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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya

17 min read.

Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has become a battleground in the longstanding global Sunni-Shia conflict. By PAUL GOLDSMITH



SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya
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The Embassy bombing of August 1998 and the twinned attack on a Kikambala tourist hotel and Israeli charter flight in 2002 led to the designation of the coast of East Africa as a primary theatre in the war on terror. Lamu featured prominently in the events that followed the emergence of homegrown terrorists. The new state of affairs was as unexpected as it was counterintuitive. For those who know the archipelago and its people, a remote and peaceful society like Lamu became associated with radical Islam defies the imagination. How this came about is a long story.

Religion and revivalism in the Lamu Archipelago

For people living in a place like Lamu scanning the horizon becomes a habit. For over two millennia, the triangular sails that with clockwork regularity appear in the distance near the end of the kaskasi winds brought new influences and exotic visitors who settled and became part of the Swahili coast’s hybrid mélange. Swahili language and culture evolved out of the long-term dynamic of cosmopolitan interaction interrupted by the occasional system-modifying disruption.

Islam, a source of stability that provided the template for the numerically small Swahili communities dealing with the vagaries of the outside world, took centuries to take root and flourish. During the eighth century C.E., political conflicts associated with the Sunni-Shia schism propelled small groups of Muslim refugees to the coast of east Africa. Islam spread slowly during the following millennium, integrating along the way influences from the hinterland like the kuzungusha ng’ombe and sorio purification rituals that the scholar Gunther Schlee identifies as originating with the proto-Rendille/Somali cultural complex.

The integration of such local practices congruent with Biblical and Quranic traditions apparently synched with the Swahili coast’s legacy of orthodox Islamic scholarship. According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

Pate went into decline after an internal war of succession broke out following the death of Fumo Omari, Pate’s Sultan in 1807. The long poem Al Inkishafi, the most powerful exemplar of classical Swahili poetry, contrasts images of the once powerful Sultanate’s former opulence with Pate’s ruinous state several decades later to illustrate the transient nature of the material world.

According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

The nineteenth century was a period of political turbulence across the Muslim world that prompted a rethink of Islam in Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centres of Islamic scholarship. Developments opened the door for the pan-Islamic political ideologies of religious rationalists. Reformers like Mohammed Abdul and Jamal Din Al Afghani advocated for Islamic education based on open inquiry and the search for knowledge over slavish commitment to medieval interpretations of Islam. In other areas, where Sufi traditions of experienced based religious knowledge were strong, reform focused on the personal internalization of Islamic values. One scholar writing about the Hadhramaut, a strong source of Islamic influence on the coast of East Africa, described the focus of religious renewal as “a shift from doctrine to praxis – i.e. as an attempt to bring to others the ‘tools’ for proper, good life, for ‘inner’ ability to separate right from wrong.”

The Ba’Alawiyya is Sufi tariqa established by descendants of the Prophet over a thousand years ago in the Hadhramaut. It became known later for championing the expansion of religious education while retaining its emphasis on Sharifite lineage. The Hadhrami diaspora that accelerated during the 1700s spread Ba’Alawiyya influence across the Indian Ocean from Java to East Africa. Several generations of Hadhrami scholars based in the Comoros and Zanzibar had through their scholarship and personal example promoted the quest for personal purity through the study of Islam’s original Quranic sources and traditions. This saw ulama religious councils in Zanzibar and the Comoros displace the influence of those of Lamu and Mombasa as the region’s ranking centres of religious knowledge.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

Salih bin Alawi, or Habib Saleh as he came to be known, was born in 1853 on the island of Grande Comoro. At the age of 18, the young Sharif followed his uncle Abdalla bin Alawi to Lamu to study with its Islamic scholars. After a sojourn in the Comoros he returned to Lamu, declaring that Lamu was the only place where he felt spiritually at home.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century Habib Saleh acted on his belief that religious education should be available to everyone. The town’s stratified social order was already being challenged by the growing number of Hadhrami immigrants, Bajuni settlers from the archipelago’s outer islands, and freed slaves who settled in the area now known as Langoni. Habib Saleh built the original Ryadha mosque on a sandy hill above the expanding area of new settlement and went on to establish a mosque college modeled on the ribats established in the Hadhramaut by the previous generation of Alawi scholars. Ryadha offered religious instruction to all at a time when religious knowledge was still central to the power relations in Swahili settlements.

The Ba’Alawiyya taught that a religious leader should seek out obscurity in place of popular recognition, avoid material manifestations of wealth and power, and that they should keep a low public profile while continuing to offer advice to the community in religious matters. Habib Saleh personified these qualities. He also established a new Maulidi, the religious ceremony celebrating the birth of the Prophet, that featured litanies composed by one of his mentors, Al Habshi, recited to the accompaniment of the twari, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine.

