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

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

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.

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THE 21st CENTURY ECONOMY: In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data

Blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy. Argues BETTY WAITHERERO

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THE 21st CENTURY ECONOMY: In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data

In a well-written article, economist David Ndii finally went on record with a counter-proposal to the Jubilee economic platform: “If knowledge and human capital are the engines of economic growth, what is the role of the foreign investment and infrastructure edifices that our governments are obsessed with?” he asked.

Dr. Ndii proposes a more realistic approach for a developing nation such as Kenya: Grow the economy by investing in both knowledge and human capital, rather than by mimicking growth seen in already developed nations that focus investments on infrastructure.

In developing countries like Kenya, the returns on government investments in infrastructure and inventory to create capital will always lag behind the initial amount invested i.e. there will be diminishing returns to scale. Ultimately, it will take Kenya a long time to recoup its investment in the standard gauge railway (SGR), for instance. As we can see currently with this particular infrastructural investment, the level of profits or benefits gained through the building of the SGR is significantly lower than the amount of money invested and will remain so for a long time. This is unhealthy growth, but expedient in the short term, in that it is convenient for the government to make such investments even when it is not necessarily wise or morally right to do so.

However, forming capital in an economy by investing in innovation and acquiring human capital – getting people to be productive and to work – will always lead or be at par in proportion to the initial amount of money or resources invested, creating constant returns to scale. Basically, an increase in investments in knowledge and human capital will cause an increase in economic productivity. This is healthy growth because knowledge is wealth, economic growth is learning, and the individual in conditions of economic and political liberty is the resource. These are uncomfortable notions that governments and people must accept before investing in knowledge; democracy must become an enabling means to ones’ productivity and livelihood, going beyond mere politics and electoral cycles.

Dr. Ndii’s explanatory narrative of how both Robert Lucas’s and Paul Romer’s models work together to generate endogenous growth allows us to understand that economic growth, for developing nations especially, is rooted in being able to account for human capital and innovation. In a nutshell, Paul Romer’s endogenous growth theory holds that it is the creation and investment in knowledge, human capital and innovation that is the more substantial contributor to economic growth.

Investing in people

For emerging economies like Kenya, endogenous growth theory and its possible application allows us to correct nearly 150 years of chasing the consequences of other nations’ economic decisions and interests. Put simply, Kenya, just like many other previously colonised African nations, has an economy that is designed to primarily serve the interests of its former coloniser. And despite the intentions of successive governments, a lack of human capital accounting (identifying, reporting and measuring the value of human resources in a country) has ensured that this economic model works to the detriment of the majority of the population.

Of all the devices created by human beings, the government is the most formidable and consequential. The government is responsible for all the best and all the worst happenings in humanity’s history, as well as for everything in between. This device has evolved over generations, taking on different forms and purposes consistent with the prevailing paradigms and needs of its wielders.

The aspirations of the Jubilee government, as expressed in its Big 4 agenda, are to spur and ignite Kenya’s economic growth by ensuring food security and universal healthcare, building affordable housing and increasing manufacturing. However, motivating an entire nation of more than 40 million people to achieve these goals demands a paradigm shift. Investing in human potential, knowledge, skills and creativity ought to be the drivers of economic growth, rather than the seemingly strict investment in state and capital assets, as is the current government’s approach.

Investing in people is not restricted to education; it includes funding for research and innovation, and also investing in information platforms, healthcare and provision of sustenance. In other words, if indeed the Jubilee government wishes to create one million jobs every year, it ought to invest in the people who will do these jobs.

The aspirations of the Jubilee government, as expressed in its Big 4 agenda, are to spur and ignite Kenya’s economic growth by ensuring food security and universal healthcare, building affordable housing and increasing manufacturing. However, motivating an entire nation of more than 40 million people to achieve these goals demands a paradigm shift.

Automation and the productivity gap

The reality is that technology and automation are putting people out of jobs already. In August this year, the Daily Nation reported that 2,792 banking staff had been laid off due to increasing automation and declining profitability – the effect of unintended consequences of the move to mobile financial applications to reach the unbanked, eliminating the need for intermediaries in the banking hall, coupled with the effects of government policies seeking to cap interest rates. This is an ironic outcome given the government’s goal of financial inclusion and greater employment.

