of large infrastructure projects is essentially debt-trap diplomacy. The anti-China rhetoric coming from American officials is not driven by altruism but by the realisation that they have fallen behind China in Africa.

By the middle of this century Africa’s population is expected to double to roughly two billion. Nigeria will become the second most populous country globally by 2100, behind only India. The 24-country African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) entered into force on 30 May 2019. AfCFTA will ultimately bring together all 55 member states of the African Union covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people — including a growing middle class — and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$3.4 trillion.

While Chinese infrastructure projects grab the headlines, China has moved into diversifying its engagement with Africa. The country has increased its investments in Africa by more than 520 per cent over the last 15 years, surpassing the US as the largest trading partner for Africa in 2009 and becoming the top exporter to 19 out of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of the legacy Chinese investments have come at a steep environmental price and with an unsustainable debt. Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway is bleeding money and is economically unviable.

A fresh start

Supporting democratic governance and learning to cooperate with China are two areas that will make America part of Africa’s future rather than its past.

America should pivot way from making the military the most visible face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.

Despite the elegy about its retreat in Africa, democracy enjoys tremendous support. According to an Afro barometer poll, almost 70 per cent of Africans say democracy is their preferred form of government. Large majorities also reject alternative authoritarian regimes such as presidential dictatorships, military rule, and one-party governments. Democracy, while still fledgling, remains a positive trend; since 2015, there have been 34 peaceful transfers of power.

However, such positive metrics go hand in hand with a worrying inclination by presidents to change constitutions to extend their terms in office. Since 2015, leaders of 13 countries have evaded or overseen the weakening of term limit restrictions that had been in place. Democracy might be less sexy, but ignoring it is perilous. There are no apps or switches to flip to arrest this slide. It requires hard work that America is well equipped to support but has chosen not to in a range of countries in recent years There is a difference between interfering in the internal affairs of a country and complete abdication or (in some cases) supporting leaders who engage in activities that are inimical to deepening democracy.

The damage wrought by the Trump presidency and neo-liberal counterterrorism policies will take time to undo, but symbolic efforts can go a long way to bridging the gap.

America must also contend with China being an indispensable player in Africa and learn to cooperate rather than compete in order to achieve optimal outcomes.

China has 2,458 military and police personnel serving in eight missions around the globe, far more than the combined contribution of personnel by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia, the US, France and Britain. China had more than 2,400 Chinese troops take part in seven UN peacekeeping missions across the continent — most notably in Mali and South Sudan. Of the 14 current UN peacekeeping missions, seven are in Africa, consuming two-thirds of the budget.

Climate change and conflict resolution provide opportunities for cooperation. Disproportionate reliance on rain-fed agriculture and low adaptation to the adverse impact of climate change make Africa vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, the consequences of which will transcend Africa. Through a combination of research, development, technological transfer and multilateral investment, America and China could stave off the impact of climate change in Africa.

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Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts

Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee.

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Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts
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Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee, an investigation by Africa Uncensored and The Elephant has uncovered.

One of the companies was also awarded a mysterious Ksh 4.3 billion agreement to supply 8 million bottles of hand sanitizer, according to the government’s procurement system.

The contracts were awarded in 2015 as authorities moved to contain the threat from the Ebola outbreak that was ravaging West Africa and threatening to spread across the continent as well as from flooding related to the El-Nino weather phenomenon.

The investigation found that between 2014 and 2016, the Ministry of Health handed out hundreds of questionable non-compete tenders related to impending disasters, with a total value of KSh176 billion including three no-bid contracts to two firms, Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, linked to Mrs Nyamai, whose committee oversaw the ministry’s funding – a clear conflict of interest.

Number of Suppliers Allocated BPAAlthough authorities have since scrutinized some of the suspicious contracts and misappropriated health funds, the investigation revealed a handful of contracts that were not made public, nor questioned by the health committee.

Mrs Nyamai declined to comment for the story.

Nyamai has been accused by fellow members of parliament of thwarting an investigation of a separate alleged fraud. In 2016, a leaked internal audit report accused the Ministry of Health — colloquially referred to for its location at Afya House — of misappropriating funds in excess of nearly $60 million during the 2015/2016 financial year. Media stories described unauthorized suppliers, fraudulent transactions, and duplicate payments, citing the leaked document.

Members of the National Assembly’s Health Committee threatened to investigate by bringing the suppliers in for questioning, and then accused Nyamai, the committee chairperson, of blocking their probe. Members of the committee signed a petition calling for the removal of Nyamai and her deputy, but the petition reportedly went missing. Nyamai now heads the National Assembly’s Committee on Lands.

