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EASY COME, EASY GO: The online borrowing craze among Kenyan youth

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EASY COME, EASY GO: The online borrowing craze among Kenyan youth
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In the past, opening a bank account in Kenya was an elaborate and tedious affair. It was akin to applying for a job: you presented your “curriculum vitae” to bank officials who would determine your fitness as a financially serviceable client. There were forms to be filled (in duplicate) that captured details such as date of birth, schools attended, employment history, reasons for choosing that particular bank and referees to vouch for your suitability. Some banks even asked whether you had spent nights in a police cell and whether you had a criminal record. It was like joining an exclusive members’ club – the odious scrutiny made it look like it was a privilege to be allowed to join the “banking club”.

The procedure for getting a loan was even more stringent and punitive: you would be asked to deposit a valuable item, such as a log book, jewellery or a title deed, as collateral. Money matters were serious business.

That was then. Today technology, particularly smartphones, has revolutionised the financial sector, so much so that traditional banks must be ruing the day smartphones became second nature to humanity. These days getting a personal loan online is easier and faster than calling your nearest bank or micro-finance lending facility. Thanks to mobile banking, a smartphone owner can borrow from as little as Sh500 to as much as Sh70,000 without breaking into a sweat. All he or she needs is to be social media savvy. Having a social media account, such as a Facebook account, is understood by both the online loan apps and the borrowers to be an unstated primary requirement for accessing a loan. There are at least 50 mobile phone lending apps operating in Kenya.

A FinAcess (financial access) survey done in 2016 by the Central Bank of Kenya, the Kenyan National of Bureau of Statistics, FSD-Kenya and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor found out that 77.5 per cent of Kenyans own a mobile phone. Out of this group, according to a 2018 digital credit survey, 35 per cent, or roughly six million people, have taken at least one digital loan. In essence, the survey found that digital credit had become a leading source of credit in Kenya. Using a sample size of 3,000 Kenyans, the survey showed that digital credit appeals to younger customers, out of which 55 per cent are male and from urban areas. The study also found that by far the most common reason for taking a loan is to meeting day-to-day needs. Financing education also drives use of credit while just over a quarter of users take loans to support their business and agricultural activities.

However, many of these borrowers struggle to pay back their loans. According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200. (CRB is the body charged with the task of flagging or blacklisting all loan defaulters and ensuring that they are barred from borrowing from or transacting with any financial and legal entity, including the government.)

Eliud Njoroge, a financial risk management and private equity fund consultant, told me that mobile phone lending firms financed by venture capitalists were taking advantage of the vulnerability of impressionable youth. “The youth of today want instant gratification – they want it now and here. The notion of delayed gratification, that is, the idea of being patient and thinking through your financial needs, wants, opportunity costs and apparent risk considerations are alien concepts to them,” said Njoroge. “The ‘Java’ generation lives for the moment and developers of these digital apps are exploiting this social phenomenon in the epoch of social media, where the imagined reality of life is being played instantly.” (By Java generation the private equity fund manager, who himself is a millennial, was alluding to the Java restaurants in Nairobi that are popular among the city’s slick young urbanites.)

According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200.

“The crux of the matter is that today the aggressive marketing gimmicks by the owners of these apps are singularly directed at the post-millennials – guys barely out of their teens and who have zilch idea of what constitutes a financial budget, leave alone a plan,” notes Njoroge. “Because they still solely rely on their parents, guardians, benefactors, relatives and friends for their upkeep, they have no qualms misusing and squandering money. Hence, the apps have specifically been developed largely with this group of people in mind. They are ready and willing to spend, but most importantly, borrow money to feed their peer-driven lifestyle habits.”

Njoroge’s opinion is based on his wide experience in advising multinational banks and international financial corporations and, more specifically, financial start-up companies that are being funded to loan cash to young people (read anybody below 33 years of age). Njoroge has worked as a financial risk management consultant in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the United Kingdom. Now based in Kenya, he currently works with start-up companies on the look-out for potential big and small loan risk takers. “I will tell you for free that these online apps will explicitly not come out to state that they are targeting these young adults, but I know it from experience and interactions with today’s bankers and venture capitalists that this is the case.”

However, the 2018 digital credit survey found that “digital borrowers are more likely than average to run their own business or be employed” and “less likely to be … dependent on family or government transfers”.

Njoroge says that the apps make young people believe that they can both save and borrow money, but this is not the case. “There is no saving. The apps exist solely for ensuring that you borrow endlessly.” He says another lie being perpetrated by these apps is that they promote small business enterprises. “A complete lie. These apps would like to masquerade as micro-finance entities. They like to market themselves as tools that reduce the cost of borrowing through technology. But I can tell you for a fact that micro-financing is a different financial ball game, technology or no technology. If indeed there are times when they will provide loans for micro-financing, it is because they must be seen to do so, and therefore, it will be incidental and not the primary intended goal.”

The tragedy of these apps, says the financial consultant, is that the cost of repaying these loans can be very punitive. “Firstly, their interest rates are way above the rates charged by banks. The Java generation is impervious to these high interest rates – they borrow and spend money that they have not sweated for. The developers of these apps figured this a long time ago.”

In addition, “if today you default, your name is immediately forwarded to the CRB. If that happens, trust me, you will not even be allowed to borrow from Okoa Jahazi (a platform for borrowing airtime from Safaricom, the biggest mobile network provider in Kenya).”

CRB has to date blacklisted half a million people, according to the Transunion Credit Bureau’s CEO, Billy Owino, Just three years ago, there were only 150,000 loan defaulters in Kenya. Woe unto you if you are ever blacklisted. You are not off the hook even after you have repaid your loan. CRB still considers you a credit risk for seven years. What this means is that for seven years financial institutions will be wary of you when you approach them for a loan. “Most of the borrowers don’t know that they got blacklisted. We get 200 calls daily from individuals in this category, asking how they ended up in the blacklist.”

Twenty-year-old Charles, a University of Nairobi student, says that he took the trouble to compare the interest rates of the various online money lending apps. He eventually settled for KCB-M-Pesa because it had the best rates.” He says that on average he borrows between Sh2,000 and 3,000 twice a month.

“What do you borrow the money for?” I asked him. “I use the money to finance my Sport-Pesa (gambling) expeditions. I bet for big matches.” Although Charles is a college student, he has not yet outgrown indulging in play-station games. “Apart from betting, I also borrow money to afford my play-station games escapades.”

The digital credit survey found that only 3 per cent of borrowers get a loan in order to gamble. It is possible that this number is an underestimate given the finding that “digital borrowers are almost twice as likely to have tried mobile betting at least once in their lifetime”.

Sports betting

Sports betting has become big business in Kenya and ensnared an entire generation. A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.

Read also: BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth

SportPesa, a sports gaming company that was established about five years ago, is today the biggest sports betting platform in Kenya. It is among the dozen or so sports gaming companies that have sprouted in the country recently. These sports gaming companies have developed an impassioned craze among millennials and zillennials (the post-millennial teenage youth born after 2000) who have taken to betting as a way of life. The GeoPoll survey found that Kenyans gambled more frequently than their fellow Africans, spending an average of Sh5,000 a month. Charles has yet to win big cash (most people have never won more than Sh5,000) but feels that he has to keep on feeding his craving, which started as a hobby.

A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.

According to Banker Awards held in the UK in December 2017, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) is the largest bank countrywide in terms of asset size and has 12 million customers registered for the KCB-M-Pesa mobile service. The KCB M-Pesa loan app, which started in 2015 as a savings account, charges between 4 per cent and 6 per cent interest rate. Its phone loan service rose from 35 per cent between January and March 2016 to 41 per cent in the same quarter in 2017. Because of the success of mobile money borrowing, financial transactions at the branch level fell to 20 per cent from 31 per cent previously. Said KCB Group CEO and Managing Director, Joshua Oigara, in an in-house 2017 KCB newsletter: “We’ve seen a sharp rise in loan requests on all our mobile loans following the decrease in interest rates.” The newsletter stated that the average value of loans per customer was Sh1,800.