Automation in other economies is creating a productivity gap. Increasingly, jobs that were previously done by people are being taken over by more efficient and more accurate machines and robots. This cuts across industries ranging from manufacturing to food production, leaving behind a population of people who do not have the requisite skills for jobs outside their industries. These people fall through the gaps, and remain unemployable for months or even years.

In an article published in Fortune,This is the Future of Artificial Intelligence”,

the wealthy entrepreneur and Xerion CEO, Daniel Arbess, highlighted the profound manner in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms are eating up human jobs. “Our political leaders don’t seem up to the policy challenges of job displacement — at least not yet, but the application of Big Data software algorithms is elevating decision-making precision to a whole new level, creating efficiencies, saving costs or delivering new solutions to important problems.” he wrote. “The Bank of England estimates that 48% of human workers will eventually be replaced by robotics and software automation.”

Kenya’s unemployment rate is estimated to be 11.4 per cent. This unemployment rate translates to a further 30 per cent of the population living in extreme poverty. There are many harmful social and psychological effects of short- and long-term unemployment, including alcoholism, homelessness, and rising crime, especially crimes that target more vulnerable people such as women and children.

The situation is compounded by nearly three decades of missed growth opportunities brought about by the fact that there was a lack of human capital accounting. Even at its most prosperous, Kenya’s economic policies simply assumed that jobs would be created via investment in infrastructure rather than in people. Consequently, we have a debt culture that affects the entire nation.

Furthermore, having nearly 83 per cent of the working population in the informal sector means that capital is not accessible through tax revenues – a situation that the government opted to address through new taxation aimed at mobile transactions and data. Emerging economies like Kenya need small business to thrive, but work is not forthcoming. Business opportunities are declining, incomes are diminishing and purchasing power is diminishing.

The situation is compounded by nearly three decades of missed growth opportunities brought about by the fact that there was a lack of human capital accounting. Even at its most prosperous, Kenya’s economic policies simply assumed that jobs would be created via investment in infrastructure rather than in people. Consequently, we have a debt culture that affects the entire nation.

And because the government is hoarding tenders (in July, Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a freeze on new government projects), business is hoarding opportunities and banks are hoarding finance. As productivity is constrained, banks and non-bank financial institutions (NBFIs) are distributing through debt the purchasing power that businesses are not distributing through salaries.

China is doing the same on an international scale by distributing purchasing power through debt as a substitute for national economic growth. It is building infrastructure, such as highways and railways, using loans that are then spent on Chinese companies that serve China’s interests, even though the infrastructure will, hopefully, eventually benefit the debtor nation.

Human capital accounting

A lack of accounting for human capital exacerbates the situation. An economic model that seeks great investment in infrastructure in order to boost the economy but does not account for people engaging in economic activity will result in a mismatch, most graphically seen in an absence of skilled and qualified professionals adept at doing the new jobs that are created. So, without the necessary skills, the locals fall through the employment gaps, and unfortunately, foreigners, with the requisite skills, are hired.

Governments advance the welfare of citizens by establishing and executing public policy for net positive outcomes. This is conventionally done through the creation of rules and regulations, and enforcing their compliance. If viewed in technology terms, the government can be described as a protocol stack (a set of rules) that responds to any input in a prescribed manner consistent with underlying statutes. Indeed, failures in government can be spectacularly linked to the ignoring, circumvention or subversion of the procedures set forth to guide healthy operability among various constituencies and concerns among the citizenry.

Smart-law is the idea that a legal statute can be implemented as a digital computational protocol to which users can connect, execute and return results exactly according to the purpose and design of the underlying legal architecture. There are benefits to a smart-law paradigm, including the fact that it can be censorship-resistant, in that transactions cannot be altered and anyone, without restriction, can enter into those transactions; it is trustless, meaning that trust (knowing and trusting the other party to fulfil their obligations) is not necessary or required, and it does not discriminate in the manner or order of its operations.

The Kenyan government has taken action to advance citizen-centred public service delivery through a variety of channels, including deploying digital technology and establishing citizen service centres across the country. Smart-laws that can provide compliant, straightforward and predictable interactions between citizens and the bureaucracy would have a big and important role to play in this endeavour.

The world in the 21st century is one of advancement through technology. Everything has made a leap forward in one way or another through the impact of technology. It is also true that among all entities, the government remains the most obstinately slow in embracing technology and innovation.

