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PASSPORTS TO RICHES: Semlex’s dubious dealings with African governments

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The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world has one of the most expensive passports and Comoros issues diplomatic passports to non-Comorians. By TAMA MULE

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PASSPORTS TO RICHES: Semlex’s dubious dealings with African governments
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Albert Karaziwan is a multi-millionaire who in 1992 founded Semlex, a privately traded company owned primarily by him and his family. Semlex supplies passports and identification cards. In 2008, Karaziwan claimed that his businesses had a combined value of 100 million euros.

Karaziwan has had close ties with the governments of at least 18 African countries spanning the whole of the continent, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Libya, Mozambique, and the Ivory Coast. The most prominent among these, as far as his connections go, is the Comoros Islands, from where he holds three diplomatic passports. He has also twice attended the United Nations General Assembly as a part of the Comoros delegation. He was made a roving ambassador of the Comoros and at least eight of his staff were nominated for Comoros honorary consulships between 2010 and 2012. Another big partner of his is the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was seen at the United Nations General Assembly with the Congolese delegation early in 2017.

Despite these surprisingly powerful connections, Karaziwan is neither a citizen of Comoros, DRC or of any other African nation with which he has been able to secure incredible financial footholds and political appointments. He is a Syria-born Belgian citizen who for close to two decades has used Semlex and its various partners, as well as political clout and connections on the continent, to secure multiple hundred-million-dollar deals to provide passports and other identification documents to African countries at exorbitant prices and sometimes without going through open tender processes.

In the Comoros, presidential decrees and various documents have revealed that Semlex-supplied Comoros passports have been bought by foreigners. A parliamentary investigation into the sale of passports to foreigners found that more than 2,800 Comoros diplomatic passports have been issued since 2008 – in a country with a population of about 800,000. At least 184 of these passports were issued to non-Comorians.

Karaziwan became involved in a Comoros programme to raise cash by selling citizenships. The plan was aimed mainly at the Bidoon people of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates who do not possess citizenship of any country. It offered Gulf governments a means of identifying these people without giving them local citizenship. It also provided the Comoros with much-needed revenue. The Comoros government received just over $4,500 for each citizenship issued, according to government documents from 2012. The Emirati government estimated that the number of Bidoon within the country ranged from 20,000 to 100,000. Currently at least 40,000 of these people carry Comorian passports.

However, the citizenships and passports were also being sold to non-Bidoon people, sometimes at much higher prices, according to Comoros investigators. Comoros passports are of value because they offer citizenship with no tax obligations, allow the opening of bank accounts In Gulf States and facilitate visa-free travel through the Gulf and to many major business hubs globally, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as to tax haven countries such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, Mauritius, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Panama, according to U.S officials in the State Department who specialise in the region.

The Comoros government allowed some of these sales to be facilitated by a Dubai-based firm called Lica International Consulting, according to an agreement between the two entities reviewed by Reuters. Three sources, one with direct knowledge of Semlex operations, said Lica is controlled by Karaziwan while two of these sources claim that Lica is run on behalf of Karaziwan by a business associate named Cedric Fevre, a name that appears many times during this saga. Lica was supposed to vet the candidates for citizenship and pay the Comoros government $10,000 per document issued, according to the agreement between the company and the government.

The Iranian connection

A presidential decree revealed a list of 21 foreigners who had been proposed by Lica for Comorian citizenship, which had then been granted by the president, while a former Comoros government official said he knew of at least 23 other passports sold through Lica to non-Comorians. Two sources with knowledge of Karaziwan’s activities claimed that Lica asked for at least 100,000 euros for supplying a Comoros passport. A series of presidential decrees have revealed that some of the Comoros passports were sold to people who had been accused by the United States of breaking sanctions with Iran.

A decree from July of 2015 revealed that a man named Hamid Reza Malakotipour was granted Comoros citizenship. He had been sanctioned in 2014 by the United States government, which alleged that he was in possession of an Iranian passport and had used his Comorian citizenship to circumvent the sanctions placed on Iran by the United States and to supply the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria.

Also revealed in the same decree was that a man called Mohammed Zarrab of Turkish- Iranian origin was issued with Comorian citizenship. He was accused by U.S prosecutors in 2016 of violating the U.S sanctions on Iran by using the U.S financial system to undertake hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transactions on behalf of Iran. His brother Reza Zarrab was also indicted on claims that he had transacted on behalf of the Iran-based Mahan Air, which had been sanctioned for airlifting weapons to Iran’s Quds Forces and Hezbollah. A Reuters investigation was unable to glean how the two individuals received their passports, and the extent to which Semlex and Lica were involved

In January 2018, the Comoros government cancelled a batch of passports that had been issued to foreigners, saying they had been improperly issued. A confidential list of the passport recipients reviewed by Reuters discovered that more than 100 of the 155 passports that had been cancelled belonged to Iranians, among whom were senior executives of companies in sectors that had been targeted by U.S sanctions. The government of Iran does not officially permit its citizens to hold more than one passport, but a source familiar with the process stated that Iranian military intelligence had given the green light for some of these senior officials so that business transactions and travel could be carried out with ease.

According to details contained in a database of Comoros passports issued between 2008 (when the government programme to sell citizenships began) and 2017, more than 1,000 people whose place of birth was Iran bought Comoros passports. Some of the names on this list include names such as:

  • Mojtaba Arabmoheghi, one of the top managers of the Iranian oil industry, who obtained a Comoros passport in 2014 while he was the chairman of Sepeher Gostar Hamoun. He was also a commercial consultant for a firm called Silk Road Petroleum in the UAE whose financial director, a man named Naser Masoomian, also acquired a Comoros passport on the same day.
  • Mohammed Sadegh Kaveh, who heads Kaveh Port and Marine Services, obtained a Comoros passport in 2015. Kaveh and his family are among the main operators of Iran’s Shahid Rajaee port that handles most of Iran’s container traffic
  • Hossein Mokhtari Zanjani, an influential figure in Iran’s energy sector and a lawyer who handles domestic and international disputes, acquired a Comoros passport in 2013.

On its website, Lica listed a Dubai-based company called Bayat Group as a partner, which, according to the latter’s website, specialises in providing citizenships of places such as Comoros, Malta and St. Kitts and Nevis. Bayat Group is headed by Sam Bayat Makou, an Iranian who acquired a Comoros passport in July of 2013, though this was among the passports that were cancelled by the Comoros government. Makou said that Iranians acquired Comoros passports because “Comorians have better visa-free access than Iranians” to many Far East countries. Bayat Group, according to Makou, had done work with Lica, which he claimed was licenced by the government of Comoros to market the passports outside the Bidoon programme.

In January 2018, the Comoros government cancelled a batch of passports that had been issued to foreigners, saying they had been improperly issued. A confidential list of the passport recipients reviewed by Reuters discovered that more than 100 of the 155 passports that had been cancelled belonged to Iranians, among whom were senior executives of companies in sectors that had been targeted by U.S sanctions.

The incumbent President at the time was called Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, and throughout his 2006-2011 tenure, he began to forge strong ties with Iran. Sambi had been educated in the Iranian holy city of Qom, and when he ascended to power, he visited Tehran in 2008. The then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was looking to cultivate relations with African and Latin American states as the West took increasing measures to distance itself from Iran. Following Sambi’s visit to Tehran, Ahmadinejad visited Comoros in 2009. In addition, Sambi is said to have had Iranians within his personal guard and was referred to as “The Ayatollah of Comoros” by some islanders.

Though Sambi left power in 2011, he declined to comment on the sale of the said passports to non-Comorians. The sale of these passports continued under his successor, Ikililou Dhoinine, who was in office from 2011-2016. Though Dhoinine has no obvious links to Iran, he declined Reuters’ requests to comment on the situation.

His successor Azali Assoumani came to power in 2016 and changed tack completely, severing ties with Iran and aligning with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Nations at odds with Iran. He set up a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate the programme that sold citizenship to the Bidoon. The commission found that as early as 2013, the UAE informed the Comoros government that hundreds of passports had been sold to foreigners outside the programme. This was after UAE officials noticed people who were neither Comorian nor Bidoon travelling through the country on Comoro passports. A Comoros security source said that the Comorian intelligence services had received reports of people with Comoros passports being killed on the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Somalia, a demonstration of how widespread the sale of Comoros passports had become. As a result, the United States has begun to perform more thorough background checks on people travelling with Comoros passports.