Like Branch International Inc., an international online money lending consortium that has its headquarters in San Francisco in California, and which launched its services in Kenya in 2015, KCB M-Pesa, vigorously advertises on Classic FM’s most popular morning radio show. Its target audience, just like Branch’s, is post-millennial youth who have just turned 18, who are college-bound and who have just acquired a national identity card. Branch is giving loans of up to Sh70,000, and according to the radio promos, it claims to have up to a million Kenyan borrowers. “You do not need any collateral, any bank account or a referee, all you need to do is download the Android app and you will receive your loan in 10 seconds flat,” proclaims the ad.

The advertising language used to sell the online borrowing apps is deliberate and intentional, targeted at a generation that is just starting to discover itself and excited about owning a gadget that, to them, seems to unlock hitherto unimagined infinite possibilities. The one-minute radio promos of these online lending apps are couched in language that would appeal to young adults. “Unlocking your growth potential” and other slogans are targeted at a generation that had little or no financial knowledge.

Ken, like Charles, borrows to finance his gambling habits. “So I will borrow every time there are big matches being played on the English Premier League,” admitted Ken. “I bet on Sport-Pesa and I borrow between Sh1,500 to 3,000. He said his favourite app was Tala because, “it is very prompt when relaying the money. I wanted an app that does not waste time in giving me instant cash.”

Dates and other emergencies

The online app of choice for 19-year-old Steve, a Technical University of Nairobi student, is M-Shwari. “I opted to use M-Shwari because it is a solid brand that works together with KCB, another solid brand.” Steve said he borrows between Sh1,000 and 3,000 a month to finance his college lifestyle habits. “Cut a brother some slack,” he said. “I need to enjoy some good life while I’m a student.” Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.

Steve told me it is not just once that he did not have the cash to entertain some girl in a fancy restaurant. “On several occasions I have had hot dates, but trust me, I did not have a penny. But tell me, would you let slip a date you’ve been chasing like there’s no tomorrow just because you’re not liquid?”

Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.

Steve said he has walked confidently into a Java restaurant a couple of times with a “beautiful catch” with not a single penny in his pocket because he knows he can borrow money from M-Shwari “of course, without her knowledge”. The instant loan is deposited into his M-Pesa account, which he uses to settle his bill. Meanwhile, the Java generation belle will not have the slightest hint that her expensive lunch treat was financed by a loan and that the young man will have to figure out how to repay it later.

By 2017, the M-Shwari (shwari means to be calm or peaceful in Kiswahili) online loan portfolio had 420,000 applications every day; of that, 70,000 are processed daily for repayment every 30 days. It has more than 80,000 agents countrywide and processes US$20 million daily payments, according to a study done by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay. M-Shwari is operated by Safaricom, the biggest mobile network operator in Kenya, and is considered to be the mother of mobile phone lending apps, largely because it was the first mobile phone loan application in Kenya.

Started in 2012, M-Shwari has to date 21 million customers in Kenya. The minimum threshold required of an M-Shwari borrower is to possess a Safaricom sim card and to be registered as an M-Pesa user. Therefore, technically speaking, anyone with an M-Pesa account qualifies to borrow from M-Shwari. The beauty with M-Shwari, its users tell me, is that you can borrow offline so long as you are on the M-Pesa platform. M-Shwari charges a one-time “service fee” of 7.5 per cent on all loans.

M-Shwari is actually a creation of a partnership between Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) and Safaricom, who split the revenue accrued from the lucrative business. According to the How M-Shwari Works: The Story So Far report written by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay in 2015, Safaricom provides access to customers and transactional data on mobile phone and mobile money usage. CBA, on the other hand, develops credit scoring algorithms that analyse the transactional data to make credit evaluation decisions. The actual lending is done by the bank. One of the single biggest reasons why the M-Shwari app is preferred is because money is promptly credited to your phone immediately. But just as you receive money on the spot, you must also pay it back on time. Deferment and delayed payment can be costly and punitive. “I have always endevoured to pay back on time,” said Steve.

According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers (known as mama mboga). From as early as 3 in the morning, the women vegetable sellers begin to borrow money from M-Shwari because they need to go their respective markets to buy their wares, fresh and in good time. These women are experts in M-Shwari borrowing. By the evening, when they are reconciling their figures, they will begin repaying their loan, usually from between 8.30pm and 10.30pm, in preparation for the dawn borrowing. The women borrow anything from between Sh3,000 and Sh5,000 daily. On a good day, the mama mboga will repay her M-Shwari debt and still remain with a tidy sum as profit. However, these women, who are M-Shwari’s most loyal customers, are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to paying back their loans.

According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers.

Chebet, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not even care to know the interest rates charged by these mobile phone apps. She told me that she borrows between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 per month. And she was very forthright on why she borrows the money: “I borrow to satisfy my spendthrift behaviours. I am always buying shoes, bags and clothes that my meagre allowance that I am allowed by my parents cannot satiate.”

The 19-year-old said her favourite borrowing app is Tala. “I got used to Tala because it is advertised a lot on mobile smartphones. Tala is truly one of the money-lending apps that is advertised 24/7 on Android smartphones. The pop-ups are constantly in your face every time you navigate through the phone.” (Tala was previously known as Mkopo Rahisi, Kiswahili for “easy loan.” The app has devised a system where it rewards referrals: for every person you recommend Tala to, you are paid Sh200. Users of Tala, nonetheless, have to part with an additional charge in the form of M-Pesa transaction fees because the app uses a Pay Bill number. I asked her whether she paid her debts in time; she said she had defaulted a couple of times.

Tasha, like Chebet, has no clue how much interest rate she is charged by Tala. Blandly honest, the 20-year-old student told me she told me she borrows “to buy myself make-ups.” Hence, every three months she will borrow between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 from Tala.

Tala, which was started in March 2014 by Shivani Siroya, a former United Nations employee, began by dishing out Sh10,000 loans in Kenya; today it gives loans worth up to Sh50,000. The app has the highest interest rate among its competitors – between 11 per cent and 15 per cent. (Branch charges 8.4 per cent.) Tala charges 11 per cent if you pay your loan weekly and 15 per cent if you choose to pay monthly.

Tala has also come up with a system that can detect when customers change their mobile phone number. It has a default message that reads: “Your account is linked to another device.” It is a polite warning from Tala that it would be improper and risky to run away with their money, for example, thinking that by changing your sim card, you will be off the hook insofar as repaying your loan is concerned. Chebet, in not too many words, confirmed to me Tala’s tightening of its lending procedures: “You can run, but you cannot escape.”

Mariam, another 19-year-old, is hooked to Tala. Although not a spendthrift like Chebet, she nevertheless said a good thing will not pass her simply because she cannot afford it. “That’s why these apps came about; to be rescuing some of us when we are stuck.” Getting stuck often means not being able to do things, like going to concerts with your peers, because you don’t have the money. “The first time I borrowed money from my phone was when there was a big music show in town and I just could not afford to miss it. All my friends were going there. How could I be left behind?” Mariam uploaded the Tala app and in the blink of an eye she had money in her M-Pesa account. “I resorted to Tala because it’s really advertised on the phone, plus my friends invited me to use it.” Mariam says Tala’s interest rates are high, yet she opted to stick and continue using the app because she finds it convenient. She borrows between Sh1,000 and 2000 every month.

In an interview she had with the Business Daily in January, Siroya said that Tala’s association with the M-Pesa platform had given her company access to 27 million users. Worldwide Tala has given out 4.5 million loans worth Sh25 billion to clients in the Philippines, Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania. Ninety-five per cent of her clients are repeat customers.

George, 20, a student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT), was as candid as a college student can be. “What do you borrow the money for?” I asked. “To finance dates at fancy restaurants that I know very well I can hardly afford with my own meagre cash.” George also said he borrows to patronise expensive pubs, which ordinarily he would not afford. “How often do you borrow?” Often enough was his curt answer. “Which app do you usually use?” The student said he does not have a specific app and therefore did not also care to find out their respective interest rates. “I will use any as long as it gets the job done. But I have noticed, by and large, I tend to rely mostly on Tala and M-Shwari.” I also asked him whether he repays the loans, if at all. “I do, although I am always falling behind schedule.”