Habib Saleh’s educational pluralism put him into conflict with Lamu’s power establishment based in the old stone town, who tried to curb his activities. When this failed agents of the old order attempted to sabotage his growing influence by starting a fire in the Ryadha area of Langoni. According to the folklore, Habib appealed to his mentor in the Hadhramaut, Al Habshi, who intervened by using his mystical powers to miraculously extinguish the fire from afar.

These events coincided with the turbulent events accompanying the establishment of British imperialism in East Africa. As the archipelago’s pivotal role on the Swahili coast began to ebb, Kiwa Ndeo, the ‘Proud Isle’ as Lamu was known in Swahili verse, emerged as the center of a new Islamic movement that was to gradually spread beyond its coastal base. The town’s two religious streams coalesced after the success of Habib Saleh’s religious education revolution. His sons and grandsons proceeded to extend Lamu’s religious influence across the coast and into the interior of East Africa after the Saint’s death in 1938.

When I took up residence in Lamu in 1974, the Ryadha Mosque College buzzed with activity and housed students from as far away as Zaire, Tanzania, and the Comoro Islands. Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

The festival had at some point expanded to include traditional Swahili dances that were performed in the large open area in front of the mosque. Elders from Pate and Ndau performed the slow moving Goma parade in immaculate white kanzu while the youth fought mock battles in the kirumbizi stick-fighting dance to the rapid cadence of the high-pitched zumari. After the conclusion of the Ishaa evening prayers, Miji Kenda gyrated to the rhythm of their ndurenge and mwanzele, the Pokomo did their mwaribe, and the wagema, the specialists in climbing the tall coconut palms to harvest the nuts and tap its sweet sap, performed their distinctive uta dance.

Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

Not everyone accepted this exemplar of the Swahili coast’s tolerant and cosmopolitan Islamic culture. A small minority of Wahhabi influenced reformers objected to the use of the twari during the recitation of the Maulidi in Lamu mosques and the non-Islamic performances during the festival. Lamu religious leaders dismissed the complaints by stating that the Maulidi celebrated Habib Saleh’s tradition of inclusion, and that it attract new converts while maintaining positive relations with their non-Muslim neighbors.

Like the annual arrival of the dhows, the Maulidi’s importance for Lamu’s economic cycle had grown as the latter declined, in part due to the arbitrary imposition of customs duty and harassment by government officials. The rest of the year, Lamu’s economy largely depended on the traditional maritime activities and farming. The once vibrant mainland agriculture, however, was suffering due to poor security. Mainland Bajuni, displaced by Shifta bandit attacks in the 1960s, tried to resettle in mainland areas like Magogoni but found the going rough. A friend of mine gave up his farm there after being raised in the air by an elephant and dashed to the ground in front of his terrified children.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed. The hospitality industry became an essential growth sector that compensated for the decline of other livelihoods while revitalizing the production of artisanal crafts and the town’s famous woodcarving tradition. The building boom in Arabia led to a spike in demand for mangrove poles, reviving the international dhow trade. Remittances and returnees from the Gulf and Saudia Arabia provided a boost. After eight decades of economic stagnation, the archipelago’s economy began to sparkle again.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed.

These were simpler times, although much was changing underneath the surface. The tensions fueled by religious dogma and historical divisions elsewhere in the Islamic world were a non-factor except for the running debate over the distinctive Maulidi celebration spearheaded by Kenya’s chief Kadhi, Abdalla Farsi, and other Mombasa-based reformers. This debate was of little import in Lamu. The only dispute of significance was the internal rift between the Ryadha Sharifs that came into the open during the early 1970s when two of Habib Saleh’s grandsons started an alternative madrassa at Sofaa, a new mosque modeled on Ryadha and financed by a patron from the old Mkomani elite.

The contest between the traditionalists and modernisers remained couched in battles over local issues like the debate over the introduction of the Al Habshi version of the Maulidi celebration in place of the more generic Barzanji recitation, and its validation of the sharifs’ elevated spiritual station. It was difficult to see divisions like the longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict arising among the local believers in these settings. But events conspired to make this happen after a small freighter dropped anchor in the Lamu roadstead on an otherwise unremarkable June day in 1985.

Shi’a versus Bidha’a on the Coast of Kenya

 The 1979 Iranian revolution upset the Islamic world’s political and religious status quo. The unanticipated strength of the events set in motion by Ayatollah Khomeini overturned both conventional and leftist concepts of the ‘grand march of modernization in the West, reviving religion as a driver of socio-political change for the first time since the Western Enlightenment.