According to a parliamentary report, at least $100 million in revenue from the sale of these passports was never received by the government of Comoros and had gone missing, though the government has not released a statement explaining where they think the money could have gone.

The deal in the DRC

The investigation in the Comoros followed a report published by Reuters in April of 2017 that revealed that Semlex was the same company responsible for issuing biometric passports in the impoverished Democratic Republic of Congo for the exorbitant price of $185 per passport, making the DRC passport among the most expensive passports in the world. This in a country where the average national income is $394.25 a year.

Between October 2014 and June 2015, Karaziwan corresponded with Congolese authorities on the passport deal. Initially, in an October 2014 correspondence, he told Joseph Kabila, the incumbent president of the DRC, that Semlex would be able to provide the biometric passports at a cost of between 20 and 40 euros each as Semlex had its own printing facilities. Five days later, Karaziwan invited two members from Kabila’s inner circle, Moise Ekana Lushyma and Emmanuel Adrupiako, to Dubai to discuss a possible contact. By 13 November 2014, the price for the passports had risen to $120.

In the Comoros, presidential decrees and various documents have revealed that Semlex-supplied Comoros passports have been bought by foreigners. A parliamentary investigation into the sale of passports to foreigners found that more than 2,800 Comoros diplomatic passports have been issued since 2008 – in a country with a population of about 800,000. At least 184 of these passports were issued to non-Comorians.

Fiinally, in March 2015, Karaziwan was invited to Congo to finalise the proposal for the passport programme. In June of the same year, the final contract was signed by Karaziwan, the Congolese Finance Minister Henry Yay Mulang and the Congolese Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda. Semlex had agreed to invest $222 million into the project and the Congoloese government ageed to raise the price of the passport, charging its citizens $185 for every passport issued. (The steep rise is doubly shocking considering a rival proposal from another Belgian company called Zetes. Zetes outlined a plan and confirmed making an offer in 2014 to supply Congo with biometric passports that would cost $28.50 each.) From the revenue made from the passports, only $65 dollars would go to the Congolese government. The remaining $120 would be given to a group of companies that include, Semlex Europe in Brussels, Semlex World in the UAE, Semlex’s Lithuanian printer and a UAE entity called LRPS.

In a second agreement in June of the same year, the $120 was further divided up, with $12 from every passport sale going to Mantenga Contacto, a Kinshasa-based firm that would handle the projects “human resources issues, including supplying staff”. The three Semlex firms from the previous agreement were allotted $48 per passport issued, leaving out $60 of the money allotted to the consortium of companies going to LRPS, who would in return help with administration, logistics and relationship with the government.

Though LRPS was represented in the government talks by Karaziwan, it is currently owned by Makie Makolo Wangoi, according to a source familiar with the passport deal. A Bloomberg investigation into the business interests of the Congolese president and his family revealed that Wangoi was Joseph Kabila’s sister. Corporate records confirmed that she was a shareholder in several companies with other Kabila family members.

A Reuters investigation was unable to verify the status of LRPS, but its certificate of incorporation from Ras al Khaimah in the UAE revealed that it was established on 14 January 2015 just as Semlex was negotiating the passport deal with Kabila’s representatives. The certificate of incorporation does not reveal who owned the company when it was established, but a second document from that same year revealed that in late 2015, LRPS was owned by Cedric Fevre, a business associate of Karaziwan based in Dubai, who also ran Lica International Consulting, one of the firms implicated in the sale of Comoros passports to non-Comorians.

Though the computer-created document that revealed this information is unsigned, the metadata embedded in it shows that it was created in the UAE in 2015 and printed on 25 June of the same year. On that same day, Fevre transferred all 10,000 shares in LRPS to Wangoi, according to a source with direct knowledge of the deal. The only signed copies of the share transfer agreement are in the possession of Fevre and Wangoi, both of whom declined to respond to questioning from Reuters investigators.

A few weeks after the deal was signed, bank documents and emails revealed that two UAE-based companies made deposits of $700,000 to the private bank accounts of Emmanuel Addrupiako, one of the advisors that Kabila sent to the UAE to meet with Karaziwan during the initial talks for the passport deal. One of the companies that made the payments was called Berea International and the other was called Cedovane. The incumbency certificate for Berea revealed that the Semlex CEO, Karaziwan, was the director, secretary and sole shareholder of Berea. Another director of Berea was none other than Cedric Fevre, who is also a director of Cedovane.

The investigation in the Comoros followed a report published by Reuters in April of 2017 that revealed that Semlex was the same company responsible for issuing biometric passports in the impoverished Democratic Republic of Congo for the exorbitant price of $185 per passport, making the DRC passport among the most expensive passports in the world.

The payments were made through United Arab Bank (UAB). UAB documents show that on 29 July 2015, Cedovane paid $300,000 to a Royal Bank of Canada account held by Adrupiako in Quebec. The documents cite a “loan agreement.” Then, on 25 August, Berea International paid $400,000 to Adrupiako’s account with Jyske Bank in Denmark. According to bank emails and contact with Berea, Adrupiako told Jyske Bank that the money was to pay for a four-storey building that Berea was renting from him in Kinshasa. The transaction triggered concern in Copenhagen. Reuters visited the site of this four-storey building and found that it was still under construction and Berea had no visible presence there.

The passport contract in Congo runs for five years and does not specify how many passports will be produced, but in recent years DRC has issued nearly 2.5 million passports annually. Sources with direct knowledge of the Semlex-Congo deal said that on one occasion Semlex had claimed that it had produced 145,000 passports by the end of January 2017, earning LRPS nearly $9 million. A Reuters reviewed document then revealed that Semlex said it would be able to supply DRC with 2 million passports per year once everything was fully operational, a deal that would make LRPS $120 million a year.

Kabila was due to step down from DRC’s presidency in December 2016, but elections were postponed, and he retains power as tension, violence and calls for him to step down increase. Dozens were killed in violent clashes between protestors and police, and his domestic opponents assert that his authority has run out – though even if Kabila does step down, LRPS will continue to make money as Article 14 of the contract for the deal states that the agreement remains valid even if “institutional changes” occur within the country.

Other dodgy contracts

Karaziwan’s and Semlex’s exploits in Africa do not end with the Congo or Comoros. Early in 2017, the government of Mozambique terminated a 10-year contract with Semlex worth several hundreds of millions of dollars that had been awarded in 2009 by the previous government. According to sources close to Semlex, the deal was struck without an open tender, and the new government claims that only a fraction of the $100 million that Semlex had promised to spend on training, electronic scanners and other types of infrastructure was invested. The passports were going to cost citizens of Mozambique $80 each in a nation whose average income per capita was under $500 per year. Officials from the Mozambique Centre for Public Integrity (CIP) published a review of the contract in 2015 revealing that the state only collected 8% of the revenues from the ID documents produced between 2011 and 2014

In Guinea Bissau, Helder Tavares Proenca was listed as a Semlex agent in the country, according to Semlex documents reviewed by Reuters. In November 2005, Proenca became the defence minister and in early 2006 Semlex won contracts to supply the country with passports, visas, ID cards and foreign resident cards. Semlex documents revealed that Proenca was paid at least 80,000 euros between 2004 and 2009.

Proenca was assassinated in 2009, but in 2010, Semlex employees, including Karaziwan, discussed what percentage of revenue they would have to pay former and current Guinea Bissau officials to secure a further contract to provide the country with passports and identification cards for foreigners. A proposal was made to pay a commission of 20% of the price of a passport and 15% of the revenue that Semlex received for residence permits issued to foreigners. Karaziwan was asked to sign off on the offer on 24 January 2011 and the next day he replied, “You can confirm it.”

In Guinea Bissau, Helder Tavares Proenca was listed as a Semlex agent in the country, according to Semlex documents reviewed by Reuters. In November 2005, Proenca became the defence minister and in early 2006 Semlex won contracts to supply the country with passports, visas, ID cards and foreign resident cards. Semlex documents revealed that Proenca was paid at least 80,000 euros between 2004 and 2009.

