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Manna From Hell: How the Church in Kenya Became a Refuge for Scoundrels

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MANNA FROM HELL: How the church in Kenya became a refuge for scoundrels
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“Christianity began as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When it went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it become an organisation. When it went to Europe, it become a culture. When it went to America, it become a business.” – Anonymous.

In the last few weeks, Deputy President William Ruto, who has made it known to all and sundry that he has clearly set his sights on the presidency come 2022, has made troubling theological statements which cannot stand biblical scrutiny. And all this while the church’s leadership across Kenya has been eerily mum on these utterances that border on both fallacy and heresy.

At a church function in Kiambu County on June 17, 2018, feeling sufficiently sanctified to be within the precincts of a Catholic church – the most influential and powerful religious institution in the country – and after contributing what he must have considered to be an amount that would please God and the church’s coffers, Ruto was audacious enough to later claim that his cash donation was tantamount to future “risk” investments in the hereafter. After the church fund-raiser, the Deputy President met some religious leaders at the Blue Post Hotel in Thika, where he is reported to have stated: “Some people condemn me for going around raising money here and there and in church. It is up to them. I’m investing in heavenly matters…some people invest in funerals, let them continue…”

The utterances at St Benedict’s Church in the Ngoingwa suburb of Thika town were followed exactly a month later by another stupendous statement by Ruto, clearly indicating that he was confident that he was on uncritical and all-embracing grounds. On July 15, 2018, he was the chief guest at the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) Patanisha, in Kayole, a populous suburb 10km south-east of Nairobi city centre, where he gave Sh2.5 million (about $25,000) to the church and said: “They say I’ve been purchasing seats for the churches. And because we do not ask them why they take their money to witch doctors at night, they should leave us alone to give money to church for the work of God.”

To date, no church leader – Catholic or otherwise – has found it necessary to correct his misleading statements and to remind the Deputy President that his contributions to different churches are in no way a measure of his Christian virtues, neither are they a passport to eternal bliss or a favour to churches and Christians. But the church leaders have been quiet, perhaps hoping that he will tone down on his quasi-religious utterances as they continue to reap from his humongous cash donations.

According to a July 22, 2018 Daily Nation report, in a short span of just six months, Ruto’s generous spirit has led him to dish out amounts totalling Sh60 million (roughly $600,000), most of it in cash, to various churches. The distribution of Ruto’s cash donations to Catholic churches and institutions in Central Kenya and Nakuru County are as follows: Kairuri Catholic Parish, Embu County, Sh5 million (during the fundraiser, Ruto pointed out that the contribution was a joint effort between him and President Uhuru Kenyatta); Mary Immaculate Primary School, Nanyuki, Laikipia County, Sh3 million; Holy Cross Catholic Church, Nakuru County, Sh2 million; a Catholic church project in Njoro, also in Nakuru County, Sh2 million; Baricho Catholic Church, Kirinyaga County, Sh1 million; and Murugu Catholic Church, Nyeri County, Sh1 million. (Interestingly, Nyeri town constituency is represented by the rookie MP, Wambugu Ngunjiri, the de facto leader of Central Kenya MPs, most of whom are also first-timers and who are opposed to the perception of Ruto as the Jubilee Party’s automatic presidential flagbearer after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s term ends in 2022.) This adds up to Sh14 million solely given to Catholic churches.

According to a July 22, 2018 Daily Nation report, in a short span of just six months, Ruto’s generous spirit has led him to dish out amounts totalling Sh60 million (roughly $600,000), most of it in cash, to various churches.

If we add to this the contribution to Murang’a High School, which received Sh15 million for the construction of a multipurpose hall, Ruto’s total donation to Central Kenya and Nakuru counties amounts to Sh29 million, or roughly half of his total contributions. The Catholic churches on their own have gobbled 23 percent of Ruto’s harambee donations.

At the function, where Cardinal John Njue was present (Embu County is his ancestral home), the presiding Embu prelate, Bishop Paul Kariuki, egged on Ruto, telling him: “This is the time to do what you were told, kutanga tanga (to roam). Do not be afraid because to those who will start visiting us in 2022, we shall ask them where they have been and didn’t loiter earlier. In 2022, I shall write a letter banning politics in the church.”