One of the West’s most prominent academic authorities on Islam, Maxime Rodinson, had built a reputation by stressing that historically it was extremely difficult to find religious sources for Muslim responses to their situation: explanations should be sought in the “the social, cultural and ideological context of the age in which they operated than by their Muslim origin”. The country’s relative prosperity made developments in Iran all the more surprising for upending such theories. Analysts and policy makers were unprepared to assess the implications of what the Lebanese–born scholar, Fuad Ajami, termed “The Impossible Revolution”.

Internal Iranian participants in the upheaval also confused the broad spectrum of anti-government support that united under Khomeini, with the revolution’s Shia religious agenda. The centre did not hold. The Marxist Khalq Party was decimated. The interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzagan, didn’t last long. Khomeini banished any hope of accommodation by backing the students who took control of the US Embassy.

The broad spectrum of leftist groups and moderate middle class supporters who joined up with the religious opposition during the uprising could only rue their mistake. Like the many experts caught out by the events, they were left to contemplate Khomeini’s observation that “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of Persian limes.”

It was one of the seminal events of the Twentieth Century. Ayatollah Khomeini ended up on the cover of Time in 1979. The Saudi’s and their Western allies responded by backing Saddam Hussein’s doomed invasion of the contested Iraq-Iran border zone. The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Egypt was the first modern Islamic voice to influence Muslims south of the Sahara, and religion did not figure prominently in the message. Gamal Abdel Nassir used the Voice of Egypt to break the European control of the airwaves and focused on anti-imperialist themes reinforcing African aspirations for independence. Egyptian radio broadcasts of the 1960s eschewed the sectional interests of the region’s diverse Muslims and instead cultivated support for the non-aligned movement. But after Nassir’s death, economic power replaced ideology, and patronage links with Saudi Arabia took over as the primary conduit of external influence on the Islamic periphery.

The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Most of their funds were transacted on the state level with a view towards cementing ties of economic cooperation while curbing Israeli influence. The rest went to support madrassa education and to train teachers. In Kenya, a new generation of scholars and Imams, many of whom were sponsored by the Saudis, were opposing superstitions like belief in the power of amulets, quasi-religious divination and magic, and other practices tolerated by the Sharifite establishment. But despite its decidedly non-Wahhabi orientation, Lamu’s Ryadha establishment also received Saudi support.

Although Saudi aid at that juncture highlighted secular principles, it was part of a longer-term strategy twinning cultivation of Wahhabi ideology with support for the Kingdom. The Iranian Revolution shook up this patrimonial status quo, and in Kenya, Iran’s new popularity complemented coastal Muslims’ antipathy for the ‘Arabs’.

During my early days on the coast I was frequently confused by the contradictions conveyed by the word “Arab.” As far as I could see, although only religious scholars and relatively recent Hadhrami immigrants actually spoke Arabic, many coastal Muslims aspired to a degree of Arab-ness through dress and language, while real and imputed connections to Arab lineages conferred prestige. Bajuni oral tradition, for example, states that these indigenous African Swahili originated in Mecca. I was naturally perplexed when a Bajuni friend remarked, “Arabs are the worst people in the world.

Other coastals who came from high status ‘Arab’ families expressed a similar attitude, claiming that the Arabs of Arabia are primitive and vain. Jokes about the Saudis in particular were common, especially among coastals returning from the Kingdom who found life in Arabia difficult and suffocating. The large number of coastals who migrated there in search of work found themselves treated as low status migrant workers. Merchants with important business connections sometimes echoed the negative attitudes prevalent among the Swahili and near universal among the Somali. “The Saudis are very nice when you meet them here,” one Mombasa tycoon told me, “but if you deal with them in Arabia they are the worst of savages.”

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

This began to change after the 1979 revolution. Iran became a symbol of the fight back against Westernisation. Their efforts to promote Islamic moral renewal highlighted local grievances over historical injustices and other issues that were never championed by the Arabs and their political clients. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, coastal Muslims could look to a role model in Ayatollah Khomeini who combined religious integrity with political liberation. Pictures of the Ayatollah joined the pantheon of cultural heroes on the coast, sometimes sharing a wall with Bob Marley and Bollywood film stars.

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

During the early 1980s the Iranians initiated efforts to exploit their religious capital by cultivating influence on the coast. They established an Islamic newspaper in Mombasa that discussed social problems and offered religious commentary. The Iranian Embassy sponsored delegations of local notables and sheikhs to visit Iran. Most returned speaking of Iran in glowing terms; the Saudis responded by flying many of the same individuals to Mecca and Medina. The narrative emerging out of these junkets confirm the reports of seamen who reported how they were welcomed as Muslim brothers in Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas but were treated poorly on the other side of the Persian Gulf—where Christian expatriates were received with open arms.