However, the Guinea Bissau government says that Semlex did not win a further contract but other Semlex emails show staff describing certain payments as bribes. In November of 2010, Michele Bauters, the Semlex finance manager, requested an employee to detail how he had spent close to $80,000 euros provided for operations in Africa, to which he plainly replied that it had gone towards rent and utility bills while 10,000 euros had gone towards “pot de vin” (the French term for bribes). When asked about what had happened to half of the $10,000, he responded that it had gone to pay “a bribe that Albert Karaziwan made me pay recently”.

In Madagascar, there is evidence of Semlex benefitting disproportionately in comparison to the state in a deal that the two entities signed. Semlex extended an existing contract to provide passports to Madagascar in 2013, and more than doubled the amount charged. In the deal, citizens would pay 36.25 euros for a passport. Of this amount, 33.75 euros would go to Semlex, leaving the Madagascan state with only 2.5 euros for every passport issued. Previously, Semlex only received 15.50 euros for every passport issued. And not that producing these passports is restrictively expensive. An invoice from Imprimerie National, a French printing firm that provided Semlex with blank passports prior to Semlex setting up their own printing facilities in Lithuania, showed that Semlex paid between 1.75 and 2 euros per document for projects in Madagascar, Gabon and Comoros between 2007 and 2008.

Semlex appears again in Gambia in a much bigger way than the two instances mentioned above. While the country was ruled by the now deposed dictator Yahya Jammeh, an opaque deal was signed with Semlex to manage the provision of identity documents to Gambia. Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, seems to be pursuing widespread reformative policies, such as removing restrictions on free speech. However, leaked data, including contracts, emails and international correspondence from company and government insiders, have revealed that the new government is seeking to renew the contract with Semlex to provide identity documents to the country. The former interior minister under Jammeh, Ousman Sonko, had signed a 5-year contract with Semlex in June 2015 to provide biometric ID cards and border control systems for Gambia. Semlex would retain 70% of the profits from this deal with the rest going to the government. Overall the company was estimated to make $67 million over the course of the 5 years.

The deal was met with protests from several civil society organisations that believed that the contract would allow Semlex to gain control over the identities of Gambia’s citizens. According to critics of the said contract, its flaws touch a wide range of areas. For instance, a signed version of the contract obtained by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) does not mention any form of government oversight. The contract prohibits government interference with any third parties that Semlex or its partners select to carry out the work and allows the firm to repatriate profits anywhere without limits on the timeframe or the amount. The contract further places no restrictions on Semlex’s role in collecting, storing, using or safeguarding citizens’ private data. It also does not spell out who is responsible for oversight or handling of identity cards and passports. It is not clear on who is considered a non-citizen or alien. Finally, the contract also stipulates that the deal will not be affected by any institutional changes: “The validity and continuity of this contact shall not be affected by any institutional change within Gambia.” This is almost like the contract signed by Semlex and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As a response to this backlash, the national assembly launched an inquiry into the arrangement, while the government issued a press release stating that while the Semlex contract would remain in place, it was under review.

Since the contract was signed in 2016, it has remained largely unimplemented. A local company called Pristine had been provided, without bids, two contracts from 2009 to 2020 to produce identification documents for the country and has continued to provide the documents. The owners of Pristine have told reporters that if they lose the contract to the more politically connected Semlex, they would be in a lot of debt, as the family that owns it has invested $4.3 million for the work required for the provision of the documents.

Jammeh, Gambia’s former ruler, confused matters further when he gave the firms Zetex (another Belgain company) and its local partner Africard the same deal that he had given Semlex. There has been no evidence that any work has been undertaken by these two companies.

In January 2017, Semlex was also granted a contract to provide voter cards to Gambia. This was again carried out with no apparent government oversight and critics of the contract fear that it might use its power over the voter cards to influence elections, as the company is dependent on the success of the regime for its own personal success.

The original Semlex deal in Gambia was orchestrated by Laurent Lamothe, the former Prime Minister of Haiti and the director of Global Voice Group, a US-based communications company. Lamothe began working with Semlex in early 2007. The two companies drafted contracts and agreed to create a local venture known as Semlex Gambia and a company named Biometric International Group to be run by Lamothe. According to one version of the contract, Biometric International would earn 20% of the joint venture revenues, which would be paid out as bonuses, though who the benefactor/s of these bonuses are remains unclear. In July of 2007, they sent an email with a formal submission to the Gambian government, though it is unclear whether Biometric International was involved at the time. In addition, no deal seems to have been finalised at the time.

In 2016, Jammeh’s office instructed that the deal with Semlex be cancelled in favour of a contract with Zetex and Africard. This led to conflicting claims over which company had the rights to the contract. It then emerged that none of the three companies – Semlex, Pristine or Zetex – had ever been subjected to Gambia’s public procurement process. The office of the president in Gambia is allowed to “exempt any procuring organisation from requiring the approval of the Authority with respect to any procurement in whole or part”. Such exemptions are legally required to be published in the official Gazette. The government, however, seems to be siding with Semlex. As mentioned above, it maintains that Semlex’s contract is valid though its terms require re-evaluation. Critics fear the re-evaluation of the contract will not be effective as the national assembly is only allocated 10 days to investigate and review the contract.

How do Semlex, Karaziwan and his consortium of associates manage to secure these deals up and down the African continent? An important player in helping them secure these connections is Zina Wazouna Ahmed Idriss (referred to as “Madame Idriss” in Semlex emails). She is an ex-wife or President Idriss Deby of Chad. An email written by the Semlex finance manager, as well as sources with knowledge of Semlex’s operations, described her role as acting as an intermediary to help Semlex win new business in Africa.

In 2007 and 2008, Semlex secured two deals worth $21 million euros to produce passports, visas and ID cards for Gabon. From 2008 to 2010, Madame Idriss received payments totalling 1.6 million euros from Semlex, according to a Semlex spreadsheet of costs related to her. The invoices described the payments as commissions for helping land business in Gabon. The payments were made in various forms, including money for hotels, ski lessons, dresses, flights, credit card payments and cash, according to a Semlex spreadsheet from 2011. Payments totaling 565,561 euros went towards a house that Madame Idriss became the owner of in the upmarket district of Waterloo in Brussels. The payment was listed as “Maison Waterloo”. An additional 9,000 euros went towards rent for an apartment in Monaco. Madame Idriss was nominated by the Comoros foreign ministry as an honorary consul of the Comoros to Monaco in July 2010, according to Comoros foreign ministry documents.

How do Semlex, Karaziwan and his consortium of associates manage to secure these deals up and down the African continent? An important player in helping them secure these connections is Zina Wazouna Ahmed Idriss (referred to as “Madame Idriss” in Semlex emails). She is an ex-wife or President Idriss Deby of Chad. An email written by the Semlex finance manager, as well as sources with knowledge of Semlex’s operations, described her role as acting as an intermediary to help Semlex win new business in Africa.

***

In May 2018, Comoros officials in Brussels raided the headquarters of Semlex following the Reuters report on the company’ dealings in the DRC. Francis Koning, a lawyer who represents Karaziwan and Semlex, claimed that unidentified third parties were manipulating Reuters with the aim of damaging the reputation of Karaziwan and his company. He said, “Semlex Europe has no role in the decision to issue passports. This is the sole prerogative of the Comoros authorities who are the only authorised representatives to do so.” He then added that Semlex “is neither responsible nor to blame for the actions or acts” that are alleged in the Comoros parliamentary report on the sale of passports, “supposing they even took place”.

This report has been compiled from a series of investigations carried out and published by Reuters.

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Tama Mule is an editorial intern at The Elephant and an undergraduate at McGill University.

Politics

The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?

The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher.

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The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?
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It has been more than two weeks since former Vice President Joe Biden was able to scrap and claw his way to a damaged and awkwardly narrow victory over Donald J. Trump. Despite the margins becoming clearer, the win is still ringing out hollow and empty as Trump muddies the US presidential election with claims of electoral fraud.

Biden has repeatedly come out and called for calm and reconciliation – principles of the Democratic Party that almost seem laughably archaic when viewed through the lens of Trumpism. In the bare-knuckle brawl that is modern American politics, the Democratic Party seems to have shown up wearing woolen mittens, not wanting to draw any blood from its opponent.