Just like her fellow college mate George, Barbara, 19, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not care about interest rates. “All that I care for is there is money coming my way.” She said she borrows “to get through to the end of the month, as well as to buy my writing books for assignments after squandering my allocated pocket that my parents give me for every month.” Barbara said she religiously borrows between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 every month. “I use Tala simply because of peer influence – many of my friends use it and they recommended it to me.”

Perhaps it is because of his age that I found Joe’s reason for resorting to the online borrowing money apps reassuring. Joe is 21 and has almost completed his studies at JKUAT. He therefore is already thinking about what he will do after exiting college. He currently runs a mitumba (secondhand clothes) business, selling contemporary clothing to his fellow students. So when I asked him what he borrows the money for, he promptly told me that he borrows it to replenish his stock and to keep his business afloat,“because oftentimes, I’m not paid on time by my customers”. Every month he borrows a standard Sh2,000 from Tala, which he repays promptly.

Chomba, also a university student, borrowed just once because he had a real emergency. His sister’s child, who he was looking after when he was on recess, became sick and needed urgent treatment. “I had heard about KCB-M-Pesa and its reasonable interest rates, so I downloaded the app and borrowed Sh4,000. I later opened an account with KCB.”

Njoroge, the financial expert, pointed out to me that online loans are approved on the basis of the applicant’s reputation, “what they call reputational collateral”. Reputational collateral is dependent on such habits as how many times you make your calls and how often you transact on your M-Pesa account. “The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”

Danson Muchemi, CEO of Jambo Pay, the IT company that collects revenue on behalf of Nairobi County, especially revenue relating to parking charges, praises the online borrowing apps “because they brought down banking barriers. There is no more profiling. The technology has enabled the creation of ‘digital assets’ that approximates what type of a person you are. Armed with this information, the apps are able to sketch your character and identify your spending habits, needs and wants, even though there is a thin line that separates the two.”

“The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”

Unlike the banks, which depended on your “CV” to arrive at a decision about whether or not they will advance you a loan, the power of technology is such that it can, with near precision, detect whether or not you will be a defaulter. By analysing your social media profile, the apps can sum up your personality and your willingness or ability to pay back. “Technology, as opposed to traditional banking methods, which took ages deciding on whether you qualify for a bank loan or not, allows mobile banking financiers to make that decision fast and instantly.”

“Old habits die hard” is an English idiom that explains acquired habits that later become difficult to get rid of. When a loan is just a click away, it is not hard to imagine a future where online borrowing will become a habit, or maybe even a harmful addiction, among Kenyans.

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Politics

Counterfeiting, War and Smuggling: British American Tobacco Dirty Games in the Sahel

Billions of cigarettes, most made by BAT, are smuggled north through Mali every year on their way to the gray markets of the Sahel and Northern Africa.

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Stashed inside pickup trucks and guarded by armed militias and jihadists, every year billions of illicit cigarettes wind their way through the lawless deserts of northern Mali bound for the Sahel and North Africa.

The profits from their long journey fuel north Mali’s many armed conflicts, lining the pockets of offshoots of al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, as well as local militias, and corrupt state and military officials. This violence is now spilling out across West Africa, displacing more than two million people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger.

Cigarettes made by one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, British American Tobacco (BAT) and distributed with the help of another major, Imperial Brands, through a company partially owned by the Malian state, dominate this dirty and dangerous trade.

Now an investigation by OCCRP can show this is no accident.

Secrets contained in leaked documents, backed up by trade data and dozens of interviews with insurgents, former BAT employees, experts, and officials, show BAT started to oversupply Mali with clean-labelled cigarettes soon after the north fell to militants, knowing that its product would be fodder for traffickers.

The profits of cigarette smuggling fuel the bloody struggle between jihadists, armed militias, and corrupt military officers that has turned northern Mali into a lawless warzone.

For years the company partnered with Mali’s state-backed tobacco company, a subsidiary of Imperial Brands, to distribute cigarettes in regions controlled by rebel militias and throughout the country. Sources say these cigarettes, trucked north with the help of the military and police, then fall into the hands of jihadists and militias. An internal document suggests BAT used informants in West Africa to keep abreast of the workings of the illicit trade.

 

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

The dirty business goes well beyond the desert. OCCRP’s reporting found the Malian government not only helps to distribute BAT’s cigarettes, but also apparently turns a blind eye to gross accounting irregularities at its partner Imperial and even possible trade fraud.

And it continues today. Public trade data and expert analysis show BAT and Imperial continue to oversupply the country with billions more cigarettes than it needs. Meanwhile, BAT’s annual revenue in 2019 alone exceeded the total GDP of Mali and Burkina Faso.

The Malian case is the latest to show the world’s leading tobacco companies are not always abiding by the terms laid out in a series of historic agreements between 2004 and 2010 with the European Union (EU), in which they agreed to prevent their cigarettes from falling into the hands of criminals by only supplying legitimate demand. The agreements were concluded in the wake of legal disputes between three companies and the EU over cigarette smuggling.

“This is their playground,” Hana Ross, a University of Cape Town economist who researches tobacco, said of the industry.

“They know they can get away with stuff. It’s much easier to bribe. It’s much easier to cheat the system,’’ she said. “Governments here are generally weak. This is where they do things that they don’t dare to do in Europe anymore.”

A spokesperson said BAT was opposed to the illegal trade in tobacco, which the company called a “serious, highly organized crime.”

“At BAT, we have established anti-illicit trade teams operating at global and local levels. We also have robust policies and procedures in place to fight this issue and fully support regulators, governments and international organizations in seeking to eliminate all forms of illicit trade.”

BAT started to oversupply Mali soon after the north fell to militants, knowing its product would be fodder for traffickers, according to dozens of interviews.

Imperial said it is committed to ensuring high standards of corporate governance and “totally opposed to smuggling which benefits no-one but the criminals involved.”

The Malian government did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Malian soldiers traveling in convoy across the desert arrive at the entrance to Kidal in northern Mali. Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Malian soldiers traveling in convoy across the desert arrive at the entrance to Kidal in northern Mali. Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

 

The Tobacco People

In the deserts of northern Mali, cigarette smugglers are called “kel tabac,” the tobacco people.

Illicit cigarettes from the capital, Bamako, and ports in Guinea, Benin, and Togo are loaded into convoys with armed guards and driven north along thousands of kilometers of winding roads and desert tracks to Libya and Algeria, and as far east as Sudan.

Smuggling has long been a part of life in the vast and largely empty Sahel region, where armed insurgents claim a patchwork of ever-shifting territories. Jihadist movements linked to al-Qaida and IS, Tuareg separatist forces, and local ethnic militias take turns controlling roads and checkpoints along the way.

Residents of northern Mali drinking coffee. Credit: Ahmoudou Attiane

Residents of northern Mali drinking coffee. Credit: Ahmoudou Attiane

Moving illegal tobacco is a difficult and dangerous job, with trips taking between three and 10 days. Many truckers are killed by military or armed groups along the way. But it is well-paid: In a country where most people live on less than $1.90 per day, drivers can expect to earn between 6,000 to 10,000 euros for moving a load of contraband cigarettes.

It is also a lucrative trade for the drug lords and corrupt local officials in Mali’s restive northern regions.

Hama Ag Sid Ahmed, spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an armed Tuareg independence movement that has controlled much of northern Mali on and off, said state officials and organized crime work together to profit from smuggling.

“Certain military officers, members of the intelligence services, heads of military zones in the northern regions are approached by drug lords,” he said.

“Large sums of money are paid for a contract related to a service rendered or to be rendered.”

A former tobacco industry insider said various militant groups, from the Tuareg separatists who have been fighting the Malian state for decades to the more recent offshoots of IS jihadists, also take a cut along the way.

“Product is escorted north by the Malian army or the gendarmerie [police], to protect it from so-called bandits,” said the former official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. “It would be given to the Tuareg for the trip onwards near Timbuktu, and then the Tuareg looked after paying IS in the Sahel.”