The Iranians’ efforts gradually brought some religious leaders under their influence, including Abdullahi Nassir, former leader of the pro-secession Coast Peoples Party, who was commissioned to deliver a series of lectures across the coast. In Lamu, the internal conflict between the Ryadha and Sofaa sharifs provided another entry point.

In 1983 Sofaa had recruited the assistance of the long-serving Mombasa politician, Sharif Nassir. The two factions typically supported different candidates in local elections, and this presented Nassir with an opportunity to leverage his support among the large Lamu community in Mombasa. The coast’s pre-eminent politician held a harambee at the Sofaa Mosque to raise funds to build a new madrassa and dormitory. Shortly afterwards the Iranians offered their assistance for the same project.

When I visited the mosque in May of 1984 I found a new over-sized version of the original Sofaa and a new educational complex erected on the plot behind it. A block of classes funded by Nassir’s harambee remained incomplete, like a testament to the old order. I was told that Mzee Mwenye, the head of the mosque and its Imam, Mwenye Omari, had embraced the Ithna Asheri school of Shi’ism. When I spoke to them, they said they were grateful to their new Iranian friends for improving the facilities but otherwise nothing significant had changed.

The mosques beautiful new calligraphy with its references to the Shia martyrs Hussein, Hassan, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, indicated otherwise. The conduct of prayers and most everything else was the same, although my father-in-law confirmed that the pro-Shia management had began using the Shia version of the call to prayers before the complaints of the neighborhood’s residents saw it discontinued.

East African Muslims are a multicultural community where until recently sectarian differences rarely served as a source of friction. Bohra, Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, and other Asian Shia Muslims lived among the Sunni majority in coastal towns and cities and even married Sunni wives occasionally. This explains why Sofaa’s Shia affiliation was, for most people in Lamu, more about the ongoing Ryadha-Sofaa feud than a break with Lamu’s Islamic tradition. My father-in-law and many other former regulars continued to pray at Sofaa despite the changes.

The conflict nevertheless began to ramp up over the following months as the two factions engaged in various battles for influence, beginning with the recruitment of children to attend their respective madrassa. My wife was perplexed when competing representatives of Sofaa and Ryadha had come to the house advising her to enroll our children in their respective Quran schools. They warned of the negatives that would result if they remained in their present chuo, which was not affiliated to either faction.

The Sofaa faction won a legal victory when they went to court to prevent the eviction of a popular female maalim based in a vacated Shi’a mosque that had not been used for decades. This was followed by a battle over selection of a new mosque for hosting Friday prayers. The traditional Mskiti wa Jumaa in Mkomani could no longer host the town’s growing numbers, forcing late arrivals to pray on the sidewalks and alleyways outside the mosque. When Sofaa lost their bid to be selected as the second Jumaa mosque, partisans chained the doors of the eight hundred year-old Pwani Mosque – identified with Lamu’s pre-Ba’Alawiyya ulama – that had been chosen instead. The District Commissioner, however, intervened on behalf of the anti-Sofaa clerics.

Lamu people discussed these developments in their usual jocular fashion, referring to the parties as Watu wa Shi’a and Watu wa Bidha’a, the latter being a reference to the criticism of the Maulidi who claimed it was the kind of religious innovation forbidden in the Quran. Most everyone I knew viewed the events as a family affair that had burst into the open with comic effect. No one took down their pictures of the Ayatollah, even though their take on the revolution had soured during the interim.

Prior to these developments, in 1982, a fire consumed a large area of Langoni. It started after a quarrel between a brother and sister ended with the brother setting the house on fire before dawn. The prevailing kuzi winds spread the flames across Langoni’s canopy of palm-thatched roofs, incinerating hundreds of the densely packed mud and wood houses and spreading to the coral rag stone structures lining the Msitu wa Mui, Lamu’s main street which the government had ineffectually renamed Kenyatta Avenue. When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

International and Kenyan donors committed funds for rebuilding a new mabati (corrugated iron)-roofed Langoni, but the promised reconstruction of the homes dragged out. A year later many households were still camping in makeshift structures built on the ruined plots; after two years some victims on the list were still waiting for compensation. Most of the damage occurred on the Sofaa side of town, which ostensibly led to the mission of the mysterious freighter that arrived almost three years later.