And what an opponent the Republican Party has proved to be! Despite everything, it managed to seemingly hold the Senate (pending crucial run-off elections in Georgia in January of 2021) and actually decreased the Democratic lead in the US House of Representatives. The big prize – the White House –  was won (due to our strangely outdated system) by a factor of 200,000 votes in four key states (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada). It was entirely within the realm of possibility that Trump would have won the electoral college and massively lost the popular vote yet again – a black mark against the strategy of the Democratic Party.

So the lingering question in the air remains: what now? For something so “certain”, a great many things seem to be up for debate. Many political insiders are wringing their hands on network TV channels over whether Trump will leave the White House at all, but this may be overblown. Unless there’s an outright electoral college coup when the electors meet to vote in mid-December of this year, Trump doesn’t’ really have much of a choice.  It looks as though he’ll have to retreat into a gilded cage of media-driven anger and of riling up supporters, never truly conceding that he lost, the bitterness clanging back and forth in his head beneath a sweaty mop of hair plugs and spray tan.

If the coronavirus response can be nothing else than a sort of a political bellwether, then this outcome is objectively the best. The response has been nothing short of a day-by-day horror show, the bar being drenched in petrol, set alight and then thrown rudely from a cliff.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics, all playing out on the whims of a petulant moron who can’t accept his own shortcomings and instead will sit on his tiny thumbs.

As has been said before, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was destroyed in a much shorter timeline. The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher. Moratoriums and stop gaps are expiring or have long since run their stimulus bill-guided course. All too many could be kicked out of their houses in short order. Businesses that relied on economic assistance during this bizarre period have already begun to close permanently. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of all non-chain restaurants may never reopen their doors.

The coming harsh winter 

It seems far-fetched to many that any kind of brutal humanitarian crisis could ever play out in a country that is so excellent in marketing itself as the greatest nation on earth. However, many of those who believe that Americans cannot possibly experience suffering haven’t experienced the brutality of an American winter. It is hard to describe just how rough this four-month period can be for people during normal times. The temperature can fall to minus 10 degrees Celsius and remain there for two months. There can be 30 centimetres of snow in a single a night. Brutal ice storms entrench cars and encase entire buildings. All that happens during periods of normality, but this is far from normal and now global warming has made the weather patterns all the more strange and beyond accurate forecasting.

Without the benefit of foresight, the unfortunate equivalent of this coming winter seems to be that of 1932-1933. During this period, the Great Depression was in full swing, and an American President who had denied the extent of the economic damage had just been resoundingly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover sat on his hands until the change of power, which led to untold deaths and poverty across the country.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics…

Trump just lost the election by the widest by an incumbent since that same election of 1932. Did he lose it by a frightfully small margin? Absolutely, but if any tea leaves can be read, had the election taken place in March 2021 instead of November 2020, he may have been electorally obliterated beyond recognition.

There is an essence of tragedy in America during this time – to have had all the power to do everything and all the misguided cheap instincts to do absolutely nothing. Both parties to date have sat back and have seemingly done nothing but bitch and snipe at one another since May of this year. Meanwhile, an entire generation has been doomed to a sort Sisyphus-style financial purgatory. As has happened in innumerable societies before it, within America, a reckoning could already be well on its way – much to the utter surprise of baby-boomer generational elites who have been calling for normalcy while padding up their retirement portfolios.

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram. The last several months have been a sort of rapids for them to negotiate, bouncing around corporations downsizing, fighting their way through unemployment websites that crash with regularity, racking up credit card debt to eat, then protesting for their future on weekends.

It is only so far that people can be pushed to survive. This is all without mentioning the spark to this tinder – the coronavirus pandemic itself, one that it burning out of control to an almost unfathomable degree, a continuous upwards tsunami that has never crested, and now looks to crash forth in perpetuity for the foreseeable future as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. By mid-December, the absolute true extent of the crash will become apparent (as COVID-19 cases often take around two weeks to truly surface).

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram.

The medical system is already running well beyond the point of exhaustion that they ever thought to be possible. Many people, including the current administration, currently just isn’t listening. With a state of political deadlock seemingly certain, the safe bet would be to throw your money on nothing at all happening, and for such horrors to simply continue as they have. Despite the recent developments of two vaccines being rolled out, the question remains how they will be administered and distributed.

Meanwhile, Trump and his ilk have not acknowledged the incoming Biden administration, let alone started the transition process. In the last two weeks, every possible media talking head on the cable news left is screaming and hollering about norms and then turning around and being polite to complicit officials. The real human tragedies do not get mentioned: the bank accounts wiped out, the families shattered, the debts accrued, the suicides committed. It is a tired, bullshit charade that is now reaching the tentacles deeper into the lives of American homes by a rate of nearly 200,000 new COVID cases everyday.

As of November 17th, 2020, the total number of COVID cases in the US stood at over 11 million. The lines on the graph are essentially vertical and all people are burnt out on this weirdness. What the breaking point will be I cannot predict, but there certainly is no leadership or directive to correct it. Could the pandemic kill a million Americans by next April? That may be a stretch, but at the moment all things seem possible. Could more than a million people die as a direct or indirect result of the botched COVID-19 response and bungled economic assistance?

Take, for example, the incomplete patchwork facing Americans staring down the barrel of eviction notices; some will get respite, many, if not most, will not. Where will they go? Into crowded homes of distant family members or shelters with a multitude of strangers? Will they turn to robbing grocery stores? Will they languish and freeze in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburgh? Could there be an ugly wave of suicides, private deaths of lives that no one bothered to check in on?  Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

At least twenty million or more ugly little tales will play out this winter. These will not be necessarily deaths from COVID, but of families cast out into mourning and entire trajectories of lives forever altered. There is no rescuing many, and they’ll remain down in the cracks of society.

Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

In random states that are flown over and exploited for votes (places like my home state of Wisconsin), such situations are already in a full-blown tailspin. Despite Wisconsin only having a population of around five million, it has numbered in the top 10 states for new COVID cases for several consecutive weeks. This was already occurring when Trump held a large campaign rally on October 30th in the city of Green Bay just ahead of election day. It is that action of callously adding fuel to the fire that has raised eyebrows the highest. It is one thing to largely ignore a crisis, as the current government has done, it is another altogether to actively help the situation to deteriorate in states without large-scale public health capabilities. Make no mistake, this period will be referred to in textbooks as the “The Dark American Winter”. The only question is just how bleak it will become before the spring.

While many in the West are looking at the current state of the US teetering and gasping with shock and horror, most in East Africa simply shrug, knowing they are one bad leader away from reaching the same precipice. Maybe next time the US will listen. But holding one’s breath is not recommended.

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Why BBI Will Not Promote Peace or Prevent Violence

The BBI report is not a document for building durable peace in Kenya because it ignores the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges, and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution.

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Why BBI Will Not Promote Peace or Prevent Violence
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President Uhuru Kenyatta has touted the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report as the panacea for peace that will end political and/or election-related violence in Kenya. Mr. Kenyatta has not given Kenyans his definition or understanding of peace, but his lines of argument affirm his minimalist understanding of peace or what peace studies (PS) call negative peace. Students of peace studies caricature this concept of peace as akin to peace between the proverbial happy slave and the slave master.

Overall, Mr. Kenyatta’s arguments on peace and political violence in Kenya are based on flawed premises, among them a very naïve essentialist view of ethnicity, and a tunnel vision of Kenya’s social divides. But that is a topic for another day. Rather, this commentary aims to assess whether BBI is a panacea for peace and whether it can prevent political and/or election-related violence in the future. I will comment on the BBI process and analyse who perpetrated the past political violence and why, and then evaluate BBI’s response to that political violence. The article will end with a comment on an observed and horrifying pattern of current events that negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.

Exclusive process

A core dictum in peace studies, which originates from Mahatma Gandhi’s moral philosophy, is the unity of processes and ends. The dictum posits that the process that is used to engender social change should be consistent with the goal. This means that if the end goal is inclusion, then the process for attaining this goal should be inclusive because an exclusive process cannot attain inclusion.