“Unlike God,” said Ruto, defending his generous hand towards the church, “….none of us is being asked to give more than we can.” In separate church fund-raisers, Ruto has reiterated that he has been giving “cheerfully and proudly”. Outside of the Catholic churches, which cumulatively have received the largest amount from Ruto’s largesse, the single biggest contribution to a church has been to the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. He gave the church Sh8 million and pledged to deliver another Sh2 million. Apart from contributing to Catholic and Anglican churches, Ruto has also given Sh3 million to Evergreen Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in Nairobi.

“Churches in Kenya have become – for all practical purposes – sanctuaries for politicians to do as they feel,” proffered an evangelical pastor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Priests and pastors alike have rendered themselves manipulable to the politicians because of their runaway greed, political partisanship and because of their corrupt, unethical lifestyles.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the evangelical and Pentecostal churches, added the pastor. The rise of the evangelical/Pentecostal churches in the last 30 years or so in the country has led to a proliferation of churches, many of them independently run by individuals who claim they have a calling to serve God and who in the strictest sense of the word are not trained theologians i.e. they are not schooled at recognised theological institutions or seminaries.

“Many of these pastors are careerists who run the church as personal enterprises and fiefdoms – to be passed onto their wives and children – hence they are driven by a great desire not to serve as shepherds but to use their positions … as platforms for acquiring riches,” said a pastor who ministers with one of the Nairobi Chapel/Mavuno Churches in Nairobi, and who asked that I conceal his/her name for the sake of not offending his/her fellow Christians. “Other than peddling drugs, the surest way of becoming a multimillionaire in Kenya today is starting a church. The majority of such pastors fall under the banner of the evangelical/Pentecostal churches. Is it a wonder that many of them are easily compromised [by politicians], because they have no scruples and all they are interested in is amassing enormous wealth and living large? But above everything else, they have no sound theological grounding and training to anchor their scriptural command and understanding.”

The gospel of prosperity

The rise and proliferation of these evangelical churches that were weaned off mainstream churches, such as the Catholic and Anglican Churches (with their theology of moral righteousness, sin and repentance) came with it a new Gospel teaching: the so-called prosperity gospel.

The institutional churches – the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), the Baptist Church and the African Inland Church (AIC) – all brought to Kenya by white missionaries – proselytised the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the local people by asking them to repent their sins and to accept the Lord if they hoped to inherit the Kingdom of God. This was the Gospel of obeying and trusting God to meet all their needs. However, the white missionaries did not preach to the local people that their faith would lead them to greater wealth.

The prosperity theology of the modern Pentecostal movement has its roots in the Bible Belt of the United States. This theology frames earthly material gain as a sign of divine blessing and unrelenting faith in Jesus Christ.

The prosperity gospel, also known as the health and wealth gospel or the Word of Faith movement, is a skewed interpretation of the Synoptic Gospel that claims that God rewards those Christians that continually increase their faith in him. Anchored in the belief that one’s (proper) faith must lead to great health and wealth, prosperity gospel proponents present the gospel as the panacea for a Christian’s earthly material needs, which include plenty of cash in the bank, multiple houses, several motor vehicles, acquisition of land and generally posh living.

The prosperity theology of the modern Pentecostal movement has its roots in the Bible Belt of the United States. This theology frames earthly material gain as a sign of divine blessing and unrelenting faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul Gifford, religious emeritus professor at the School of African and Oriental Studies, in his book, African Christianity: It’s Public Role, published in 1998, points out that, “African Christians believe that success is determined by your faith.” He says that prosperity gospel preachers have moved beyond traditional Pentecostal practices of speaking in tongues, prophesying and healing to the belief that God will provide money, cars, houses and even spouses – in response to believers’ faith.

