I was twelve years old when the first invasions of white-owned farms by Zimbabwe’s war veterans were announced on television. The year was 2000. What followed, a decade in which we experienced the spiralling of the Zim dollar and the subsequent food shortages, electricity and water rationing, as well as political violence, was a kind of nightmare that forced us to grapple with our history.
History has been repeatedly evoked, at times eloquently, at times brutally, in Zimbabwe over the past one-and-a-half decades or so, as a means of justifying, among other policies, the country’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme. We, its people, have been caught in a recurring, closed loop in which we are coerced into living in a heavily edited and glorified past as an answer to, or more accurately, diversion from, the current miserable socio-politico-economic state. At the same time, international intervention in the “Zimbabwean problem” has become, in historic fashion, an exercise in amnesia, where countries such as Britain, while glossing over their colonial involvement in the country, partake in an obscene form of Western voyeurism on the suffering of Zimbabweans.
Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme, which was spearheaded by the country’s war veterans in the year 2000 when war veterans invaded white-owned farms – an action that was soon after endorsed by the government – justifies itself through history. But what history? And what justifications are being made?
Indeed, the question of land in Zimbabwe is inexorably tied to the country’s history. It’s both a historical and a philosophical question; the local people were violently kicked off their land by Cecil John Rhodes and his British South Africa Company in the 1890s, who took control of the land on behalf of the British Crown. In doing so, the white settlers upset the local peoples’ relationship to the land, introducing modern capitalism and the concept of land as a commodity. A brief history of Zimbabwe and its land can be found here.
Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme, which was spearheaded by the country’s war veterans in the year 2000 when war veterans invaded white-owned farms – an action that was soon after endorsed by the government – justifies itself through history. But what history? And what justifications are being made? The historian Terrence Ranger, in his essay, “The Uses and Abuses of History in Zimbabwe,” diagnoses the current history that is propagated by the Zimbabwean government as “patriotic history,” a type of history which
“emphasises the division of the nation not only into races but also into ‘patriots’ and ‘sell-outs’ among its African population…’patriotic history’ has replaced the idea of Socialism by that of “authenticity”…it offers a highly selective and streamlined version of the anti-colonial struggle. It is a doctrine of ‘permanent revolution’ leaping from Chimurenga to Chimurenga…It is a doctrine of violence because it sees itself as a doctrine of revolution” (2005:8).
Ranger’s description of the term “patriotic history” as being a “doctrine of violence” that is directly correlated to a “doctrine of revolution” has a direct link to the Fanonian view on decolonisation. As Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, decolonisation is a violent, revolutionary phenomenon that seeks to get beneath the surface racial relations within a colonial society; it seeks to “change the order of the world,” to disrupt a business-as-usual attitude, and to get at the social relations which enable racial fetish and its ties to land ownership in countries such as Zimbabwe.
The imbuing of Mugabe with “ancestral wisdom” is a powerful and effective tool. For one, it has elevated Mugabe to some god-like status, thwarting attempts at any meaningful critique of his failings and branding all such critique as “Western-motivated,” as if the people of Zimbabwe could not possibly think for themselves.
But how, exactly, does this “patriotic history” work in Zimbabwe? President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party ZANU(PF) propagates this type of history by relocating the country’s pre-colonial values and rituals and transposing them to the present as a mythical “deep ancestral memory.” Here we have a game of smoke-and-mirrors, in which the past is made malleable, but unquestionable, for to question a “sacred” past is to render oneself a “traitor.” An article in the Zimbabwean Sunday Mail (2003) by historian Professor Tafataona Mahoso reads:
“Mugabe is now every African who is opposed to the British and North American plunder and exploitation…So, old Mugabe here is not the person of Robert Mugabe. Rather it is that powerful, elemental African memory going back to the first Nehanda and even to the ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians who are now reclaiming Africa in history as the cradle of humankind.”
The imbuing of Mugabe with “ancestral wisdom” is a powerful and effective tool. For one, it has elevated Mugabe to some god-like status, thwarting attempts at any meaningful critique of his failings and branding all such critique as “Western-motivated,” as if the people of Zimbabwe could not possibly think for themselves. More importantly, it allows for state-aligned intellectuals (the kind Edward Said cautions against in his essay “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals”), such as Professor Tafataona Mahoso, to say, without irony, that the “spirit of Cecil John Rhodes” has appeared “in the most aggressive, photogenic, restless and boyish body of British Prime Minister Tony Blair” (Sunday Mail, 25 February 2003).
The utilisation of pre-colonial history does the work of evoking in the citizenry memories of the past and linking them to what is happening in the present—Rhodes the colonialist has reappeared in the form of Tony Blair the imperialist—while speaking in an intimate local linguistic form (that of local traditions and ancestral spirits). The evoking of Rhodes and his deliberate linkage to Tony Blair also brings to mind the violent means by which the white-supremacist state of Rhodesia had to be removed, and the lives that were lost by the country’s war heroes. In linking that violence to the post-2000 violent struggle to wrest the farms from white farmers, an ideological parallel and justification is evoked; in line with Fanon, the ethos of struggle for the colonised can be but that of violence as a tool of emancipation. Just as violence is the oppressor’s tool, along with other sophisticated forms of economic and cultural persuasion.