The BBI process fails this test because it started as an exclusive and opaque process driven by two men, President Kenyatta and Mr. Raila Odinga. For example, out of the 14 members and 2 co-chairpersons who comprised the BBI task force, 9 were political affiliates of either Kenyatta or Odinga. Therefore, one can infer that the process was heavily skewed towards the interests of the two men and all the public hearings were just a ploy to rubber-stamp a predetermined outcome. We can discern this predetermined outcome from the BBI report’s proposals on past political violence.

Sections on political violence

While the BBI report’s proponents tout it as the solution to past political and election-related violence, neither the 2020 edition nor the 2019 draft mentions or analyses the causes of that violence. However, there are three sections that relate to the issue: i) The section on Ethnic Antagonism and Competition (pages 4-5); ii) the section on Divisive Elections (pages 9-12); and iii) the section on Kenya National Guide on Combating Impunity (pages 43-45) in Annex A. However, the latter section deals with disobedience of the law and court orders by senior civil servants and rich Kenyans; it does not address the nexus between impunity and political violence. Therefore, I will assess the other two sections.

The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.

Further, the report mentions divisive elections, but the section is baffling because it provides a very simplistic, almost sophomoric, comment on past elections in just two paragraphs on pages 9 and 10. It then blames “foreign models” adopted from “the democratic West” for engendering what it terms “Us versus Them” election competition, with “Us” and “Them” being based on ethnicity. It adds that “lack of inclusivity” is the “leading contributor to divisive and conflict-causing elections”, and claims that Kenyans associate “the winner-takes-all system with divisive elections”.

The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.

From these cursory assertions, the section recommends the expansion of the Executive branch to comprise a president, a deputy president, a prime minister, and two deputy prime ministers as the solution. Supposedly, an expanded executive will be “more inclusive” and will not “generate the same bitterness and tensions as we see when the fight is for the position of the President”. The surprising aspect is its reference to “the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government” as the standard.

The other paragraphs of the section on pages 10 and 12 do not deal with political violence. Rather, they deal with parliamentary representation and the introduction of Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP).

Reading these two sections is really perplexing. Who perpetrated the past political violence in 1992/93, 1997/98, and 2007/2008, and why? Did peasants die in the Rift Valley in 1992/93 and 1997/98 because the country had no prime minister? Did the rural subaltern wake up one day and attack each other because they were ethnically different? Did the rural and urban subalterns die in 2007/2008 because of the winner-take-all system?

Analytical approach

This article applies a peace studies framework to understanding how the form of violence that occurred in Kenya in the 1990s and 2007/2008 is organised. The framework postulates that the social construction of political violence is a discursive process that is based on five pillars. First, violence organisers discursively construct boundaries of exclusion using pre-existing markers such as ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, or religious identities. Second, they rally the common identity within the exclusion boundary around imminent “threats” or “dangers”. That is, they articulate threats and victimhood narratives within the constructed boundaries. Third, they target those outside the constructed boundary as the “threats” and the “enemy-other”, and they demonise and dehumanise them. Fourth, they discursively renegotiate norms of violence. And fifth, they suppress counter-hegemonic and anti-violence voices.

This social construction of violence requires moments of social uncertainty, especially political and economic crises.  Using this framework, the pattern of violence in the 1990s was pretty straightforward.

Moments of uncertainty 

Over the years during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, Kenya became a full-blown autocracy where the party, government, and civil service essentially fused into a single hierarchical structure of power under the personal control of the president. The system was opaque and centralised around the personality of the president. As a result, political practice revolved around personalities and one-on-one closed-door dealings, instead of a predictable public stand on policy issues and coherent ideological positions. The system was a spiral pyramid of patron-client relations, with the president at the apex as the chief patron. Below the president were his clients at the provincial and district levels, who functioned as patrons in the regions.

The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty. Some scholars have referred to this style of controlling a country as retail politics.

The system was reinforced by political intimidation and instruments of repression, including detention laws and political assassinations. Therefore, those who articulated and pursued alternative forms of organisation, especially social class mobilisation, were either intimidated, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, detained without trial, or assassinated.

When the struggle for multiparty democracy intensified in 1990/91, the Moi regime turned to these oppressive methods. Thus, the police violently repressed public protests in Nairobi and its environs, killing at least 50 young men. Some democracy proponents were detained, others run away into exile, and publications supporting pluralism were banned.

The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty.

However, the demand for democracy coincided with two factors. First, worsening economic performance and, thus, a decline in revenue and resources for buying loyalty. Second, a greater international concern over human rights violations, which limited the use of formal repression. The resultant political and economic crises created a moment of social uncertainty that shook the Moi regime. In turn, the regime changed its strategies for the looting of the state and enforcing informal forms of repression.

Organised political violence

The central plank of informal repression was unleashing “ethnic” militias and gangs on the innocent civilian population. At first, a group of senior government ministers and KANU politicians would hold a series of public rallies in certain geographical locations, especially in the Rift Valley. The dominant message in these rallies would be hate narratives centred on nativist thinking and autochthonous notions of identity. The narratives would disparage national citizenship and its accompanying rights and instead divide the population into two groups: natives (indigenous or locals) and guests (settlers, immigrants or outsiders). Framing the latter as threats, they would demonise and dehumanise the “guests” as the “enemy-others”. Then they would threaten violence against them. To suppress anti-violence voices, they would label natives who rejected such violence as “ethnic traitors”.

Subsequently, armed militias would attack the innocent civilian population. In some instances, the militias would be dressed in “traditional clothes” and would be carrying “traditional weapons” to disguise the killings as ethnic. Thereafter, government officials, the police, and the pliant media would portray the killings as spontaneous “ethnic clashes” or “land clashes”.

To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims. A few days later, an opposition politician or activist would be arrested. This was the pattern in the 1992/93 and the 1997/98 violence.

Therefore, Uhuru Kenyatta and his BBI brigade are dead wrong. The 1990s violence was not ethnic or “tribal”; it was not about ethnicity or cultural or linguistic differences. Rather, it was politically organised and the villains were senior politicians and bureaucrats in the Moi regime. Incidentally, the chairman of the BBI process, Mr. Mohamed Yusuf Haji, was the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner at the time, while another BBI member, Mr. Amos Wako, was the Attorney-General. Further, the impunity enjoyed by the implicated politicians partly contributed to the violence of 2007/08.

Actually, studies on the 2007/08 violence have noted that President Mwai Kibaki’s biggest failure was his inability to dismantle the structures of informal violence, and their supporting discursive practices, which emerged in the 1990s. Instead, these structures of extra-state violence diffused during the NARC era such that by 2007, politicians were patronising and funding urban gangs that had emerged as a result of autonomous processes of urbanisation, unemployment, and the vacuum of control in urban areas. A key consequence of this impunity was the erosion of confidence and trust in state institutions, especially security and electoral institutions. It is this mistrust that predisposed politicians and their supporters to view elections as a do-or-die zero-sum game.

To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims.

In other words, the 2007 election turned disastrous due to the convergence of several factors. Among these was President Kibaki’s failure to address impunity and the discursive practices of the 1990s. Another factor was the intensification of ethnic mobilisation and the generation of new hate narratives by all political formations.

Studies show that vernacular FM radio stations were some of the main propagators of the hate campaigns. For example, a Rift Valley-based vernacular FM station aired materials of a xenophobic nature against the Kikuyu, while FM stations from Central Kenya promoted a siege mentality and disparaged members of the Luo and Kalenjin communities. Studies have also documented some Central Kenya FM radio stations framing one presidential candidate as a murderer and a latter-day Idi Amin Dada.

In essence, therefore, the so-called “tribal violence” and “tribal divisions” are not a reflection of conflicts between distinct and well-organised cultural communities. Rather, they are outcomes of deliberately organised political violence. Indeed, there are reliable reports that have recommendations on these issues, including the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report, the Waki report, and the Kriegler report. Similarly, the 2010 Constitution established several independent institutions to address these issues. It’s quite revealing that Mr. Kenyatta chose the BBI instead of implementing these reports or strengthening the existing independent institutions, including the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC).

Not a peace document

Even though its proponents have hailed the BBI report as being the pathway to peace, it is evident that there is no linkage between the report’s recommendations and the quest for peace and an end to political violence in Kenya. The section on divisive elections proposes an expanded executive and cites the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government as the reference point. Yet that model was extremely shaky and the prime minister was always complaining.