According to Gifford, the prosperity gospel arrived in Kenya in the mid-1980s. After the failure of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), Kenyans lost confidence in the stringent austerity policies executed through the government by these two Washington-based bodies. The social recovery safety nets and the government’s purported ability to bail them out failed. A notoriously religious society, Kenyans turned to the new revivalist churches that were now fervently preaching the prosperity gospel.

God-fearing dictatorship

There was another reason why Kenyan turned to these churches: The tightening of political freedoms of speech and movement under the stranglehold of the one-party dictatorship of KANU and President Daniel arap Moi led to the emasculation of people’s rights, and with this came the rule of fear and despondency.

The Bible-toting Moi is a fervent born-again Christian and a member of the African Inland Church and of the evangelical/revivalist persuasion that had swept the East African region from Uganda at the beginning of the 20th century. The Dictionary of African Christian Biography describes the Tukutendereza Yesu (We Praise You Jesus) as the revivalist movement within the Anglican Church of Uganda that began in the Kingdom of Buganda, hence Balokole (Luganda for the saved people). Today, the term Balokole has been embraced beyond Buganda as a movement of saved or born-again Christians across the East African region. Likewise, the Luganda hymnal song, Tukutendereza, has become the theme song of revivalist Christians throughout East Africa.

Moi reached the pinnacle of his dictatorship in the late 1980s, just when the revivalist churches were entrenching themselves in the country. To further keep the people in check and continue running a tight ship as he maintained an iron grip on the state, Moi would invite international prosperity gospel evangelical preachers to Kenya to hold massive crusades.

Two of the better known preacher men who visited Kenya in the late 1980s and early 1990s were Morris Cerullo from America’s southern Bible Belt and the German Reinhard Bonke. Both were friends of Moi and their first port of call was the State House. The undertone of their preaching then was that Moi was a God-fearing, divinely-ordained leader like the kings of the biblical yore and it was only through unwavering faith in the Almighty that the people would count and reap their blessings in abundance.

Moi reached the pinnacle of his dictatorship in the late 1980s, just when the revivalist churches were entrenching themselves in the country. To further keep the people in check and continue running a tight ship as he maintained an iron grip on the state, Moi would invite international prosperity gospel evangelical preachers to Kenya to hold massive crusades.

These new churches preached the gospel of materialism and miracles. Burdened by economic woes and spiritual poverty occasioned by the devastating austerity measures of the SAPs, Kenyan Christians turned to these apostles and prophets in the hope that they would alleviate their suffering and offer them earthly happiness. As fate would have it, prosperity gospel thrives in Kenya because it resonates well in societies that are economically afflicted and are hostage to spiritual powers, believing these powers control the fortunes of all.

The churches’ leaders had appealing fancy titles to announce their arrival: apostle, prophet, visionary. They offered utopian hopes to disillusioned and dispossessed poor people through miracles and promises of prosperity. Gifford, in his essay, “Expecting Miracles: The Prosperity Gospel in Africa” (www.christiancentury.org published in 2007), observed that the churches equally had fanciful names, such as Jesus Breakthrough Assembly, Triumphant Christian Centre and Victory Bible Church.

According to theologians and experts in the scriptures, there is probably no religious phenomenon today that has attracted as much controversy and varied interpretations as the prosperity gospel among Christian believers. Efe Ehiogae and Joseph Olanrewaju, in their essay, “A Theological Evaluation of the Utopian Image of Prosperity Gospel and the African Dilemma” (https//pdfssemanticscholar.org), argue that the African continent, alongside Latin America, is considered to be the richest hunting ground for evangelical Pentecostalism, one of the fastest growing religious movements globally. There are some religious leaders who today argue that the ancient practice of selling the blessings of the church has been subsumed by the prosperity gospel.

For many Christians, theology is a vague and an oblique academic notion. It is true many people consider theology to be the science of religion, and rightly so, but oftentimes they associate it with the quaint branches of academic disciplines, like numerology, that few people today take seriously.