When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

The ship carried clothing for the victims of the Lamu fire donated by the Shi’a community in Kuwait. It spent a long time anchored off Manda Island while the Sofaa sharifs negotiated the cargo’s release. Several months later the goods were cleared, but because they were officially listed as charitable donations for the community at large, the Provincial Administration claimed that other religious actors should be allocated equal shares. As it turned out, the shipment contained many items of high quality, and distribution proceeded on a prejudicial basis. Some recipients reported that they found dollars and riyals in the pockets of donated kanzu; a fisherman showed me a Seiko watch he found in the ‘Kuwaiti’ gown he received.

For a while “umepata Kuwaiti gani?” became the first question people asked after the usual greeting. Many of the genuine victims received nothing. My brother-in-law, who lost more than most when his shop and home burned, missed out. The generosity of the foreign benefactors ended up generating more controversy than relief.

The issue was settled when, during Friday prayers a group of youth broke into the storeroom where the Kuwaiti cargo was kept. They made off with the remaining chests and footlockers. They broke them open on the waterfront, dumped out the contents, and ran off after taking the pick of the loot—which was mainly shoes. The public scrambled for what was left, all evidence of the heist vanishing before the faithful in the mosque uttered the final “Assalamu alaykum wa barakatuh” ending the prayers. The news spread fast.

“These guys committed a major sin!” one my neighbors declared.

“What’s so wrong about liberating what was supposed to be gifts for the poor?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, clarifying that “it was bad because most of the best things went to the slackers who don’t attend Juma’a prayers.”

That was not the end of it. In the scramble for the footwear most of the pairs were separated. Several times a day someone would call hodi hodi from downstairs, walk up the stairs, and after the usual salutations produce a bag filled with unmatched shoes.

Uko na ndugu ya hiki?” invariable followed, as they placed a single Italian loafer or a fashionable woman’s stiletto on the mat.

The exercise continued for several weeks. Although I surmised many of the shoes were never united with their ‘brothers’, it helped restore a degree of normality to community after the antagonistic Shi’a versus Bidha’a interlude. Twice, women who were not on good terms with my spouse clunk-clunked up the stairs and politely made their enquiries, and I observed how the process resulted in the resumption of normal relations.

Things did not end well for the warring sheikhs. The infighting continued, and the resulting decline in status coincided with the rise of a new generation of more activist reformers with comparatively shallow educational and spiritual qualifications than their predecessors.

Assessing The Aftermath: The Kingdom Strikes Back

At the time I viewed this incident as a victory for local religious sensibilities over the forces of patronage and imported religious models. But the influence of the Ayatollahs’ revolution had opened the way for political Islam to take root in local conditions. No one anticipated the directionality of events over the next two decades.

The Iranian gambit ended up producing the opposite effect in respect to their political interests, with correspondingly negative implications for the Muslims of this region. Infatuation with the Islamic revolution declined as the Iranian government began to show its authoritarian nature, and the Saudis went on the offensive. Iran’s pan-Islamic activism in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more aggressive role across the Islamic world. Over the course of the 1980s the Kingdom spent over $4 billion per year to spread the Wahhabi creed abroad. Private sources in the kingdom interpreted the Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan as divine approval for their version of jihad, and extended their funding for radical Wahhabi movements across to virtually the Islamic world.

The gradual spread of Wahhabi influence provided cover for the proponents of the more extreme Salafi movement before the Embassy bombings of 1998 accelerated the convergence of the global Islamist narratives across the Horn of Africa region. This coincided with the spread of social media and internet-based transmission of Islamist ideologies, which gained ground at the expense of the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge through recognized schools of jurisprudence and the human exemplars of Sufi teachings.

We all know what came next.

The irony is that Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has suffered disproportionately from the international cast of Al Qaida sleeper cells and Al Shabaab insurgents based across the Somalia border.


Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.


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

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



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

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

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

The purge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exporting peace?

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

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

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

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

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

Policing protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Enduring Blind Spots of America’s Africa Policy

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



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

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

America’s Africa policy 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The counterterrorism traps 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drone attacks 

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

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

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

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

Containing the Chinese takeover 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fresh start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Nyamai declined to comment for the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hacking the System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition, a KSh4 billion contract for hand sanitizer between the Health Ministry’s Preventive and Promotive Health Department and Tira Southshore was approved as a blanket purchase agreement in April 2015. The following month, a standard purchase order was generated for the same amount but without a description of services — this transaction is marked in the system as incomplete. A third transaction — this one for 0 shillings — was generated 10 days later by the same procurement employee, using the original order description: “please supply hand sanitizers 5oomls as per contract Moh/dpphs/dsru/008/14-15-MTC/17/14-15(

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

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

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

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

Masking the Setup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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