But how does this transposed pre-colonial history that is imbued with ancestral values and is embodied in the form of individual persons operate within 21st century Zimbabwe? Could it be argued, for instance, that it seeks to contribute to a revolutionary impetus by imagining different forms of societal organisation? To consider this, one must note that the social relations in Zimbabwe post-2000 are different from how they were in the 1970s just before the country’s independence in 1980.
In the 1970s, the struggle for independence was fought using guerrilla tactics and aggressive rhetorical modes of persuasion in the form of imploring speeches made by the guerrilla parties’ nationalist leaders, thus garnering local support as well as international political, economic and military support from countries such as the USSR that had their own Cold War agendas with Western Europe and the USA. In the 2000s, the country’s ruling party ZANU(PF) was no longer a guerrilla party, but was and still is the dominant party in the country in full control of Zimbabwe’s judiciary, finances, army and state bodies. Yet, it has positioned itself rhetorically as a guerrilla party—in this way “justifying” its use of violence as a method of decolonisation while concurrently abusing the state’s civic bodies as a means of oppression of its citizenry—still in the trenches fighting to free the Zimbabwean people from Western dominance (the invasions of white-owned farms starting in the year 2000 were named the Third Chimurenga —the Third Liberation Struggle—evoking the First Chimurenga in the 1890s and the Second Chimurenga under the nationalist parties during the 1970s).
As Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, this transposed history is nothing more than the tactic of a ruling elite that, “unable to open the future (for its people) or of flinging them onto the path of national reconstruction, that is to say, their own reconstruction,” keeps them in perpetual remembrance of a heavily edited, dreamy past as a means of preventing them from reckoning with their present circumstances.
Hence, this revived ancestral memory becomes a corruption of the past as means not to genuinely transform the present, but to manipulate it at the expense of the citizenry. Its main purpose is to facilitate ideological arguments and to solemnise rituals, with no intention of a genuine follow-through that can offer a real structural change for the citizenry. As Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, this transposed history is nothing more than the tactic of a ruling elite that, “unable to open the future (for its people) or of flinging them onto the path of national reconstruction, that is to say, their own reconstruction,” keeps them in perpetual remembrance of a heavily edited, dreamy past as a means of preventing them from reckoning with their present circumstances.
Nevertheless, knowledge in and of itself can be a multi-purpose tool, and who is using it and to what ends can become more important than its intended purpose. Thus, can this ancestral memory and the working up of the citizenry by the ruling elite be utilised in ways other than what the ruling elite have intended? Can it benefit those who wish to bring to fruition in the periphery their societal ideas of being and self? This depends, in large part, on how those who participate in revolutionary activity view and understand themselves.
Thus the question: what role does land play as a revolutionary symbol to be reclaimed? In former colonised spaces, the racial fetish of colonialism cannot be separated from the commodity fetish of capitalism; both go hand in hand. The white man, by virtue of the colour of his skin, was historically advantaged during colonial times. Concurrently, the emergence of modern capitalism in Europe, which was exported to the periphery, enabled Europe to siphon the periphery’s natural as well as human resources to enrich both itself and the white minority that lived in and governed the colonies.
During colonial times, the Rhodesian government subsidised its white farming population, giving it not only favourable market prices, but banning black peasant farmers from selling their own produce at the same favourable rates. Furthermore, the white population was given the best arable land in Rhodesia, while blacks were cramped in and made to farm on poor land. As such, race and capitalism are historically inextricable. Hence, the attempt to leave the fate of a historically disenfranchised, formerly colonised people to “the market,” and to deride attempts by post-colonial forms of political organisation to economically and politically subsidise their populations is an ironic instance of feigned memory loss. Or is it an extreme case of reification by proponents of liberal capitalism and the free-market enterprise?
In former colonised spaces, the racial fetish of colonialism cannot be separated from the commodity fetish of capitalism; both go hand in hand. The white man, by virtue of the colour of his skin, was historically advantaged during colonial times. Concurrently, the emergence of modern capitalism in Europe, which was exported to the periphery, enabled Europe to siphon the periphery’s natural as well as human resources to enrich both itself and the white minority that lived in and governed the colonies.
Linked to the question of land in Zimbabwe is also that of the complex, dialectical identity of many white Zimbabweans. A brilliant case study of the conflicting ideas of self harboured by many members of the country’s white farming community, illustrating, among other things, the poor race relations in the country and how many white Zimbabweans haven’t worked through, or been afforded the spaces to safely work through, their colonial history, is the book The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Farmer’s Voices from Zimbabwe by Rory Pilossof. The white Zimbabwean exhibits residues of the white settler community “which calls itself ‘liberal’,” to quote Fanon, and yet “demands nothing more nor less than twofold citizenship” while “setting themselves apart in an abstract manner.” Indeed, white Zimbabweans and their offspring have in the past held dual citizenship, of both Britain and Zimbabwe; this privilege of dual citizenship was never extended to black Zimbabweans.