Liberation theology

One enduring fact is that Africans as a whole have continued to suffer defective Christian theologies. One such theology – the remnants of which persist to date – is white theology, a carry-over of the white missionaries’ gospel teaching of doom and gloom, of trust and obey (for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey). That white theology, instead of contextualising the people’s developmental needs vis-à-vis their spiritual growth, has continued to create frightening doomsday scenarios of sinners eternally roasting in balls of hell-fire and brimstone.

White theology should be understood in context and especially in relation to its nemesis – black theology. In the United States, white theology was associated with racism, slavery and the oppression of African-Americans, but above all with white supremacy. This was also the case in Latin America and Africa where the gospel was proselytised by white missionaries who brought their white culture and biases with them. In South Africa, white theology was propagated by the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) to sanctify the segregationist rule of Apartheid.

Dr. James H .Cones, who died in April this year, and who was considered to be the father of the black liberation theology movement in the United States, invited Americans to understand the corrosive effects of white theology: “Christianity was seen as the white man’s religion…the Christian Gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is the religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free. But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness,” he said. He defined black liberation theology as the interpretation of the Christian Gospel from the experiences, perspectives and lives of people who are at the bottom in society – the lowest economic and racial groups.

In the United States, white theology was associated with racism, slavery and the oppression of African-Americans, but above all with white supremacy. This was also the case in Latin America and Africa where the gospel was proselytised by white missionaries who brought with them their white culture and biases.

Emeritus Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and the Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu is today remembered for his fearless fight against the Apartheid system in South Africa, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. What many people, particularly Christians, may not know is that for him to confront the all-powerful Apartheid state machinery that was spiritually sanitised by the Dutch Reformed Church, he had to confront the theology propagated by this church, which claimed that the principle of separate and unequal co-existence (segregation) of black and white South Africans was biblically ordained. Just as the African-American Christian leaders during the civil rights movements in the 1960s came up with black theology to fight the monster of racial discrimination, so did Tutu, who also came up with a black theology in South Africa to liberate his people.

In Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, where a great majority of the world’s Catholics lived, a different type of theology was taking shape: liberation theology. It was propagated by the likes of Archbishop Helda Camara and Leonardo Boff (then a Franciscan priest), both from Brazil, the Peruvian Dominican friar, Gustavo Gutierrez, and the Spain-born Jesuit priest, Jon Sobrino, who migrated to El Salvador where for many years he performed his major ecclesiastical work.

Liberation theology in Latin America was the fusion of Marxist teachings – class differentiation and means of production – and Catholic teachings, especially of the small Christian communities tradition (in Kenya known as jumuiya ndogo ndogo). It was Sobrino who in the late 1960s said that Latin America had reached a “theological boiling point”. In short, what Sobrino was advocating was a new theology to tackle debilitating poverty under military dictators who oppressed and killed their people. In his view, as indeed in the views of his contemporary like-minded Catholic priests, the theology of sin and repentance was not working.

Fr. Gutierrez, now 90-years-old, who is considered the father of liberation theology, argued in his book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, published in 1971, that there are two schools of thought on poverty and both are derived from the synoptic Gospels: The first talks of Christ’s sensitivity towards the poor and their sufferings. The second, that Christ himself “had lived a life of poverty, and so, Christians from their origin understood that in order to be his disciples, they also had to live a life of poverty.” Both of these schools of thought are true, pointed out Gutierrez, “but we interpret these two points of view on the bases of our historical context and of our lives.”

“The first perspective is found in Luke’s version of the beatitude of the poor (Blessed are you, for the kingdom of God is yours). The second is reflected in Matthews (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven),” he wrote. “I think both lines of thought – poverty as scandal and poverty of spirit can be useful, although their meaning must be actualized in our historical context.” The Catholic priest argued in the book that poverty is not a result of fate or laziness but a result of “structural injustices that privilege some, while marginalizing others.” When Jesus said, “blessed are the poor,” emphasised Gutierrez, he did not mean, “blessed is poverty.”

