Political culture is an elusive creature. It is pervasive but invisible, like the oxygen that energizes our social organization and economy. It is also colorless and odorless, the carbon monoxide that suffocates the public interest. Like the quanta of particle physics, it inhabits a difficult to pinpoint state straddling legal-constitutional rationality and people’s behavioral orientations. The oil that lubricates the wheels of power, it is also the glue that holds the system together. Red in tooth and claw, it is an essential component of peaceful coexistence.
An agricultural economist colleague once asked me, ‘all this insight into culture you anthropologists generate is fascinating, but what are we supposed to do with it?” There are no simple answers to this question, but we can try.
1. Political Culture Defined
Political culture is formally defined as the “set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give order and meaning to a political process, including the underlying assumptions and rules that govern political behavior. The dean of political culture studies, Gabriel Almond, cited the terribly destructive “irrational” events of twentieth century like the World Wars and the Holocaust to underscore its importance, in contrast to rationality, for explaining social life.
The concept’s lineage dates back Plato who used it to explain the dispositions differentiating Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta. This comparative approach is often more useful for practical purposes than for diagnosing the intricacies of a given political system. The contrasts between the political cultures in this region, for example, can be a useful entry point for examining the different pathways nations are traveling in search of adaptive governance as well as the usual historical, environmental and other parameters guiding the journey. This in turn connects to the idea political culture is a useful indicator of the system’s health, viability, and most distinctive features.
Political culture is formally defined as the “set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give order and meaning to a political process, including the underlying assumptions and rules that govern political behavior.
Ethiopia, for example, presents a very strong internalized sense of order. This helps account for why, after Mengistu’s regime fell, the country continued to function normally for two weeks without a government. Civil servants went to their offices and the business of ordinary life continued without disruption and looting. This not to say violence is alien to the country; the sustained bloodshed of the red and white terror is hardly ancient history and the government has shown itself to be quite adept at using force to leverage its objectives. The state does go about it in a more organized fashion than neighboring countries, and the same can be said for the civilians: as one acquaintance in Addis Ababa informed me, “we let these guys do their thing for a long time but when things reach a certain point we pick up our weapons and get rid of them.”
Abyssinian imperial tradition helps explain this particular set of attitudes and values, especially in contrast to the conflicts raging in neighboring South Sudan and Somalia. The example of Somaliland, in contrast, contradicts the notion that lineage based societies are conducive to clan-based violence.
The more self-explanatory aspects of the term are expressed in familiar truisms like the ‘culture of impunity’ or ‘subculture of violence, and tired clichés like ‘there are no permanent friends or enemies’, and ‘politics is a dirty game’, or more homegrown expressions like ‘to slip is not to fall’ one hears in Kenya. These indicators of modern political culture underscore the rupture between the more seamless quality traditional African political cultures and the contemporary variations that replaced them, including the culture of unchecked power and domination.
2. In Search of African Political Culture
Cultural exemplars are typically context-specific, by nature a derivative of culture proper, and of which Africa has long been a rich reservoir. In general, African cultures established clear boundaries between generations and groups, defined clear mechanisms for participation, and incorporated belief in higher powers and recognized the agency of forces operating outside the natural world. Politics was for the most part embedded in the internal order of these societies and recognized the overlap between the material and the unseen world. The uncertainty embedded in the environment gave rise to mythical representations like the character of the trickster who was often represented by an animal, the most famous being Ananse the spider of Akan-Ashanti traditions.
Ethiopia, for example, presents a very strong internalized sense of order. This helps account for why, after Mengistu’s regime fell, the country continued to function normally for two weeks without a government. Civil servants went to their offices and the business of ordinary life continued without disruption and looting.
Leadership was often distributed across generations and genders, though less so in the case of women in many societies, and included pathways for integration and negotiation with other groups. Culture is by definition plastic and adaptable, and institutions such as age grade organization and elders’ councils facilitated the transfer of problem-solving skills and wisdom across generations. In the areas that gave rise to centralized structures, kings operated more as managers and coordinators who oversaw the redistribution of resources; the culture of gift giving, dance and music, rituals and rights of passage featured prominently, as did the tradition of sacrifice to propitiate to the gods and the higher powers. Rainmakers and seers occupied a prominent position in many cultures. Violation of social rules and the unseen order could bring misfortune upon the individual and the group.