As such, the impetus by the country’s black citizenry to reclaim land ought to be understood within this historical framework, which continues to affect contemporary relations. This does not mean that such an impetus is pure and not prone to manipulation and corruption, as is evidenced by Zimbabwe’s ruling elite and the corrupt systems under which the country operates today. However, it is important to recognise it as a logical impetus for formerly colonised peoples who are attempting to realise their ideas of self and being in a concrete reality. This ability to realise ideas of self and being rests on the material, on the power to self-direct resources into one’s community. Without material resources, ideas of self and community cannot become concrete or a reality. As such, the self-realisation of the peoples at the periphery cannot happen without their having access to material resources, which Africa has in abundance. Land becomes a crucial material as well as ideological symbol.
But how do the people ensure responsibility from a rogue government that is unable to move them into the future but that utilises the past as a means of keeping them in check? This is the question. The Zimbabwean state and its abuse of history as a means of self-preservation, even at the expense of the citizenry, is a case in point.
In terms of land as a metaphysical and philosophical entity, it’s interesting to note that the restructuring of land by the colonial settlers in the late 19th century was not in line with the ways in which value was allotted by the local people at that time. To quote Lawrence Tshuma in A Matter of (In)justice: Law, State and the Agrarian Question in Zimbabwe:
“an assumption, deriving from English jurisprudence, was that King Lobhengula as sovereign had proprietary title in all the unalloted land in his kingdom. As land was not a commodity among the pre-colonial people of Zimbabwe, Lobhengula enjoyed neither ultimate nor proprietary title akin to that which had emerged during the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England” (1997:14-15).
As such, reclamation of land as a symbol of decolonisation and emancipation needs to go beyond simply replacing white owners with black owners. A “new species of man” is desired, as Fanon states. Because of the implicit ties between the racial fetish and the commodity fetish, and thus capitalism, a carefully planned and well thought out land reform programme can also be seen as an invitation to the peoples at the periphery to experiment with different forms of societal organisation. Otherwise, the kind of relations that have been going on under the racial fetish carry on, only with a different form of fetish in place that entails both the fetishised and those doing the fetishising having the same skin colour. In Zimbabwe, much of the redistribution of land has been centred on “loyalty” to the ruling party. The land reacquired via the Fast Track Land Reform Programme is mostly under the trusteeship of the government, a government that has divided its citizens into “patriots” and “sell-outs” and that reserves the right to decide who is a “true Zimbabwean” so that these individuals can be rewarded accordingly.
The land reacquired via the Fast Track Land Reform Programme is mostly under the trusteeship of the government, a government that has divided its citizens into “patriots” and “sell-outs” and that reserves the right to decide who is a “true Zimbabwean” so that these individuals can be rewarded accordingly.
At the same time, one must note that it’s difficult for the peoples at the periphery to experiment with their own forms of societal organisation. There are pressures to become part of a unified world, via globalisation. And yet, globalisation, the notion of a unified world with the West at the centre still, is the continuation and consolidation of an oppressive structure in which the majority of the black and brown peoples of the world still retain their “peripheral” stature. As such, attempts by the periphery to realise itself and experiment with social modes that may grant it some level of autonomy from the centre are always thwarted by the centre, be it via political, economic or military means. The Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel, in his edifying treatise, Philosophy of Liberation, puts it thus:
“…imperialism cannot afford to lose the political control it exercises over peripheral countries, because it would lose markets that yield enormous profits. That is why popular liberation, the seizure of power by popular groups, threatens the very survival of the entire system of the centre, of capitalist social formation” (1985:76).
Now that Africa is the last frontier of economic expansion, in order to breed the consumer-crazed sheep of tomorrow (or today already) there is the “Africa Rising” narrative (rising on a Western narrative and on Western sensibilities and terms)—the “African” is finally a human being, but to qualify as such one must be a special kind of African, the middle and ruling class kind, who has been coopted into capitalism’s project and is able to participate as a profit maker on capitalism’s ledger. Meanwhile, those rands and shillings are ultimately going back as profits to the headquarters of the multinationals to once again enrich the centre, the Western spheres, leaving petty change at the periphery.
Can this be said to be a genuine step forward in the periphery that brings it closer to edifying its own existence and realising its own societal ideas of being and self? Clearly not. What then are the conditions that are necessary for decolonisation in Africa, and in countries such as Zimbabwe where land plays such a central role to this process? What role can land play in this successful decolonisation? How do we ensure that decolonisation is not hijacked and coopted by corrupt state mechanisations? How do we utilise our history to catapult us into a just and equitable future?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although 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.
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.
Mrs 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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