With the continuing violence and lawlessness, Malian customs have abandoned much of the north. Samba Ousmane Touré, an ex-employee of BAT’s distributor in Mali who is now a member of the country’s tobacco control committee, said armed groups have become the gatekeepers of the smuggling routes towards Algeria, Libya, and Niger.

“Armed groups play the role of customs,” he told OCCRP. “Yes, [BAT] knows.”

One of the most high-profile jihadists in northern Mali, an al-Qaida operative known as Mr. Marlboro, is thought to have financed his jihad by smuggling cigarettes.

The one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar allegedly orchestrated terror attacks, including one in Algeria in January 2013 that killed more than 35 people. He led the so-called Those Who Sign in Blood Battalion. In June 2013, U.S. authorities offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Belmokhtar’s location.

His battalion had ties to key Malian armed groups, reportedly providing crucial military assistance to the terrorist group MUJAO against the MNLA during the battles of Gao and Timbuktu. A senior U.S. official said in July 2013 that Mr. Marlboro “has shown commitment to kidnapping and murdering Western diplomats and other civilians.” One such hostage was the former U.N. Niger envoy Robert Fowler.

Sid Ahmed, the spokesperson for the MNLA, said many terrorists like Belmokhtar started out trafficking cigarettes before moving onto harder substances, and then to violent jihad.

“The Arab drug barons created armed militias to protect their drugs and which later developed into the terrorist organizations that are present today in the Sahel region,” he said.

Research from The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime argues the long established smuggling networks in Mali and the Sahel evolved “first to move illicit cigarettes, later hashish and then, most profitably, cocaine.”

A 2017 KPMG report agrees, noting that the region’s cocaine trade overlays routes originally used to smuggle cigarettes, and that illicit trade “can also intersect with the operations of terrorist groups.”Illicit trade is “an important component of the local political economies” of Mali and other countries in the Maghreb, said the report, which was sponsored by Philip Morris, though it claims the trade is fueled by illicit cigarettes from free-trade zones in the United Arab Emirates.

Raoul Setrouk, who is pursuing a court case against BAT competitor Philip Morris in the state of New York for intellectual property theft, said that illicit tobacco in the region has consequences that go far beyond health and tax issues.

“I hope we don’t have to wait for a new Mr. ‘Marlboro’ like terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar to raise our consciousness,” he told OCCRP.

Multiple sources, from soldiers and U.N. employees to businessmen, and armed militia members, told OCCRP that brands made by BAT and Philip Morris dominate the illicit trade.

Most common are Dunhills, produced in BAT’s factories in South Africa, and Philip Morris’ flagship brand Marlboros, which are handed to smugglers linked to armed groups by PMI’s politically connected representative in Burkina Faso, along with American Legends.

“Those which transit through are mainly three brands: Dunhill, American Legend and Marlboro,’’ said Hama from the MNLA. “It is the same thing also in northern Niger and not far also in the south of Algeria.”

Mohamed Ag Alhousseini, an independent researcher in the region, said much the same: “Even in Algeria, the trafficking is encouraged by the need of Marlboro and Dunhills, because they have other brands in the country.”

It’s hard to determine exactly how many illicit cigarettes are smuggled through Mali.

Trade data, information from customs officials, leaked BAT documents, and industry experts indicate there may be up to 4.7 billion surplus cigarettes in Mali every year — the equivalent of around 470 shipping containers of extra cigarettes. Some of them are produced in the country, but more are imported, almost all of them from South Africa.

Mali’s government has ignored years of blatantly false tax figures from Imperial Brands, a shareholder of the state tobacco company that distributes Dunhills in militant-run areas.

It’s also tricky to determine how much profit BAT makes because the company doesn’t separate out country figures in its annual reports. A company presentation from around 2007 estimates BAT’s market value in 18 “operational markets” in West Africa at 201 million British pounds (about US$394 million), and its market share in Mali at 61 percent. Another document, from 2012, gives gross turnover for Mali of 52.06 million British pounds ($84.6 million).

A BAT source, by contrast, estimated the company had a gross turnover of over $160 million in Mali in 2019 alone.

Imperial said SONATAM’s sales are “commensurate with the legitimate demand of the Malian population” and the company operates a stringent sales monitoring system.

“All cigarettes imported by SONATAM into Mali are done so legally under synallagmatic contracts with other commercial operators,” the company said in a statement.

Understanding Mali’s illicit cigarette trade is a messy business — and that includes the data behind it. Because the illicit market is so opaque, many of the calculations rely on educated guesswork.

Euromonitor International, a strategic market research company, estimated the country’s retail volume at 3 billion cigarettes in 2016, rising to nearly 3.2 billion in 2020.

Leaked documents obtained by the University of Bath and shared with OCCRP show that in 2007, BAT estimated the country had demand for 1.9 billion cigarettes. In 2011, the company upped the estimate to 2.4 billion. Both these figures are lower than independent projections for the same years.

After northern Mali became a war zone, however, BAT’s calculations changed, with documents from 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017 estimating the market as significantly larger than Euromonitor’s figures, at between 3 to 3.8 billion sticks.

The reason behind these high figures is unclear, as the same documents contain estimates of Mali’s smoking prevalence that are below the WHO’s. Experts have varying estimates for smoking rates. In 2011 BAT pegged it at 9.5 percent. The World Health Organization, by contrast, says 12 percent smoked in 2017, a rate that has remained steady over the past decade.

Yet data shows that every year since 2016, the first year after Mali’s 2012 rebellion for which trade figures are available there may have been up to almost 8 billion cigarettes in Mali.

Exact figures are hard to determine. A Malian customs official estimated an annual total of 4.6 billion cigarettes based on adding imports (2.6 billion in 2018 and in 2019 each year) with local production (around 2 billion in 2018 and in 2019 each year).

U.N. Comtrade data, however, shows between an estimated 3.4 billion to 5.9 billion cigarettes were exported to Mali per year from 2016 to 2019, nearly all of them from BAT’s regional hub, South Africa. Adding in local production, that could mean as many as 7.9 billion cigarettes are available in Mali each year.

Officials in Mali and South Africa confirmed the accuracy of the Comtrade numbers, which closely match regular reports on the value of tobacco imports released by the Malian government.

Ahmed Malian troops join with former rebels before a joint patrol in Gao, Mali, after deadly attacks by Islamic extremists. Credit: AP Photo/Baba

Ahmed Malian troops join with former rebels before a joint patrol in Gao, Mali, after deadly attacks by Islamic extremists. Credit: AP Photo/Baba

Hallmarks of an Illicit Trade

In Gao, a city in northern Mali that has long been under the control of armed groups, a warehouse that distributes BAT’s cigarettes does a brisk trade.

Ahmoudou Ag Attiane, a local automotive dealer, told OCCRP that 20-ton tractor-trailers stocked with cigarettes commonly arrive at the warehouse. Many of the cartons are then trucked 10 hours north to Kidal, which is controlled by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

“The law is the [AQIM group] that has the most power — the terrorists, the jihadists — and they banned smoking and also alcohol. So you see, someone can’t show off too much by opening up a place where everyone knows this is where cigarettes are stored, this is where cigarettes are sold.

“All these big traders have relations with the big boss of Kidal,” he said, “which means that they are protected.”

Sid Ahmed, the MNLA spokesperson, added to this point, saying: “The traffickers make a large order with a merchant in Gao or Timbuktu. The traders transport [product] from Bamako to Gao and or Timbuktu. From Gao it goes to Algeria [and] Libya and from Timbuktu it goes to Mauritania and Algeria.”

The company that runs the warehouse, SONATAM — the state tobacco company whose shareholders include Imperial and the Libyan Arab African Investment Company — has been BAT’s distributor in Mali for years. Many of the cigarettes that pass through its warehouse in Gao are Dunhills from BAT’s plant in Heidelberg, near Johannesburg, which have accounted for up to 37 percent of South Africa’s total cigarette exports in recent years.

Unlike locally produced brands, the South African Dunhills come in packaging covered with health warnings in a major European language, French, known in the industry as a “clean label,” meaning they can be sold on the gray market.