The Kenyan government has taken action to advance citizen-centred public service delivery through a variety of channels, including deploying digital technology and establishing citizen service centres across the country. Smart-laws that can provide compliant, straightforward and predictable interactions between citizens and the bureaucracy would have a big and important role to play in this endeavour.

The time is right for the government to undergo a technology-driven transformation that it so yearns and that will bring it up to par with the industries and sectors it intends to effect. By doing so, it can unleash the potential of the 21st-century citizen.

Blockchain technology

Kenya’s recognition of blockchain technology via its Blockchain Task Force headed by Dr. Bitange Ndemo allows for a little optimism. I will provide a simple explanation for this technology. Blockchain is very often conflated with bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading. However, blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger where transactions are recorded and cannot be altered. In securing these transactions, computer processors complete complex mathematical equations which when solved are rewarded with a token. The token can bitcoin, or ethereum, all depending on which blockchain platform is being utilised.

The trading and investing of these coins by laypeople in Kenya (sometimes leading to loss of funds) is what leads both Dr. Patrick Njoroge and Dr. David Ndii to call cryptocurrency a scam. I am inclined to agree with them on the matter of how the trading is conducted in Kenya – some traders entice investors with a multi-level marketing or Ponzi-style scheme. But I disagree with a blanket declaration writing off this technology and its potential utilisation in governance and its products, the cryptocurrencies. I recently had a robust discussion with Dr. Ndii on twitter on the same matter.

It is my firm belief that blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy.

Together with two of my colleagues, Andrew Amadi, who is a sustainable energy engineer, and Chris Daniels, who is an economist and programmer, we created the Freework Society in 2017 with the aim of achieving this particular goal through a programmable economic model built on ethereum blockchain. (Ethereum is an open-source, public, blockchain-based and distributed computing platform and operating system featuring smart contract functionality.)

It is my firm belief that blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy.

In developing a public computing infrastructure that can implement smart-laws, and which can also account for anyone’s work and effort, and can allow for investment in innovation, we were compelled to improve the very platform we would utilise by creating a standard. This standard is called an Ethereum Improvement Proposal (EIP), which describes core protocol specifications, client application programming interface (API) and contract standards. In a nutshell, an EIP describes how the platform will function if the proposal is implemented.

In developing countries like Kenya, the returns on government investments in infrastructure and inventory to create capital will always lag behind the initial amount invested i.e. there will be diminishing returns to scale.

Our proposal is to utilise the opportunities presented on ethereum blockchain technology by creating a human capital accounting framework that provides a merit-based system of indexing human resources, knowledge and talent, and subsequently reducing market search costs and challenges to price discovery and increasing the desirability to share value, work, and assets within the economy. This proposal has been accepted and assigned Ethereum Improvement Proposal EIP1491.

EIP1491 is a proposal that intends to contribute to the development of a human capital accounting standard on blockchain. EIP1491 allows for the implementation of standard APIs for human cost accounting tokens within smart contracts. This standard provides basic functionality to discover, track and transfer the motivational hierarchy of human resources.

Whereas blockchain architecture has succeeded in the financialising of integrity by way of transparency, correspondingly real-world outcomes will be proportional to the degree of individualisation of capital by way of knowledge.

What this means in an entrepreneurial economy is that where you have employers and workers looking to exchange value (work for money) there is now a proposed standard of how to go about this, and these standard assigns unit value to the labour/work that is done, and creates a meritocracy for those who will do the work i.e. a standard unit of labour with a coefficient that assigns value via points to education, years of experience, talent, and interests.

Suppose there is an employer who wishes to have job X done by a university graduate with three years’ experience, for which he is willing to pay Y amount of money. Utilising our standard API, the employer is able to compute how many labour hours he will be required to pay for, and what exact merit the employee will have, meeting the challenge of price discovery. The employer will also reduce his market search cost because he is able to track and locate the right candidate for the job. Both employer and employee are happy with the work because both are correctly directed to the right smart contract.

For millions of people in emerging economies around the world, the potential of EIP1491 will allow for individualised agency, rather than that agency being rooted in government. As we can all agree, despite the best of intentions, governments cannot be trusted to act in the interest of citizens. The best example for this is the debt-based culture that currently runs economies.

This means that an individual’s human resource, talent, interest and work has a value that can be exchanged at will because the individual has control over his agency. He is able to turn his different trades into capital that can be exchanged directly for purchasing power.