Transactions for companies owned by Mrs Nyamai’s relatives were among 25,727 leaked procurement records reviewed by reporters from Africa Uncensored, Finance Uncovered, The Elephant, and OCCRP. The data includes transactions by eight government agencies between August 2014 and January 2018, and reveals both questionable contracts as well as problems that continue to plague the government’s accounting tool, IFMIS.

The Integrated Financial Management Information System was adopted to improve efficiency and accountability. Instead, it has been used to fast-track corruption.

Hand sanitizer was an important tool in fighting transmission of Ebola, according to a WHO health expert. In one transaction, the Ministry of Health paid Sh5.4 million for “the supply of Ebola reagents for hand sanitizer” to a company owned by a niece of the MP who chaired the parliamentary health committee. However, it’s unclear what Ebola reagents, which are meant for Ebola testing, have to do with hand sanitizer. Kenya’s Ministry of Health made 84 other transactions to various vendors during this period, earmarked specifically for Ebola-related spending. These included:

  • Public awareness campaigns and adverts paid to print, radio and tv media platforms, totalling at least KSh122 million.
  • Printed materials totalling at least KSh214 million for Ebola prevention and information posters, contact tracing forms, technical guideline and point-of-entry forms, brochures and decision charts, etc. Most of the payments were made to six obscure companies.
  • Ebola-related pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical supplies, including hand sanitizer
  • Ebola-related conferences, catering, and travel expenses
  • At least KSh15 millions paid to a single vendor for isolation beds

Hacking the System

Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, appear to have no history of dealing in hygiene or medical supplies. Yet they were awarded three blanket purchase agreements, which are usually reserved for trusted vendors who provide recurring supplies such as newspapers and tea, or services such as office cleaning.

“A blanket agreement is something which should be exceptional, in my view,” says former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko.

But the leaked data show more than 2,000 such agreements, marked as approved by the heads of procurement in various ministries. About KSh176 billion (about $1.7 billion) was committed under such contracts over 42 months.

“Any other method of procurement, there must be competition. And in this one there is no competition,” explained a procurement officer, who spoke generally about blanket purchase agreements on background. “You have avoided sourcing.”

The Ministry of Health did not respond to detailed questions, while Mrs Nyamai declined to comment on the contracts in question.

Procurement experts say blanket purchase agreements are used in Kenya to short-circuit the competitive process. A ministry’s head of procurement can request authority from the National Treasury to create blanket agreements for certain vendors. Those companies can then be asked by procurement employees to deliver supplies and services without competing for a tender.

Once in the system, these single-source contracts are prone to corruption, as orders and payments can simply be made without the detailed documentation required under standard procurements. With limited time and resources, government auditors say they struggle especially with reconciling purchases made under blanket agreements.

The agreements were almost always followed by standard purchase orders that indicated the same vendor and the same amount which is unusual and raises fears of duplication. Some of these transactions were generated days or weeks after the blanket agreements, many with missing or mismatched explanations. It’s unclear whether any of these actually constituted duplicate payments.

For example, the leaked data show two transactions for Ameken Minewest for Sh6.9 million each — a blanket purchase order for El Nino mitigation supplies and a standard order for the supply of chlorine tablets eight days later. Tira Southshore also had two transactions of Sh12 million each — a blanket purchase for the “supply of lab reagents for cholera,” and six days later a standard order for the supply of chlorine powder.

Auditors say both the amounts and the timing of such payments are suspicious because blanket agreements should be paid in installments.

“It could well be a duplicate, using the same information, to get through the process. Because you make a blanket [agreement], then the intention is to do duplicates, so that it can pass through the cash payee phase several times without delivering more,” said Ouko upon reviewing some of the transactions for Tira Southshore. This weakness makes the IFMIS system prone to abuse, he added.

In addition, a KSh4 billion contract for hand sanitizer between the Health Ministry’s Preventive and Promotive Health Department and Tira Southshore was approved as a blanket purchase agreement in April 2015. The following month, a standard purchase order was generated for the same amount but without a description of services — this transaction is marked in the system as incomplete. A third transaction — this one for 0 shillings — was generated 10 days later by the same procurement employee, using the original order description: “please supply hand sanitizers 5oomls as per contract Moh/dpphs/dsru/008/14-15-MTC/17/14-15(min.no.6).

Reporters were unable to confirm whether KSh4 billion was paid by the ministry. The leaked data doesn’t include payment disbursement details, and the MOH has not responded to requests for information.