David Reynolds, who built Japan Tobacco International’s program on countering the illicit tobacco trade, said BAT in South Africa is “notorious” for oversupplying the region.

“The rule is always the same: Oversupply plus lack of local controls leads to gray trade. That’s been a big part of BAT’s — and other cigarettes companies’ — business model for years,” he said.

“If you combine a major, high-end international brand, plus oversupply in a marginal market, such as Mali, with a clean label, you have all the hallmarks of intentional diversion into the parallel [illicit] trade.”

Documents obtained by OCCRP shed further light on how BAT’s Dunhills fall into the hands of armed groups in northern Mali.

A document from 2013 show SONATAM distributes between 25 percent to 75 percent of the three brands of BAT’s cigarettes sold in Mali. Three of its warehouses and distribution points are in rebel-controlled areas, including Gao, as well as Timbuktu and Mopti in the north of the country.

This map from a BAT presentation shows the company’s distribution points in Mali underneath the text: “As we know, in a dark market, the war is won on the battlefield with no pity for our competitors and a massive and well executed trade marketing and distribution to be seen and reachable everywhere.”

This map from a BAT presentation shows the company’s distribution points in Mali underneath the text: “As we know, in a dark market, the war is won on the battlefield with no pity for our competitors and a massive and well executed trade marketing and distribution to be seen and reachable everywhere.”

One BAT presentation from 2013 calls northern Mali a “war zone,” but notes that BAT has nonetheless identified future stockists and networks in Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. Another from 2017 highlights the “extremist insurgency” in eight of Mali’s regions, noting that three of them “remain completely dangerous to operate within owing to terrorist activities.”

However, an internal strategy memo from 2015 shows BAT planned to increase its business in these regions. The plan, called “Desert Storm” in an apparent reference to the U.S.-led military operation during the Gulf War, discusses how to reach “full potential” for their brands in Mali by incentivizing SONATAM to meet sales targets in areas including insurgency-run regions.

“As we know, in a dark market, the war is won on the battlefield with no pity for our competitors,” said the memo.

A 2007 presentation echoes the language of Europe’s colonial-era Scramble for Africa to describe the contest for the “crown jewels” of Mali and Ghana, casting West Africa as a battleground and speaking of “fighting ITG [Imperial Tobacco Group] to the death” and a “PMI [Philip Morris International] attack.”

“Mali was such an important market that BAT undertook a two-pronged strategy,” said Andy Rowell, a University of Bath researcher working with anti-tobacco watchdog STOP.

“The company set out to secure a ‘license to operate’ by schmoozing government officials. At the same time, the company sought to ‘delay and disrupt’ the operations of the opposition.”

Other BAT documents lay out its strategy to increase its market share against lower-cost cigarettes in Bamako and “UPC” — jargon for “Up Country” — including detailed analysis of the competition. They also show the company’s fine-grained ability to map and track contraband in West Africa: One presentation from around 2006 lists BAT’s “informants” in Mali and Niger.

Telita Snyckers, a lawyer who previously held senior positions at the South African Revenue Service and author of the book Dirty Tobacco: Spies, Lies and Mega-Profits, called the operation “corporate espionage stuff.”

The slides of the 2007 presentation discuss BAT’s strategy for West Africa, including Mali, stressing the need to “Grow VFM in Freedom Markets and Mali.” Snyckers said that VFM, or “Value For Money,” is a euphemism for smuggling and illicit channels.

In another presentation from 2009, a group of legal and security officials from BAT was told that “Mali, as the principal market which has the highest volume of illicit trade, is where we have the most to gain by increasing contestable market space.”

A BAT spokesperson declined to comment on the documents without seeing them before the publication of this article, but added, “we are not aware of the phrases ‘dark market’ or ‘value for money brands’ relating to illicit trade.”

A map shown in a BAT presentation from around 2007. One slide explains: “The bulk of the contraband goes to Libya via Agadez (Niger) from the ports of Cotonou and Lomé.” Another notes a trail of contraband from Guinea to Mali. Credit: OCCRP

A map shown in a BAT presentation from around 2007. One slide explains: “The bulk of the contraband goes to Libya via Agadez (Niger) from the ports of Cotonou and Lomé.” Another notes a trail of contraband from Guinea to Mali. Credit: OCCRP

Extraordinary Mistakes or Barefaced Lies

The rampant tobacco smuggling in Mali isn’t only down to the cigarette companies. OCCRP’s reporting indicates there is little state oversight of the industry.

For one thing, the government has overlooked blatant inaccuracies in figures from BAT’s distribution partner, Imperial, which for two consecutive years stated in its public accounts that SONATAM paid 5.5 million euros in taxes more every year than its total turnover.

West African financial analyst Oumar Ndiaye called the numbers “impossible.” Some former tobacco executives in Mali dismissed the SONATAM turnover figures as deliberate lies to fiscal authorities.

Imperial attributed them to an error in currency conversion, with West African CFA francs mistakenly not converted into euros. The company declined to provide documentation, however, and referred reporters to the Malian government, which did not respond to several requests for comment.

Alex Cobham, the chief executive officer of the Tax Justice Network and an expert on tax avoidance by multinationals, said Imperial’s explanation “doesn’t stand up,” and that repeating the same numbers over multiple years is “implausible.”

“Whoever wrote these numbers down thought nobody would ever look at them,” he said. “They’re either making extraordinary mistakes, year after year, or they’re telling you barefaced lies, or both.”

He also faulted the company’s auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, for apparently accepting the shoddy accounting.

“The idea that one of the world’s leading accounting firms, that prides itself on the auditing of multinationals to ensure they’re behaving as they should do, would not have picked up any of this in their rigorous annual audit process is difficult to square with any claim that corporate tax is being paid or audited on an appropriate basis,” he said.

It’s unclear who put together the “impossible” numbers.

Imperial inherited much of West Africa’s tobacco business from Bolloré Group, a giant in France’s former colonies which operates a number of ports across Africa and logistics companies worldwide.

The tobacco purchase bought Imperial a stack of elite connections. The directors of SITAB, an Imperial subsidiary in Ivory Coast, included a relative of former President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Lassine Diawara, the chairman of the board of directors of MABUCIG, a Burkina’ cigarette manufacturer. His online biography says he is a Knight of the National Order of Merit in France. He has traveled with Blaise Compaoré, the ex-president of Burkina Faso. SONATAM was run for a number of years by Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé, who became prime minister of Mali for a short period in 2011.

Ross Delston, a U.S.-based lawyer and anti-money laundering compliance expert who has worked in West Africa, said the Malian government could well have an incentive to overlook years of obvious errors.

“Any governmental authority that has a monopoly over a given commodity also has a high degree of risk for corruption,’’ he said after discussing SONATAM figures with OCCRP. “It’s just too easy to skim off a bit, or more than a bit, for the people at the top.”

Touré, the ex-employee of BAT’s agent in Mali, agreed, saying that the state shared in the responsibility for the bad accounts, adding, “I think that [in] corrupt states like ours, the tobacco industry has a lot of power over their leaders.”

Mali’s government declined to comment.

U.N. trade figures also indicate years of discrepancies equaling millions of dollars in the price of the country’s cigarette imports.

Mali imported more than 3 million kilograms of cigarettes from South Africa annually in both 2016 and 2017, representing around 95 percent of the country’s cigarette imports. An ex-BAT official said that the only cigarettes Mali imports from South Africa are BAT’s Dunhill cigarettes, a point confirmed in an earlier BAT document.

If the former employee is correct, BAT reported to the government of South Africa it sold the cigarettes for under $7 per kilogram, while SONATAM reported it bought the cigarettes for $15 per kilogram in 2016 and 2017, the years for which U.N. trade data is available for Mali. The discrepancy amounts to between $29.1 million and $32.8 million per year, and appears to have continued afterward, according to Malian government data available for 2018.

It’s unclear exactly what is behind the difference.

A Malian customs official dismissed the numbers as a likely lag in reporting shipments.