However, this proposal is horrifying for more fundamental reasons. First, it does not address state-orchestrated violence and impunity that have been the bane of Kenya’s politics since 1990.

Second, nothing in the proposals nor the entire BBI report would stop the losing candidates from perpetrating violence.

Third, the report assumes good faith on the part of the appointing authority and presumes that the president, deputy president, prime minister, and deputy prime ministers will come from different ethnic groups. But good faith cannot be legislated, as President Kenyatta has demonstrated through his multiple actions and omissions that have violated the 2010 Constitution, and his contemptuous disregard of the current Deputy President, William Ruto, since 2018.

Fourth, the proposed expansion of the Executive is perilous as it will validate and reify ethnic boundaries because ethnicity is the assumed basis for allocating the added executive positions. A key lesson from the 2008-2013 era is that the key players in the coalition government became the chief proponents of ethnic mobilisation, hate speech, and impunity in both the 2013 and 2017 elections.

Fifth, the proposal to appoint ANY of the MPs from the majority party or coalition of parties to be prime minister and any other persons as deputy prime ministers is a recipe for factional fighting because it undermines the authority of political parties to choose their own representatives.

Sixth, the proposed structure will perpetuate the current patron-client system and codify the president’s ability to entrench patrimonial and clientilist rule. Indeed, it echoes the late Mobutu Sese Seko’s strategy in Zaire of co-opting would-be opponents, letting them feed at the state trough, rotating them in and out of office, and encouraging them to become wealthy through corruption to neutralise them. But as the collapse of Mobutu’s Zaire shows, such a strategy does not foster durable peace.

The section on ethnic antagonism and competition proposes the inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum. But it is baffling how this will stop impunity, top-down political tribalism, or stop the clients of a president from perpetrating violence when it suits them.

Also, the section recommends criminalisation of hate speech and of the use of violence before and after elections. This is equally bizarre because both hate speech and the use of violence during elections are already criminal under current laws. However, hate speech and threats of violence remain rampant in the country primarily due to impunity and selective application of the law.  Indeed, there is a horrifying pattern of political practice that outrightly negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.

Current observations

Keen observation of current events shows that President Uhuru Kenyatta is using the 1990s playbook. His handshake rapprochement with Raila Odinga split his Jubilee Party into two wings. Since then, his Jubilee wing has been consistently articulating threats and narratives of victimhood. They are always demonising and dehumanising the targeted “enemy-other”. They are subtly and discursively renegotiating the norms of violence, and they are blatant in their attempts to suppress alternative voices.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year. One can infer that the failure of the police and the NCIC to hold any of them to account is a dead giveaway.

Meanwhile, the president is always lecturing Kenyans about peace, praising the handshake as a precursor to peace, and accusing others of threatening peace. Four examples centred on Kenyatta and the interior ministry will illustrate these observations.

Example 1 

On 29 October 2020, The Standard and The Star quoted Kenyatta’s self-styled adviser and Jubilee Vice Chairman, David Murathe, criticising the Deputy President, William Ruto. Referring to Ruto as an “outsider” in the Mt Kenya region, he accused the deputy president of radicalising the youth in the region using the rich-poor narrative and compared the narrative to the re-invention of the outlawed Mungiki sect. Murathe’s argumentation strategy was not just articulating threats and victimhood and demonising Ruto and those who support him; he was subtly raising and justifying the spectre of state violence against the deputy president’s supporters the way previous administrations dealt with Mungiki adherents.

Example 2

On 21 October 2020, the Daily Nation quoted Uhuru Kenyatta rebuking the Abagusii people for not protecting their “son”, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i,  from insults by “outsiders”. His argumentation strategy was in reality articulating four things. First, he was constructing a boundary of exclusion around ethnic identity by classifying the population into “locals” and “outsiders”. Second, he was articulating a victimhood narrative that was portraying Matiang’I, and to an extent the “locals”, as victims of those he was demonising as “outsiders”. Third, he was privileging ethnic identity and diminishing national identity. And fourth, he was renegotiating the norms of violence so that the “locals” would use “defence of their son” as their justification if violence erupted.

Example 3 

On 13 October 2020, the media quoted Fred Matiang’i speaking in Nyamira, which he called his “home”. In his speech, he admonished “outsiders”.  While his remarks were directed at Deputy President William Ruto, he, in essence, sought to emphasise the Kisii ethnic identity over Kenyan national identity, erect a boundary of exclusion around the ethnic identity, and portray “locals” who supported those he was calling “outsiders” as ethnic traitors.

Example 4

On 4 October 2020, a group of hired youth attempted to violently disrupt a church function graced by the deputy president at Kenol in Murang’a. Instead of arresting the youth, the police violently dispersed the locals and fired tear gas canisters at innocent civilians in the church. The few violent youths whom the local people arrested confessed in front of cameras that they had been hired by well-known Kieleweke politicians from Murang’a. Further, the organisers of the event publicly claimed that some bureaucrats from the Office of the President financed the perpetrators.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year.

While the media framed the violence as a “clash between two rival groups” to create the impression of spontaneity, the police initially blamed two MPs who are not favoured by the regime. A few days later, the National Security Advisory Council (NSAC), comprising the same bureaucrats who had been mentioned as the financiers of the violence, lectured Kenyans about the government’s commitment to peace and security. The NSAC then blamed the deputy president’s political wing and revived the discarded Public Order Act to curtail his activities.

Subsequently, the police blamed politicians from “both sides”, but they never explained why no one was arrested or why the NCIC had not acted. Incidentally, a careful reading of Article 7 (1) (a) of the Rome Statute shows that the violence in Murang’a had all the elements of what would qualify as a crime against humanity.

Conclusion

The BBI report is not a document for ending political and/or election-related violence or building durable peace in Kenya. The relevant sections ignore the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution. Therefore, the only inference that one can draw is that the purpose of the BBI process is to recommend the expansion of the Executive.

Moreover, there is a pattern that shows that the president and his acolytes have borrowed from the 1990s playbook on politically-instigated violence. But they would do well to remember that the widespread use of informal violence, massacres, new wars, and genocides in the 1990s led to the development of international norms, standards, and instruments to deal with these challenges. These norms and standards include those codified in the Rome Statute, whose institutional representation is the International Criminal Court (ICC).  Therefore, under the command responsibility principle, the president, senior officials in the interior ministry and state security forces can be held to account for crimes under international law that could result from their court jesters’ hate-mongering and informal violence mobilisation.

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Making Sense of #FakeNews and #CovidBillionaires

Given the allegations of COVID-related graft in Kenya, it is not surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in their government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and that some believe that the government is paying for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for COVID funds.

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Making Sense of #fakenews and #covidbillionaires
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As parts of the world begin to deal with a second wave of COVID-19 infections, it has become apparent that it is not just the virus that is not going away, but related outbreaks of “fake news” and allegations of fraudulent activity have also persisted.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” lamented Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), back in February. He suggested that the parallel outbreak of misinformation “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”.  Since then, all manner of dubious stories about coronavirus have been circulating around the world, along with fake cures, fake testing kits, imitation drugs and rising reports of COVID-related fraudulent actions, from scams and price inflations to bogus companies and accusations of fraud along transnational chains of medical suppliers and subcontractors.

Fakes, forgeries and fraud are certainly not new phenomena, and nor are they limited to the current pandemic. Fake news exists in a wider ecosystem of disinformation (deliberately intended to deceive), misinformation (false information that is mistakenly circulated), clickbait and propaganda. Though so old that it predates the printing press, fake news has been of rising concern in the era of social media and since Donald Trump popularised the term by using it as a criticism of any reporting he didn’t like.

As the 2020 pandemic escalated, powerful organisations, such as WHO and Interpol reported an increase in fake news and fake medical products. Though the corruption monitoring organisation Transparency International has noted the increased likelihood of fraud in the wake of the huge influx of COVID-19 donor funds, this is arguably a continuity and extension of the last three decades of rising economic trickery and fraud during the neoliberal period.