“I can assure you there’s no 4 billion, not even 1 billion. Not even 10 million that I have ever done, that has ever gone through Tira’s account, through that bank account,” said the co-owner of the company, Abigael Mukeli. She insisted that Tira Southshore never had a contract to deliver hand sanitizer, but declined to answer specific questions. It is unclear how a company without a contract would appear as a vendor in IFMIS, alongside contract details.

It is possible that payments could end up in bank accounts other than the ones associated with the supplier. That is because IFMIS also allowed for the creation of duplicate suppliers, according to a 2016 audit of the procurement system. That audit found almost 50 cases of duplication of the same vendor.

“Presence of active duplicate supplier master records increases the possibility of potential duplicate payments, misuse of bank account information, [and] reconciliation issues,” the auditors warned.

They also found such blatant security vulnerabilities as ghost and duplicate login IDs, deactivated requirements for password resets, and remote access for some procurement employees.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

IFMIS was promoted as a solution for a faster procurement process and more transparent management of public funds. But the way the system was installed and used in Kenya compromised its extolled safeguards, according to auditors.

“There is a human element in the system,” said Ouko. “So if the human element is also not working as expected then the system cannot be perfect.”

The former head of the internal audit unit at the health ministry, Bernard Muchere, confirmed in an interview that IFMIS can be manipulated.

Masking the Setup

Ms Mukeli, the co-owner of Tira Southshore and Ameken Minewest, is the niece of Mrs Nyamai, according to local sources and social media investigation, although she denied the relationship to reporters. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Mukeli works at Kenya Medical Supplies Agency, a medical logistics agency under the Ministry of Health, now embroiled in a COVID procurement scandal.

Ms Mukeli’s mother, who is the MP’s elder sister, co-owns Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., which shares a post office box with Tira Southshore and Mematira Holdings Limited, which was opened in 2018, is co-owned by Mrs Nyamai’s husband and daughter, and is currently the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest. Documents also show that a company called Icpher Consultants was originally registered to the MP, who was listed as the beneficial owner.

Co-owner of Tira Southshore Holdings Limited, Abigael Mukeli, described the company to reporters as a health consulting firm. However Tira Southshore also holds an active exploration license for the industrial mining in a 27-square-kilometer area in Kitui County, including in the restricted South Kitui National Reserve. According to government records, the application for mining limestone in Mutomo sub-county — Nyamai’s hometown — was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018.

Mukeli is also a minority owner of Ameken Minewest Company Limited, which also holds an active mining license in Mutomo sub-county of Kitui, in an area covering 135.5 square kilometers. Government records show that the application for the mining of limestone, magnesite, and manganese was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018. Two weeks after the license was granted, Mematira Holdings Limited was incorporated, with Nyamai’s husband and daughter as directors. Today, Mematira Holdings is the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest, which is now in the process of obtaining another mining license in Kitui County.

According to public documents, Ameken also dabbles in road works and the transport of liquefied petroleum gas. And it’s been named by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in a fuel fraud scheme.

Yet another company, Wet Blue Proprietors Logistics Ltd., shares a phone number with Tira Southshore and another post office box with Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., according to a Kenya National Highway Authority list of pre-qualified vendors.

Family LinksMrs Nyamai and her husband co-own Wet Blue. The consulting company was opened in 2010, the same year that the lawmaker completed her PhD work in HIV/AIDS education in Denmark.

Wet Blue was licenced in 2014 as a dam contractor and supplier of water, sewerage, irrigation and electromechanical works. It’s also listed by KENHA as a vetted consultant for HIV/AIDS mitigation services, together with Icpher Consultants.

It is unclear why these companies are qualified to deliver all these services simultaneously.

“Shell companies receiving contracts in the public sector in Kenya have enabled corruption, fraud and tax evasion in the country. They are literally special purpose vehicles to conduct ‘heists’ and with no track record to deliver the public goods, works or services procured,” said Sheila Masinde, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya.

Both MOH and Ms Mukeli refused to confirm whether the ordered supplies were delivered.

Mrs Nyamai also co-owns Ameken Petroleum Limited together with Alfred Agoi Masadia and Allan Sila Kithome.

Mr Agoi is an ANC Party MP for Sabatia Constituency in Vihiga County, and was on the same Health Committee as Mrs Nyamai, a Jubilee Party legislator. Mr Sila is a philanthropist who is campaigning for the Kitui County senate seat in the 2022 election.

Juliet Atellah at The Elephant and Finance Uncovered in the UK contributed reporting.

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