A cigarette street vendor in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Credit: dpa picture alliance archive / Alamy Stock Photo

A cigarette street vendor in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Credit: dpa picture alliance archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Two former tobacco industry insiders told OCCRP that trade mis-invoicing, a method for moving money across borders that involves deliberate falsification of the volume or price of goods, is common practice in the company’s dealings with Mali.

“Mis-invoicing, under- and over-invoicing, and invoicing direct to the U.K. instead of in the delivered country were all used at one time or another,” one of them said.

Cobham, of the Tax Justice Network, said SONATAM’s overpayment is “very much consistent with the longstanding history of commodity trade price manipulation for profit-shifting purposes.”

That’s apparently not unusual for BAT. In 2019, Cobham’s organization authored a report that found BAT used various methods to shift profits out of poorer countries, at a scale that could deprive eight countries in Asia, Africa, and South America of nearly US$700 million in tax revenue until 2030.

“The bottom line is BAT is manipulating the price of the same commodity and the transaction in a way that can’t be justified by any possible transport costs, and any auditor worth their salt should have picked that up,” he said.

SONATAM did not respond to requests for comment.

Imperial did not respond to several OCCRP requests for clarification, saying only that the company “is committed to high standards of corporate governance” and “totally opposed to smuggling which benefits no one but the criminals involved.”

A BAT spokesperson said the prices of its tobacco “are in line with what external, independent parties would charge,” which is documented in the company’s tax strategy.

“BAT entities … comply with all applicable tax legislation and regulations in the countries where we operate,” he said.

PricewaterhouseCoopers and its French partner Xavier Belet, who audits the SONATAM accounts, ignored several requests for comment by OCCRP.

A solider lights a cigarette in Kidal, Mali. Credit: MINUSMA/Sylvain Liechti handout via REUTERS

A solider lights a cigarette in Kidal, Mali. Credit: MINUSMA/Sylvain Liechti handout via REUTERS

Friends on the Ground

From warehouses in Gao, Timbuktu, and Mopti, Dunhills flow north largely unchecked by Malian regulators.

“With the insecurity, the customs abandoned an important part of the north because of the narco-traffickers,” said Aboubacar Sidiki Kone, a Malian customs official.

Even if customs did man Mali’s lonely desert posts in the north, it’s unclear what they would do. An internal document obtained by OCCRP shows Malian customs and police were sponsored by BAT.

In a 2013 presentation, BAT lays out an “action plan” for a series of scheduled raids to be carried out by Malian customs and police in collaboration with company agents, tallying seizures of illicit cigarettes made by its competitors. A mission order and a protocol agreement in the presentation show BAT was supposed to pay for these raids.

Internal documents show BAT used informants in West Africa to keep abreast of the illicit trade.

A former BAT employee described staffers in Mali feeding intelligence on contraband to customs agents, helping them to seize the brands of other manufacturers.

Sory Coulibaly, a former sales executive for a BAT distributor in Mali, added that BAT has sweetened the deal, equipping customs agents and police with motorcycles and small patrol boats. Touré added that BAT has given customs several new cars every year.

Credit: OCCRPA slide showing BAT’s 2013 action plan for raids to be carried out by Malian customs and police in collaboration with company agents.

The cooperation between Mali’s customs and BAT was formalized further in 2019, when local media reported Malian customs’ announcement of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the tobacco company.

Deals with customs agencies are a longtime tobacco industry strategy, detailed in a paper published by the BMJ’s journal Tobacco Control the same year. Eric Crobie, Stella Bialous, and Stanton A. Glantz found that there are more than 100 such MoUs around the world, that they violate the World Health Organization’s international tobacco control treaties, and are ineffective at reducing smuggling.

Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) were seen by transnational tobacco companies as “useful to provide access to decision makers and promote the image of [tobacco companies] as government partners,” the authors wrote.

In Mali’s case, the details of neither its deal with BAT nor an MoU it signed with SONATAM are easy to find. Abdel Kader Sangho, director of the customs’ training center, ignored several inquiries from reporters.

Touré, the Malian tobacco control expert, said the country’s tobacco laws are weak and there is little enforcement of them on the ground. “Our anti-smoking texts are not strong and most of our leaders are corrupt,” Touré said. “The texts exist, but it remains to apply them in the field.”

Today, SONATAM’s statistics claim Mali’s contraband levels are at an all-time low, while BAT continues to flood the country with cigarettes far exceeding demand.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the flows of smuggled tobacco may even be increasing. Touré said he has observed that the amount of Dunhills moving to the north, have recently been on the rise.

“I’m sure these cigarettes are destined for other countries, Niger, Algeria and others,” he said.

Meanwhile BAT and the Malian government are planning to make more cigarettes in the country. In 2017 they partnered up to build a new $18.2 million factory, according to local media reports. It is expected to open this year with the capacity to produce 3 billion Dunhills per annum.

Sandrine Gagne-Acoulon contributed reporting.

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Who Are Kenya’s 42+ ‘Tribes’? and Should We Be Asking?

Asking whether or not the census should continue to count ethnic groups is one way into the difficult conversation about how to reckon with the legacies of colonial weaponisation of ethnicity.

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Who Are Kenya’s 42+ ‘Tribes’? and Should We Be Asking?
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It was a hot and dusty day in January 2019. Sam had been driving me around Nairobi since my first visit, ten years earlier. I often float ideas past him as we endure interminable traffic. “Sam, how many tribes are there in Kenya?” I knew there was no definitive answer but I wanted to know his thoughts. “Well, now we are . . .  is it . . . 46? Or 47? We used to be 42 but some new ones were recently added. Makondes. Asians. Who else was it? Nubians . . .” “And where is the list?” I probed. “Oh that one . . . is it gazetted somewhere? I don’t know.” Later that day, while he refined my left hook, I asked my boxing trainer. Embarrassed, he laughed and said “You know . . . I’ve not brushed up on my tribes lately . . .” “Just roughly . . .  how many?” He replied after some thought, “I think . . . well . . . I know that we used to be . . .  is it 41? Or 42? 42. We used to be 42. But now, I don’t know.”

In multiple interviews with various government officials I was repeatedly told there were 42+ tribes, but nobody could tell me the nature or location of the list. “Do you know?” one official asked me. Ten years earlier, I had asked members of the minority Nubian community too: “Forty-two tribes. And we will be the 43rd.” They even had a letter from a Minister declaring they would, indeed, be counted as such in the 2009 census. But I struggled to find the list. Who is on it? Does it even exist? And if so, who controls it, and how? Why does nobody know? And does it matter?

In my research, this idea of “the 42” kept coming up over and over again. I have been conducting academic research in Kenya since 2009, mostly with the minority Nubian community which has long sought recognition as Kenyan, and has had considerable success in recent years in getting it. It was my first interviews with Nubian elders in 2009 that made me start wondering about this idea of “the 42”, where it comes from, why it matters.

So why does it matter?

Being recognised as a “tribe of Kenya” is important to people. It’s important symbolically as it makes people feel like legitimate citizens. And it is important materially, or at least there is an anticipation that it is. There is a belief that if you are one of the tribes of Kenya, then you can access the state’s resources. The exact mechanisms through which this is expected to happen include, for example, revenue sharing to the counties, drawing of administrative and electoral boundaries, and accessing special provisions like the Equalisation Fund. There is a popular belief that these are somehow connected to ethnicity, even though many Kenyans will point out they mostly shouldn’t be.

Counties, wards and so on are often treated as if they “belong” to a particular group. So, the idea is you have to be a recognised group to get your hands on government resources. Whether this is true or not, the perception that it is matters a lot for how people feel they belong, and how they might feel they are in competition with each other for resources. Plenty has been written on inter-ethnic competition and tribalism in Kenya. That’s not my focus here.

There is a belief that if you are one of the tribes of Kenya, then you can access the state’s resources.