Along with other researchers, our work has shown how, rather than reducing economic malfeasance and increasing efficiency, the years of economic deregulation, privatisation and marketisation that underlie neoliberalism have actually seen an increase in instances of fraud and fakery, rather than the reverse. Observers have also noted that the prevalence of fake news has increased alongside rising socio-economic inequality generated by neoliberalism, and the forms of political populism that it has sparked. Notably, this “age of fraud” has seen an accompanying emphasis on transparency, accountability and proliferating anti-fraud measures that, far from helping, may have further contributed to the fraud pandemic.

Nevertheless, coronavirus allows us to consider these long-standing concerns in new ways. In particular, as we sift through the growing pile of allegations and counter-allegations about COVID fakes, fraudsters and liars, we are interested in how COVID-related fake news might help to shed light on what anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith has called “cultures of corruption”. That is, how debates about corruption, fraud and fakes can have different meanings and effects in different socio-political contexts around the globe and what the root causes might be. Whilst recognising COVID-related fraud as a global phenomenon, including in the countries we come from and live in (Germany and the UK), here we examine cases from Kenya, where one of us has recently conducted research on “fake buildings” and other “fake debates”. We start with two stories that went viral on Kenyan social media earlier this year.

Brenda and Benson 

In April, Brenda Cherotich was trending on Twitter. She was considered to be COVID-19 Patient One in Kenya, having flown back from the United States via London. After three weeks of isolation and recuperation, she was medically deemed to have recovered.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”. Despite vigorous official denials, numerous stories circulated that Brenda appeared in the media as a government PR exercise, that she was an actress and not a real COVID patient, that she’d been paid by the government to share her fake case to enable Kenya to access newly available donor funds for fighting the coronavirus.

In June, a new Twitter storm broke around Benson Musungu, the National Youth Coordinator for the opposition party ODM. He tweeted from hospital to say that he had been receiving treatment for COVID-19, and had been admitted to the ICU. Musungu was widely lampooned, and his illness dismissed as fake news. He was rumoured to have received a large pay-out (some said from the opposition, some said from the government) to “go public” about his case in order to persuade Kenyans of the dangers of COVID-19, allegations which he strenuously denied.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”.

How to make sense of these two cases? Firstly, they suggest that some Kenyans remain sceptical about the genuineness and gravity of the novel coronavirus, to the extent that the government would pay people to convince the public of its reality. That COVID-19 is a “fake” disease is one of the recurring themes of the fake news “infodemic” that has proliferated alongside the global fight against the virus.

During discussions with Nairobi residents in recent months, it has emerged that there remain at least some Kenyans who are convinced that COVID is either a fake disease or hugely inflated as an issue by the government (or related authorities), a situation also reported by the BBC. And indeed it does seem that, as yet, coronavirus in Kenya has not reached the severity that many predicted back in March. This makes it a little easier to understand why some people could believe that Brenda and Benson were fake patients or government stooges. If Brenda and Benson were really paid to promote a government message about coronavirus, then they would not be the only ones: it emerged in August that the UK government, for example, was paying reality TV stars and social media influencers to endorse its public health campaigns. But beyond this, what are the circumstances that would make these stories believable enough to gain traction with a sizeable section of the Kenyan public?

One reason fake news goes viral is when it seems to offer people an explanation, particularly in times of uncertainty or anxiety. The most effective stories are not completely fictitious but are grounded in the possible: they perhaps spin off from a widely accepted narrative or recent mainstream news story. In other words, they make sense to these readers in a given context. In Kenya, as elsewhere, that context is a considerable lack of public trust in the motives and actions of state institutions.

One recurring theme of the Twitter storm around Brenda and Benson was that many commenters made a link between the phenomena of fake news and alleged government dishonesty and corruption. The stories accuse the government of not only peddling fake news, but also of mishandling official funds. And yet, the denials in turn also dismissed the stories as fake news, rebuffed by the individuals involved as well as government officials.

As each side accuses the other, do we just declare an impasse? Or is there something to glean here about the particular character of popular critique in Kenya, and the interpretations of financial management and public politics that allow such narratives to take root? We suggest that by looking at the claims of COVID-related fakery, fraud and corruption and the context from which they emerge, we can go beyond the utilitarian guidelines of international anti-fraud institutions and anti-fake news initiatives, whose statements tend to revert to simplistic binaries of truth/lies, genuine/fake, accountable/corrupt. Exhortations from agencies like the United Nations to “take care before you share’” do little to get to the root of why certain (mis)information goes viral and how it is embedded in particular moral and political-economic landscapes. Instead, we suggest, we should look to how such stories seek to challenge moral and political authority, revealing deeper anxieties about absence of trust, the conduct of the powerful, personal gain and what forms of misconduct a global pandemic might facilitate.

The economy of a pandemic

Since April, Kenya has been the recipient of huge sums in loans and grants from various international agencies to address the socio-economic as well as health impacts of COVID-19. This included $739 million credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), $50 million from the World Bank, a total of $162 million from the European Union (EU), as well as further disbursements from WHO. As this money flooded in, there had been growing allegations from the media and civil society organisations about procurement mismanagement, unqualified companies winning tenders, and inflated costs of COVID-related goods and services.

Meanwhile, some Kenyans have claimed they are not seeing the benefits of these funds and that there is little to be seen on the ground. In late August, Nairobi’s Uhuru Park was the location of two demonstrations. The first marked the start of a Kenyan doctors’ strike over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), non-payment of salaries and substandard working conditions in public hospitals that unions said were putting doctors at risk of contracting COVID-19. (There has been a flow of substandard PPE and fake equipment in Kenya, some of which carry dubious safety marks or have been through mismanaged quality control procedures.)

The second protest was mobilised online around the hashtag #arrestcovid19thieves to protest what the organisers claimed was massive corruption and misappropriation of coronavirus funds in Kenya. “We are tired of an endless stream of news detailing how much money is being lost in the emergency response efforts. This money could be used in a better way to fight the pandemic,” said organiser Wanjeri Nderu.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration. By September, there were state investigations ongoing into the “KEMSA scandal”, with updates about the allegations and investigations into COVID-corruption becoming almost daily news.

Kenya is not unique in this. The UN has acknowledged that we are likely to see an increase in fraud and mismanagement in 2020, particularly because donors and governments have “relaxed safeguards by trading compliance, oversight and accountability for speed of response and achievement of rapid impact, thus leading to the creation of significant opportunities for corruption to thrive”. This seems to have occurred in the UK, where the Good Law Project has initiated proceedings alleging breaches to procurement law, which the government defends as emergency response.

Globally, WHO and Interpol have also reported a growing volume of fake treatments: uncertainty about the new virus and how it spreads, as well as lack of access to healthcare, has made people susceptible to supposed “cures” for coronavirus. False remedies that have been circulating in Kenya range from the relatively benign, such as boiling onions with lemon, to the more risky, including a range of herbal treatments, to the downright lethal.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration.

The rumour that drinking bleach protects against infection has gathered strength worldwide. In Uganda, an American pastor distributed a “miracle drink” containing industrial bleach to 50,000 Ugandans, while in the US, Donald Trump has disturbingly suggested injecting disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment.

Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish what is genuine and what is counterfeit. As the world went into lockdown, the vast global supply chain feeding the pharmaceutical industry began to unravel. With registered companies operating at reduced capacity, supplies of raw ingredients for all kinds of medicines diminished and prices rocketed. This led to a spike in drugs where key ingredients were substituted with unapproved or illegal others, or which made false claims. For example, a drug circulating in the Democratic Republic of Congo was allegedly manufactured in Belgium by “Brown and Burk Pharmaceutical limited”. However, Brown and Burk, who are registered in the UK, said they had “nothing to do with this medicine. We don’t manufacture this drug, it’s fake”

Taking this into account, even if the particular cases of Brenda and Benson may not be accurate, the way the stories connect fake news to corruption does ring true with at least some in the Kenyan context, where a swirl of stories and rumours about fakes, counterfeits, corruption and fraud circulate and overlap. Given the emerging scandals and allegations of graft, it is perhaps less surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in official management of the pandemic. Nor does it seem so strange that some could believe that the Kenyan government might pay for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for funds.