European intervention effectively deculturalized many areas of Africa with ramifications for post-colonial governance. The problem was most acute in Anglophone countries. In a recent article in the Guardian, Chizidie Obioma describes colonialism as a process where “the civilisations of the peoples, their various cultures and traditions, their religions, political philosophies and institutions” were effectively hollowed out.
In any event, the transfer of state institutions at independence came with the attendant problems of fossilized ethnic identities, marginalization of indigenous institutions, detention without trial, and other repressive mechanisms adopted by the new state elites. The pattern coincides with multiple other examples in developing regions where political culture is often reducible to the influence invested in national elites. The following decades saw diverse attempts to reconstitute a national political culture based on different ideologies including efforts to indigenize the Marxist orientation behind many liberation movements.
One analyst explained the political culture of democratic transition in Latin American countries by underscoring the link between the material aspirations of the general public and the goal of replicating the greater opportunity and ability enjoyed by the wealthy classes. This equates to the quest for democracy incentivized by material success. The caveat here is that for generations, that region’s political culture was shaped by the contest between ‘the people’ and small cartels shaping their nation’s key political institutions and controlling most of the wealth. These conditions gave rise to Neo-Marxist models that were exported to Africa in the form of dependency theory and critiques of neo-colonialism, but the political culture they fed elsewhere never really took root in African soil.
In general, African cultures established clear boundaries between generations and groups, defined clear mechanisms for participation, and incorporated belief in higher powers and recognized the agency of forces operating outside the natural world.
The African socialism of that era was a convenient catchall term. Julius Nyerere’s Ujumaa was arguably the most serious attempt to inculcate a political culture based on indigenous tradition. The idea of African socialism was a common meme across the continent after independence, but took different forms. The African Socialism featuring in Kenya’s Sessional Paper No. 10 provided a convenient wrapper for expanding the inequality associated with the country’s agrarian capitalism, while others like Kwame Nkrumah parlayed the term into a vehicle for grandiose infrastructural projects. On more than one occasion civil servants explained it to me by saying, ‘we Africans like to socialize so we get together somewhere and share beer and talk’.
The centralized system behind Syad Barre’s contrived concept of hantiwadaag, or camel-sharing, scientific socialism was another example. During the early years of his rule Syad Barre sincerely attempted to extrapolate his hantiwadaag socialism into economic reality by nationalizing most of the country’s formal sector economy and by devoting a third of the government budget to setting up a system of agricultural cooperatives, including a pilot scheme of fourteen cooperatives for herders based on the allocation of grazing blocks and drilling boreholes for water. His most ambitious cooperative-based project was the conversion of 90,000 drought stricken nomads into fisherman. Other initiatives including processing facilities for milk, meat and fish canning, and sugar enjoyed a measure of success during the 1970s before everything unraveled following his ill-fated support for the occupation of the Ogaden.
In the end, the political culture of irredentism triumphed over the scientific management of national resources. Such case studies provide ammunition for academic critics who regard “the very concept of political culture as epiphenomenal and superfluous,” according one scholar based at the University of Warwick. Even so, the idea keeps on coming back.
In 2009 I participated in a research project entitled Political Culture, Governance, and the State in Africa. Our objective was to examine the influence of political culture across the continent. We recruited a diverse collection of academics and analysts to explore how culture and politics interact, and the import of political culture in African societies where institutionalization is weak and emergent national political cultures reflect a variety of diverse influences and forces.
I reviewed and read close to sixty papers, many of which were interesting, well documented, and insightful. Some featured captivating but complicated titles; one of my favorites was African Cultural Political Renaissance: Strategies, Identities, Ambiguities, And Confrontations. Quite a few were also dense, abstract, and not easy to read. They invariably illuminated the culture of politics in diverse African settings and contexts from South Africa to Tunisia, and discussed issues from the role of the military, to capacity building and indigenous conflict management. However, none of them directly addressed the basic thesis that sought to pin down how political culture articulates within African settings to influence political processes and their outcomes.