At another level, the idea of “the 42(+)”, or the idea that there is or could be a list somewhere, matters for debates – prominent here in The Elephant among other places – about what it might mean to decolonise identity. On one hand, I’ve heard some Kenyans suggest that Africans should abandon ethnicity altogether, as it is a colonial construct used by the British and other imperial powers to conquer; to divide and rule. On the other hand, there is an argument that ethnicity is an important facet of African identities, and that these days “the West” has turned around and wants to eradicate it, especially around elections; therefore, the anti-imperial thing to do would be to affirm ethnicity. Both arguments have merit. My proposition here is not to take a strong position on either side, but to look at this idea of “the 42(+)” and its bureaucratic origins as a way of thinking through this debate. Decolonising identity is not only a personal thing – it is also a bureaucratic thing.

The title of this essay, and the academic research article on which it is based, is, then, deliberately provocative. I never thought –  and my research confirmed this – that there would be a clear answer to these questions. I have never even been sure that “who are the tribes of Kenya?” is quite the right question to be asking. It carries some very politically loaded assumptions: that “tribe” is an appropriate term (more on this below); that there is a clear-cut way to determine who is and isn’t Kenyan based on their ethnic identity; that there are only 42 (or 43, 44 or 45) ethnic groups which can call Kenya home. My suggestion here is that asking why we ask this question is more important than the question itself.

The ‘facts’

The census is the only official list of “all” ethnic groups, and the only official tool to count the population by ethnicity. And 1969 is the only year that 42 ethnic groups were counted. Voter rolls prepared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission do not record ethnic identity.

Electoral boundaries do not involve listing ethnic groups. Boundaries are connected to the census – insofar as they draw on population data – but before the 2010 constitution they bore no official relation to ethnic data. The 2010 constitution allows for a possible use of ethnic data. Under chapter 7, one explicit consideration for boundary redrawing is “community of interest, historical, economic and cultural ties”, which could potentially be interpreted to mean ethnic communities. However, the exact role this clause – or ethnicity more generally –  now plays in boundary drawing is not clear.

The civil service doesn’t list ethnic groups. Civil service employment records routinely record and make public how many people are employed in the civil service from each ethnic group, but that only captures, of course, civil servants. To establish the “fairness” of each ethnic group’s share of civil service jobs, that data is compared to census data, but only at the national level or by problematically inferring ethnicity by location – for example, by assuming that if you live in Ukambani you must be Kamba.

Identification cards do not record ethnicity.

Nor, contrary to popular understanding, does the Kenya Gazette (the government’s official announcement record) list ethnic groups, although it was used as if it does when Asians were gazetted as the 44th Tribe of Kenya in 2017, despite no identification of the preceding 43.

So that leaves us with only the census.

In my research, I compared all ethnic classifications in all Kenyan censuses from 1948 to 2019. I looked at every census report, but also, where available, all the questionnaires used by enumerators when visiting households, instructions to enumerators about how to record “tribe”, explanations made by the Bureau of Statistics and its predecessors for what “tribe” means and why they chose the lists they did, and archival material (for 1948 and 1962) where colonial administrators debated in letters and meetings how they would conduct the census.

The list of “tribes” has changed in every single census, and since the first census in 1948, 150 different groups have been named. Of those, there are only 14 ethnic groups which have been named and counted exactly the same way in every census. The others have all changed, sometimes multiple times, for example by adding or deleting “sub-tribes”, by moving from a “sub-tribe” to a “main tribe” or vice versa, or by appearing or disappearing altogether. There are also some instances where a “tribe” was listed on the questionnaire but didn’t make it to the final census report, or where – curiously – they were not listed on the questionnaire but did make it to the final report.

You might recognise your ethnic group(s) in this list,  possibly in multiple forms as some groups have changed names over time (e.g. Sudanese to Nubi), or even – unfortunately – in a derogatory form (such as Dorobo, which was only removed in 2019 because it refers to having no cattle, suggesting some form of inferiority). Some groups included on the list for “the tribe question” aren’t even really tribes: for example “Stateless” in 2019, or “Kenyan” in 2009.

So, how are these lists determined? There is no transparency on how these lists are decided, or what it means to be “coded”.

The first census in Kenya was carried out in 1948 and was part of an East African census that included other British territories in the region. More interested in the European population than the Indigenous one, the “non-native” census was extremely thorough, and the “native” one much more basic. Whereas all kinds of details that are useful for development purposes were gathered for the white population, the only three statistics gathered for the African population in every household were age, sex and – you guessed it – “tribe”. For Census Superintendent C. J. Martin, it was so obvious that you would count “tribe” that, in his extremely detailed report on the census, he didn’t even bother to explain why. Other factors that are much more useful in making sense of a population’s development needs, like fertility, education and occupation, were only counted for 10% of the African population in a sample census, and then generalised.

The list of “tribes” has changed in every single census, and since the first census in 1948, 150 different groups have been named.

The actual list of “tribes” that enumerators were given in 1948 was also, for Martin and the other census organisers, self-evident. The British authorities acted as if it was obvious which ethnic groups should be counted, but it clearly wasn’t, because there were differences between the list provided on the questionnaire, and that which appeared in the final report. We can only assume that any range of factors may have shaped the final 1948 list, including self-identification by householders, initiatives on the part of the enumerators or District Commissioners who compiled the returns, or maybe even political lobbying. In other words, determining the tribes of Kenya was not as self-evident as Martin imagined. Decisions about which ethnic groups, what names they use, how they are spelled, what and whether “sub-tribes” are counted and so on, always have to be made by someone.

But the thing about a census, as with so many official tools, is that it gives off an air of authority. When a list like that of “Kenya’s tribes” is made in this way, it comes to feel as if it is definitive, even when it never can be. Even though every census after 1948 has changed the list, it always builds on that first list made by British administrators, some of whom had very little understanding of the communities they were counting and classifying.

In 1962, the list was very similar to the one of 1948, but it dropped most of the ethnic groups which mostly live in other parts of East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda) and added some from the North and East of Kenya. By this time, the British authorities had established much more administrative control in those regions and had learnt of new groups not included in that earlier census, showing again major gaps in their knowledge of the people they had colonised. Morgan, another colonial administrator, this time involved in the 1962 census, later admitted that the concept of “tribe” was a bit arbitrary, but stuck to it anyway, stating:

[Tribe is] a unit which evades satisfactory definition but which was widely recognised. It may be said to be a group to which the individual feels a strong sense of belonging and which is usually distinguished by a common language and culture and, since marriages are mostly within it, may have inherited traits. […] For this study we have to accept the classification used in the census, for which no justification was published. The ascriptions were those routinely used by the administration and which appear to have presented few problems to those recording or those being recorded. They were the socio-political groups encountered by the colonial power upon its entry and with which it had to deal. Administrative boundaries were normally constructed to contain them and this probably increased the sense of tribal identity at that level.

Though he admits some arbitrariness, Morgan goes on, in this passage, to suggest again that it was obvious, uncontroversial and accepted by everyone – African and colonial administrator alike – who the “tribes” of Kenya were. If this was really the case, why then would it have changed?

The 1969 census, the first one conducted by the first post-colonial government, used the same list as was used 1962, but added two more Somali groups, without really explaining why. The 1979 census used the same list again, but collapsed a number of groups into “Kalenjin”. It is likely no coincidence that this happened the year after Moi became President, and Gabrielle Lynch has done some great research about the creation of the Kalenjin identity around this time. In 1989 there were only a few small changes. In short, with the exception of the introduction of Kalenjin as an ethnic group rather than just a linguistic group, the list remained pretty similar to the colonial-created one for the first three decades of Kenya’s independence, but not similar enough to agree with colonial officials Martin and Morgan that it was ever truly “obvious” which ethnic groups should be counted.

By 1999, with the politics of democratic reform in full swing, and the effects of Moi’s majimboist politics being felt across the country, no results were published on ethnicity from that year’s census. It was too sensitive.

Then, come 2009, only eighteen months after the post-election violence of 2007-08, the list of ethnic groups in the census underwent its first radical change since independence, with the number of groups skyrocketing to well over a hundred. This included long lists of “sub-tribes” for groups such as Swahili, Kalenjin, Mijikenda and Luhya, as well a considerable number of newly recognised ethnic groups, including Nubians (last counted in 1948 as “Sudanese”). The political mood was an inclusive one, seeking peace and inter-ethnic harmony. It felt right at the time to generously offer recognition. And it didn’t hurt that chopping up the population into lots of small groups might help cool the temperature on inter-ethnic competition between the larger groups. The 2019 census added yet more sub-tribes and new tribes, moved some around from one category to another, and renamed a few.