Addressing the symptoms, not the causes 

So what next? Recognising that fake news, fraud and corruption can have serious, even deadly, effects (WHO has likened corruption around procurement of PPE to “murder”) what has been the response? Firstly, we suggest, many of the measures proposed by international agencies address only the symptoms rather than the root causes of the phenomena. Secondly, unlike the stories of Brenda and Benson, they tend to treat fake news and fraud as very separate issues, masking the ways they might be rooted in similar public concerns.

In response to the fake news infodemic, WHO has advocated the need for fact-checking and “mythbusting”. Enlisting internet giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as the news agency AFP, their project analyses search results and filters out content that they regard as unfounded medical opinion or fake news. Similarly, BBC Africa and German state media have launched fact-checking and misinformation services about COVID-19. Such initiatives have in turn been scrutinised by other parties who are sceptical about the mix of power, interests or politics that could be at play, and instead offer alternative analyses.

Rather than addressing this scepticism, powerful institutions continue to claim their impartiality: A spokesperson from UNESCO stated that their approach to fake news was to increase the supply of “truthful information”.  “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

In a similar vein, Kenyan journalist Waihiga Mwaura, who has been writing a series of “Letters from Kenya” for BBC Africa, has observed in relation to fake news in Kenya that “more emphasis needs to be placed on answering the questions of people, and encouraging collaboration with the government in order to save lives. Once people understand the basic facts they will become the best amplifiers of the core messages within their communities”.

What these responses have in common is the emphasis on facts and information, supposing that fake news only works because the public doesn’t have enough access to data. They also seem to assume that the public is unaware of political “spin”, information management or even the interest of international agencies in covertly influencing online opinion. The measures also assume that government involvement will lead to better health communication and that the public will circulate officially approved material.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare? Is the citizen likely to believe the authorities’ statements on what is true or not true in relation to the coronavirus?

On the global trade in counterfeit medicines, Interpol’s Operation Pangea, in collaboration with a mix of state agencies around the world, is developing a public information campaign on the dangers of buying pharmaceuticals from unregulated online sources. The OECD has issued a policy brief stating, “Governments need to ensure the legitimate and safe provenance of pharmaceutical products, both online and in pharmacies, so that citizens can trust the medicines they use.” Similarly, a BBC News investigation into the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic reported that “the circulation of fake and dangerous medicines would only increase unless governments around the world present a united front”.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare?

But once again, things are more complicated than such powerhouse institutions suggest. Crucially, these public declarations again presume that there is a trustworthy state system in place for monitoring the quality of goods and products. And yet state agencies in various countries are themselves linked to allegations about unknown provenance and unenforced quality standards, including in the UK where medical supplies contracts have been issued to dormant companies that seem not to exist, as well as the German government’s implication in the VW emissions scandal, and their alleged failure to ensure standards were enforced.

In Kenya, the official Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is embroiled in accusations that it is involved in fraudulent quality control testing of PPE, with claims that shadowy “cartels” are pulling the strings to gain favourable reports for their substandard products. Such claims are not new: a 2018 investigation by the Nation newspaper (since taken offline) found that KEBS had been running a counterfeiting scam of its own, faking the certification mark that authorises items for sale and making it impossible to tell which products were genuine and which were not.

On fraud and financial misconduct, the UN and Transparency International have each circulated recommendations for anti-fraud measures (AFM) for donors. These emphasise the need for clear communication strategies, transparency initiatives and preventive safeguards in procurement, including the use of technology for greater accountability and more comprehensive auditing and reporting mechanisms.

Transparency International advocates open contracting as one model for increasing accountability in procurement. Their “Open Contracting for Health” model has been deployed in five countries, including Kenya, and according to the project leads, in the context of COVID-19 they are now seeing “the results of efforts to increase the transparency of emergency procurement and combat corruption. Transparency International chapters, including Kenya…are tracking financial commitments to the COVID-19 response to ensure that promises are kept, and money is actually used to tackle the pandemic”.

Kenya is here held up as a best-practice example of emergency health procurement, which to some members of the public might be surprising given the current local news. It is also interesting to note the overlap in vocabulary between measures proposed to address fake news and AFMs. The emphasis is again on clear communication, sharing transparent and accurate data, and use of technology. This language of transparency, accountability, auditing and efficiency has become familiar with the liberalisation of economies around the world, and particularly in relation to neoliberal lending and financing. Yet research suggests these approaches may be of limited value in addressing the deep-rooted challenges of fraud and corruption, and that AFMs themselves are regularly claimed to be vectors of fraud. Likewise, anthropologists have noted how, in the same era that “transparency” has become a watchword for good governance, the inner workings of authority can nevertheless remain opaque. In such circumstances, popular suspicions of power, such as conspiracy theories or fake news, can become ways of making sense of things.

Rather than reducing economic malpractice, research suggests that economic liberalisation has actually seen consistently high levels and sometimes increasing instances of fraud across various regions and sectors. The rise in AFMs in Africa and elsewhere gives the impression of industrious efforts to combat such fraudulent activities, and indeed many genuine efforts exist. But underneath, various fraud-active state and business actors continue to find ways to circumvent AFMs and thus often the problems persist.

In light of this, AFMs and their calls for greater transparency and accountability can seem more like a sticking plaster, “masking the problem rather that addressing the root causes” of fraud. This is partly because the technocratic approach favoured by AFM agencies does not take into account the fraud-conducive moral economy of neoliberal capitalism and the particular socio-historical and political terrain from which fraudulent activities (and AFMs) take shape.

In Kenya, researchers have rightly noted that graft has long history, in part going back to colonial land expropriations and other forms of dispossession that meant the very idea of the Kenyan state was birthed from a colonial system that abused the public it was meant to serve. The vested interests of public office continued during the regime of President Moi and beyond. In a process Joe Kobuthi has described as the “bureaucratisation of corruption”, leaders adopted a tough anti-graft stance in public, establishing numerous anti-corruption committees, policies and taskforces, but economic deceptions persisted.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa, which since the 1990s has seen the implementation of new regimes of privatisation, audits and accountability across the continent, has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources. He argues that while on the surface, reliance on symbols of democracy, authenticity or transparency – such as election results, quality certification marks, procurement contracts, or audit trails – has increased, in fact trust in their efficacy has been hollowed out. We are left with a situation where a surface veneer of compliance has become increasingly detached from meaningful action, leaving a space for all kinds of fraudulent and counterfeiting activities to take shape. At a practical level, this can lead to “state capture”, or the repurposing of state institutions for private gain, which some researchers suggest can entrench corruption as indictments and prosecutions become weaponised.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa…has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources.

For many citizens, understanding this landscape is complicated, as different actors can seem to be working beneath the surface, but always out of sight. In this context, debates over whether an issue is “fake news” or not can, for some, be part of wider anxieties about what is “really” going on. As further research has explored, in Kenya debates about fakes are more nuanced than just detecting whether something is counterfeit or genuine. After all, consumers often choose “fake” goods for cost or convenience, even if they are known to be less durable or of poorer quality. Instead, “fake” can become a term of critique and commentary, associating certain activities, products and politics with immoral action or suspect forms of wealth accumulation. In an article titled “Kenya, land of fake goods, fake leaders, fake smiles”, Dennis Otieno noted that in Kenya, “you must be very cautious, lest you pay a fake owner”. In such circumstances, everything is entangled in processes of doubling: opaque and potentially counterfeit, but nevertheless reliant on symbols of formality. Here, fake debates can be understood as some citizens’ attempts to understand more deep-seated deceptions at play in the moral and political system they live within.

In this way, anxieties about the “faked” cases of Brenda and Benson reveal public concerns not just about veracity, but more broadly about the agendas and operations of the powerful, self-enrichment and what is going on beneath the surface. In a country where state officials repeatedly cannot account for the disappearance of significant sums, and where corruption is believed by many to be endemic across all levels, it becomes more understandable why some Kenyans might start to look for #covidbillionaires behind all kinds of news stories, reasoning that coronavirus is simply another façade for concealing financial malpractice.

To decry a story as fake news is not to dismiss it as unreal, but to try to identify its doubleness; that its surface claims might be enabling other kinds of actions to occur underneath. Whether or not we believe them, by bringing fake news and corruption into one frame, the stories of Brenda and Benson indicate how the moral and political climate of fraud and fakery are deeply entangled.

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