The church and politics in Kenya

In Kenya, our Christian clergy may not have evolved any particular theology but the country nonetheless produced, in its heyday, fearless church ministers who were not afraid to speak the biblical truth as they understood it, to both the powers that be and to their flock. Such clergymen included the controversial Anglican bishop Alexander Muge, the fearless Reverand Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Anglican Bishop David Gitari and the mercurial and politically savvy Bishop Henry Okullu. (All are dead except for Njoya. The death of Muge in 1990 in a bizarre road accident is still shrouded in mystery.)

When Jesus said, “blessed are the poor,” emphasised Gutierrez, he did not mean, “blessed is poverty.”

In 1975, as the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) bishop of Maseno South, Okullu published his seminal book, Church and Politics in East Africa, which soon become a bestseller and a guide for church leaders, church groups and students studying Christianity in the region. It was under Okullu, who was first elected as the chairman of National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) in 1976 and went onto serve for two terms, that the NCCK, during its annual general meeting in 1977, crafted the all-important statement regarding the central role of the church: “The Church being the conscience of the nation, should teach and safeguard intrinsic values of persons, knowing that all men and women are children of God. The church should endeavour to show, both in action and preaching, that it is not wealth, education or status that matter, but the individual’s intrinsic value.”

Dr. Okullu was a firebrand prelate. In 1998, I had the chance to meet him. Soft-spoken and cheerful, Okullu liked regaling one with stories. I remember him telling me how many Kenyans did not know that before rubbing the Kenyan political establishment the wrong way, he had locked horns with Ugandan President Milton Obote in the late 1960s when he served as the first African editor of the Church of Uganda-owned newspaper New Day. In 1967, Okullu had to come back to Kenya after he penned a scathing editorial on the one-party system, which Obote had introduced through the Common Man’s Charter policy document.

With the demise of these outspoken institutional church leaders, who in their own limited ways sought to speak truth to power, the mainstream churches’ leadership has been clipped and is a pale shadow of its former self. Even the elaborate voice of the Catholic Church, which used to be relayed through powerful pastoral letters, has been dead for a long time.

“The mainstream churches lost the plot in 2005,” said a Catholic priest from Kitale diocese. “That referendum [on the new constitution] split the churches along ethnic fault lines and they have never recovered to date.” The referendum that proposed a new constitution pitted the opposition, led by Raila Odinga, against President Mwai Kibaki. It was the first real test of Kibaki’s grip on state power. When Kibaki lost the referendum, the opposition knew it had rattled his power base.

“The mainstream churches lost the plot in 2005,” said a Catholic priest from Kitale diocese. “That referendum [on the new constitution] split the churches along ethnic fault lines and they have never recovered to date.”

“The church leadership, instead of stepping in and cautioning against the imminent ethnic battle lines that had been drawn out by the mini-election, which, if went unchecked, would definitely escalate into ethnic warfare, also entrenched its ethnic position that had informed how it had voted in the referendum,” said the priest. “Remember these leaders would openly canvass for their political sides to their respective congregations, which fell in place.” The priest said when the presidential election came in 2007, “all it did was accentuate the leaders’ ethnic positions”.

Since 2007, the story of Kenya’s church leaders has been the same: in 2013, they led their congregation to vote along ethnic lines. The same happened in 2017, observed the priest. “What Ruto is now doing is heavily infiltrating the churches’ leadership and exploiting their political differences and personal greed by dishing out lots of money, because everybody understands it’s their time to make hay while the sun shines.” Meanwhile, people facing hard economic times have been crying for help from their shepherds for moral courage and help, as well as guidance, but the clergy, unbothered and unconcerned by the “disconcerting noises” from their flock, continue with their privileged lifestyles.

The priest said the Deputy President has deliberately targeted the Catholic Church in Central Kenya because he reckons that this could possibly be one of the best strategies for penetrating and winning over the difficult Kikuyu constituency. “Even if he doesn’t win all of them, it would still be important if he got a foothold in the region.”

He said that in Kenya today, the church cannot speak in one voice and will not condemn institutionalised state corruption because it is fragmented and its leadership across the board has benefitted from that same corruption’s largesse. “It is not too difficult to see what is happening: The people are crying, the people are hurting, the people have been rendered poor and the Levite priest is on his way to Jerusalem.”

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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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