The only thing the history of the census classifications shows conclusively, then, is that there cannot be any conclusions. The census, though it has an air of officialdom, is really just a result of layer upon layer of bureaucracy, politics and coloniality. Politicians and civil servants might want to bed this down and make it feel certain, but they can’t. It changes every decade. They also can’t, practically, start from scratch either. The lists they have built are based on everything that came before – both colonial and postcolonial. They bear the markings of all the political moments in which censuses were conducted, and the particular concerns of politicians and statisticians at those times. And this is true of every census, everywhere in the world. They are not foolproof. They are not certain. They are not conclusive or definitive. The idea of the 42(+) is just that – an idea – however widespread and deeply believed.

The only thing the history of the census classifications shows conclusively is that there cannot be any conclusions.

The reality is that there is no definitive list of Kenya’s ethnic groups. That is, there is no list that does (or could) state with certainty and finality who the ethnic groups of the nation are. But there are official lists – those in the census – that are often perceived as certain, and those have to be reckoned with.

How colonial is ethnicity?

From one perspective, the story of ethnic classifications in the census is interesting as a puzzle. Working out who got added, who got removed, when, how and why is fascinating. There is a lot to be learnt about Kenyan history and ethnicity by looking at the details.

But from another perspective there is a bigger question to be considered here, and that is about whether, how, to what extent or in what ways ethnicity is colonial. The Elephant and other discussions in various forums are increasingly – and rightly – working through what it might mean to decolonise African identities. From renaming streets to pulling down monuments to pushing back against arbitrary determination of one’s identity by another, Kenyans and other Africans are questioning why ethnicity is such a strong form of identity; in what ways it was imposed by the colonial experience; and in what ways it has changed or should change form, or maybe even be abandoned.

Terence Ranger, a keen scholar of Kenya but also a former colonial official, coined the term “invention of tradition” to explain how the British came, saw, and invented ethnicity or – more specifically – “tribe”. Seeing Africans as being defined first and foremost by tribe allowed the British to divide and rule, and to imagine they were not just extracting and exploiting, but also civilising. The roots of ethnicity, in this sense, are problematic. The concept itself as well as the specific ethnic groups the British identified and made names and Native Reserves for, were fundamental tools of colonial control. Ethnicity kept Africans divided from each other and in a supposedly inferior place on the hierarchy of civilisation that justified British colonial authority. To the British, at least.

It is this history that makes the word “tribe” a problematic one for many people. Ngugi has written compellingly about how the word – the whole concept – should be abandoned because of its role in colonisation. Nonetheless, it remains the word used by KNBS to ask the ethnicity question in the census, which is why I have used it in this piece. It is something to think about.

Ethnicity kept Africans divided from each other and in a supposedly inferior place on the hierarchy of civilisation that justified British colonial authority.

This history of ethnicity gives cause to ask some critical questions about what to do with ethnicity in any project aimed at decolonising identity. It is indisputable that ethnicity has been – at least partly – invented by colonialism. We must, therefore, be attentive to ways in which some of the projects of colonialism – divide and rule, hierarchies of civilisation, extraction – are perpetuated by ethnic identification today. But I think it would be a mistake to reduce ethnicity to this.

How postcolonial is ethnicity?

Ranger, and others after him, including myself, have also shown that Africans also participated – and continue to participate – in the construction of ethnic identities. And this is not necessarily a terrible thing.

During the colonial period, some ethnic groups had special favour with the British and so it suited them to identify ethnically. Intermediaries like African teachers, missionaries, soldiers and so on, benefitted from colonial patronage. If a man (never a woman, of course) could position himself as a leader of his tribe, he could gain from that. So, he needed the tribe to exist. On the concerning side of the ledger, this kind of patronage politics and the inter-ethnic competition it led to are not such great outcomes.

On the more positive side of the ledger, though, many Kenyans have also come to identify with their ethnic group in more positive ways, as many did before the arrival of the British as well. Most obviously, the cultural practices and community connections that make people feel safe, secure, valued and which give many people’s lives meaning and structure, are not bad.

Then there are dimensions of ethnic identity that are more ambiguous. Many, including Rasna Warah, believe – for better or worse – that to belong to Kenya, you have to belong to a Kenyan ethnic group. This is why the announcement that Asians are the 44th tribe was so significant, even though most people wouldn’t have used the word “tribe” to describe this community in the past. Warah laments, “What makes me uneasy about the designation of Kenyan Asians as one of Kenya’s 44 tribes is that it reinforces the idea that one must belong to a tribe to be recognised as a bona fide Kenyan citizen.”

Seeing Africans as being defined first and foremost by tribe allowed the British to divide and rule, and to imagine they were not just extracting and exploiting, but also civilising.

In my book on the marginalisation of Kenya’s Nubians, I made a similar argument – that ethnic identity, and specifically recognition as being an ethnic group of Kenya, was necessary to feel one belonged to the nation. I showed how it was a source of pride and security for Nubians to identify ethnically. It has been the only way they can imagine securing a place for themselves in Kenya. When the Nubians were recognised in the 2009 census, it felt really very good for them. It has for many different groups. That can’t be disregarded, even though it might be questioned.

The postcolonial history of ethnicity, therefore, raises some additional questions for those interested in decolonising identity, questions about whether or not there might be “good” aspects of ethnic identity that are worth retaining, even if they contain shadows of the colonial past. Perhaps it is transformation, rather than abandonment, that is needed in a decolonial project?

Decolonising identity in the census?

The census is a key tool in the maintenance of ethnic identities. Any discussion about what it might mean to decolonise identity really must think through the role of the census in sustaining ethnic codes first invented by the British, but also actively continued and transformed by the postcolonial government and its citizens. Indeed, bringing the abstract conversation about decolonising identity down to the level of this very concrete list is both a challenge and an opportunity to explore and test ideas and emotions related to ethnicity.

Asking whether or not the census should continue to count ethnic groups is one way into the difficult conversation about how to reckon with the legacies of colonial weaponisation of ethnicity, as well as what it means to people today. Such a conversation needs to consider the varied effects of counting, both good (recognition for minority groups) and bad (competition and posturing based on group size). I wonder if there is a way that ethnicity can be recognised without reproducing the negative effects that first arose under colonial authorities. It is a genuine question – I don’t know the answer. Any such system of recognition, though, would have to be carefully thought through with respect to who gets to determine which groups are recognised, through what processes, with what official outcomes, and with attention to how the inevitable changes in how people identify ethnically will be accommodated. Reflecting on how you, as the reader, feel about how your ethnic group has been counted, or not, in the census, can be a useful entry point to clarifying where you sit on this question of what it might mean to decolonise identity.

Editors note: This essay is based on the author’s article ‘Who are Kenya’s 42(+) tribes? The census and the political utility of magical uncertainty’ published in The Journal of Eastern African Studies. To see the full table of all codes, click on the link, then on ‘Supplemental’. The first 50 readers can access the full article for free here. If these are all used up, Africa-based readers can access the full article for free by signing up to the STAR program. 

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan

Congo-Brazzaville’s repressive government has quietly bought an arsenal from Azerbaijan. Opponents of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso say one recent cache is designed to tighten his grip on the nation.

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan
Photo: Marco Longari/AFP
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First published by our partner OCCRP and Mail & Guardian (South Africa, in English).

In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.

In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.

Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan.

Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan. Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.

His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.

OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)

Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.

Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.

Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.

OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.

Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.

Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.

“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”

A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.

Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso

The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.

The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.

In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.

“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.

The Pool Offensive

The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.

In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.

One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.

After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

 

The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.

“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”

The Baku-Brazzaville Connection

Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.

Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.

Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.

But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.

Braced for a Crackdown

As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.

Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.

In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.

Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.

And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.

“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.

“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”

Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.

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