The same proved true during our three-day meeting, despite the project’s curator, Professor Abdalla Bujra, attempts to steer discussion toward this end. The case studies demonstrated that culture is integral to politics, and that governance draws from a variety of sources both within a given national arena and from without. The practice of socialism, democracy, participatory governance, and resource redistribution as well as relentless exploitation and opportunism all have precedents on the communal level. Pluralism is the problem; the richness of indigenous political culture contrasts with the poverty of its institutional counterparts. They negate each other in a manner that tended to make the conclusions of the papers amorphous in the end.
Perhaps this was understandable insofar as it is difficult too isolate the contribution of political culture when one is so immersed in the chase, so to speak. Culture is like camouflage, and its influence derives from its ability to blend so well into the background.
The practice of socialism, democracy, participatory governance, and resource redistribution as well as relentless exploitation and opportunism all have precedents on the communal level.
But there are success stories. The unrecognized Republic of Somaliland’s retreat from the brink of civil war through protracted dialogue is one such exemplar that underscores the utility of inclusive participation. The long discussions among clan elders in Boramo received most of the attention, but the contribution of organizations with names like Moonlight and Havioko that served as conduits for women and youth were equally critical to the emergence of a political culture aligned with the society’s internal cultural endowment.
Still, the shift from democratically inspired liberation movements to democratic governance has been a major problem as most other cases illustrate. The contrast between Eritrea’s remarkable guerilla campaign and the dictatorship of Isias Afworki is probably the most extreme case, and as one South African commentator details, a supportive political cultural is essential for democracy to work.
3. Identity, Culture, and Power
I came across an interesting commentary by Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt on culturalism and politics while doing research for our political culture conference. The culturalism argument they address is predicated on the view that individuals are determined by their culture, and that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections even if at the same time they violate individual rights. This is the ‘each culture in its own place, each culture in its own country’ right-wing response to multiculturalism and globalization.
Any politically aware individual alive and breathing today will recognize how the issue of identity-based politics has gained traction since the time of our meeting. The American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, captured the essence of these developments in 2004 when he predicted that we are entering a time when what you support will not matter as much as who you are.
The problem in Africa is that African constitutions … are easily ripped up or ignored because the real charter organizing political life is a nation’s power map, which typically reflects ethnic identity and who controls the state.
This has been the default in Africa for quite some time, where many cultures ended up sharing the same political space. Who you are and where you were born often has a direct impact on individual and group prospects and opportunities. The departing colonialists assumed that the transfer of Western political institutions and legal institutions would solve the problem. The problem in Africa is that African constitutions, according Kenya’s illustrious legal scholar, H.W.O. Okoth-Ogendo, are easily ripped up or ignored because the real charter organizing political life is a nation’s power map, which typically reflects ethnic identity and who controls the state.
Change through legal and institutional methods is gaining ground, but there is a long way to go. When institutions lack autonomy and rule of law is weak, political culture functions as a system of unwritten codes and principles. Rules continue to be defined by the political elite, and this is often the case even when they are not in power.
This form of political culture is as much about assumptions as values. There are rules of thumb, like the common meme that ‘no incumbent government loses an election before its constitutional term has expired’. Acceptance of this assumption leads to the familiar discourse that treats the government of the day and the opposition as different sides of the same coin.
The authors of the culturalism essay cover similar terrain when they ask why the left is unable to muster their intellectual powers to counter the culturalism of the right. Erikson and Stjernfelt observe that this is due to the fact that “they allow themselves to be blinded by the same cultural views as their homologous opponents: they are themselves culturalists.” The inability to recognize their similarities limits to their ability to analyse their opponents’ position.
In the African context, the same problem translates into the often-cited view that criticism of the management of the political process is a self-serving ploy to advance the interests of the opposition’s ethnic coalition at the expense of national development. Even though they claim to represent reform and renewal, says the government in power, they subscribe to the same political culture as we do. In Kenya, the period of coalition government following the 2007 electoral meltdown added substance to this narrative.
Kenyan political campaigns typically use this ‘we are the same but they are poor and hungry’ discourse to deflect attention from issues of misrule and corruption. During the 2017 campaigns, the Presidential contenders broke new ground by skipping the debates organized by the national media houses. This confirmed the sad reality that in Kenya elections, it is the method more than the theory that determines the outcome.
4. The Political Culture of Tricksters and Masks
The root meaning of siasa, the Swahili term for politics, is order. The brutal but more clinical use of state violence referred to in the Ethiopian example above conforms to this definition of politics. In many other cases, the meaning of the term is inverted.
In a 2002 volume entitled Criminalization of the African State, Francois Bayart, Stephen Ellis, and Beatrice Hibou (2002) provide a deeper analysis of the pathologies of African governance. Bayart’s contribution explores the role of the trickster archetype, which appeared particularly relevant to Moi’s style of leadership. In Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument, an earlier volume in the same series, Patrick Chabal and Jean Pascal Daloz detail how disorder and violence are used to maintain the neo-patrimonial status quo. They explore the darker side of the forces unleashed by the mandarins of the neo-liberal political economy and pour cold water on the idea that the likes of civil society and structural reforms will lead to improved governance.
The advancement of political culture in these analyses tends to form a circular relationship with institutional development, posing a chicken-and-egg question of which comes first. The problem makes it tempting to advocate for more soft power and support for artistic works and civic education in order to advance the cause.
Some of my academic colleagues do not like this line of analysis, but they miss the fact that it is, for many nations, an unavoidable stage in Africa’s political development. The authors of these analyses do not posit this state of affairs is the endpoint, or a permanent condition. They push us to look deeper and to disentangle the complicated role of culture at the intersection of politics and economy.
Almond and his acolytes cloak the concept of political culture in discussions of political socialization, loyalty and human identity, the cultivation of civic virtue, historical determinants explaining the variations among political traditions, and the ‘ordered subjective realm of politics’ which gives meaning to the polity and discipline to institutions. The advancement of political culture in these analyses tends to form a circular relationship with institutional development, posing a chicken-and-egg question of which comes first. The problem makes it tempting to advocate for more soft power and support for artistic works and civic education in order to advance the cause. Of course, this is part of the solution. But interpreting what transpires in the shadows is more useful than the positivism of the Anglo-American tradition at this stage of the game.
Kenyans have consistently associated events like the departure of Moi and the passage of a new constitution with a new political dispensation, but the trickster never left. The instrumentalisation of disorder to serve political ends is still part of the game, as the 2017 elections indicated once again.
The electoral chicanery disrupting the past three electoral cycles has become part of the country’s culture of politics, and in turn encouraged resort to disorder and civil disobedience by the opposition to combat it. One cannot be separated from the other even though the intentional use of disorder justifies the opposition’s efforts to fight back. These elections have traumatized the economy and body politic while cloaking the very idea of national unity in verbal abuse and blood.
The angst conveyed by Wafula Chebukati in the wake of the flawed elections of last August mirrored the horror of his predecessor Samuel Kivuitu ten years earlier. The mocking visage of the Electoral Commission’s executive, Ezra Chiloba, in contrast, signified how shameless in contrast the Masters of Deception have become. His glib explanation for the Commission’s colossal failings, dished out to an incredulous public, remade him into a poster boy for the shadow school of analysis—or perhaps more accurately, the mask concealing the venality of the usual suspects.
Kenya’s elections have become masquerades that integrate all of these functions. Chiloba put on his mask and played God with the country’s future.
Like the trickster archetype, the mask has a long pedigree in human culture. The ancients believed masks imbued the wearer with some kind of unimpeachable authority. In rituals, masks allow humans to assume the role of the gods, or to lend credence to a person’s claim on a given social role. Kenya’s elections have become masquerades that integrate all of these functions. Chiloba put on his mask and played God with the country’s future.
National elections are participatory cultural spectacles that begin with hope but end in tragedy. Episodic incidents of electoral violence, political assassinations, and mass protests turned violent are predictable features of Kenya’s political arena. From the perspective of Kenya’s political culture, these episodes have also acted as kafara – blood sacrifices – that primed the system to accept change before plunging the nation into the kind of full-scale conflict experienced by neighboring states.
The 2017 version, however, was different. The Supreme Court parted the clouds long enough to establish an important precedent. The battle took place in the courts instead of the streets this time around. Those who found the confirmation of what is in effect a nusu kikombe instead of a nusu-mkate government—whether or not the glass is half empty or half-full is irrelevant at this juncture—a cause for celebration are deluding themselves. The fat lady did not sing this time around.
 The coalition government that emerged out of the post-electoral violence of 2008 is often referred to as nusu-mkate, or a half-loaf government due to the division of positions between the two parties.
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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