The ability to factor in growth in a knowledge-based economy ultimately should mean that not only is unemployment impeded, but that with increased utilisation, time becomes money, waste is reduced and the incidences of unrealised potential and missed opportunities are eliminated. Total factor productivity can be achieved in a shared agency ecosystem where millions engage willingly in exchanging value propositions using their own human capital.

We invite robust engagement and discussion on this standard and its applicability, and comments on the same.

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DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form. By ABDULLAHI BORU HALAKHE

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DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin

In the Jubilee universe, it is almost an article of faith that politics is “bad” and development is “good”. It’s not uncommon to hear President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, and high-level administration officials and their supporters’ constant put-downs directed at their opponents: “We don’t have time for politics, we are only interested in development.” They believe that the depoliticisation of development is necessary in order for them to deliver on their campaign promises.

While such a rhetorical sleight of hand is occasionally designed to silence opponents – who are supposedly opposed to development – in practice, it also reveals the Jubilee government’s limited understanding of politics. For them development is a cold, apolitical, technical exercise that is not only immune to politics, but transcends it.

More broadly, Jubilee’s politics-development dichotomy is an insidious attempt at redefining politics as criticising Jubilee, whether fairly or unfairly, and development as praising the administration, whether they are delivering or not. The net aim is to induce self-censorship among critical voices.

Techno-fallacy

Building a rhetorical firewall between development and politics is not a new idea; President Daniel arap Moi’s favourite retort when placed under pressure was “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” (bad politics, bad life), never mind that under him, Kenya was firmly in mbaya zone. Maisha was so mbaya under Moi that economy growth was a mere 0.6 per cent when his successor Mwai Kibaki took over in 2002. Dissent was penalised and the country felt like a band that was dedicated to singing his praises. It is rather ironic that Jubilee, which would like to be remembered for good economic stewardship, would look to Moi for inspiration.

Building a rhetorical firewall between development and politics is not a new idea; President Daniel arap Moi’s favourite retort when placed under pressure was “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya”

The Jubilee government has also coupled the depoliticisation of development with a similar rhetoric on technology, in the process completely eviscerating nuances, complexities or grey areas when discussing public policy. You are either part of the cult of technology or you are not interested in progress.

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Evgeny Morozov captures Jubilee’s approach to development: “Recasting all complex social situations either as neat problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimised — if only the right algorithms are in place! — this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.”

For instance, one of Jubilee’s bright ideas of fixing the education system is to provide every child with a laptop, in line with their emphasis on learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as opposed to the humanities, which they see as not “marketable”. Never mind that only slightly over half of Kenya has access to electricity, that the teachers have not yet been trained or hired for the switch to using laptops, and most schools do not have computer labs. Jubilee is, after all, led by the dynamic digital duo that needs everyone to be wired.

Along with a blind faith in technology, Jubilee also regards corporate experience as a most prized asset in public appointments – as exemplified by the Harvard-educated former Barclays CEO, Adan Mohamed, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation. For Kenyatta and his ilk, corporate experience, when coupled with technology, will fix pesky inefficiency and sloth in the public service.

This is not new; under pressure domestically from opposition groups, and externally from the Bretton Woods institutions, Moi appointed a “Dream Team” to key public offices. The officials were drawn from the private sector, international finance and development organisations. The group was led by Richard Leakey (the famous paleoanthropologist and former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service who had even formed a political party to oppose Moi in 1990s), who was appointed as the Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. Martin Oduor-Otieno, a former director of finance and planning at Barclays Bank, was appointed as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Planning and Mwangazi Mwachofi, the resident representative of the South Africa-based International Finance Corporation, became the Finance Secretary.

Along with a blind faith in technology, Jubilee also regards corporate experience as a most prized asset in public appointments – as exemplified by the Harvard-educated former Barclays CEO, Adan Mohamed, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation. For Kenyatta and his ilk, corporate experience, when coupled with technology, will fix pesky inefficiency and sloth in the public service.

While Moi was boxed into a corner and had no option but to cater to donors’ wishes, Jubilee’s appointment of well-credentialed public officials from the private sector is an attempt to demonstrate that the government is using corporate best practice principles to manage the public sector. However, the appointment of individuals with private sector or international expertise is rooted in a lack of appreciation for received bureaucratic wisdom; it is a system of faceless, unelected officials keeping the state’s institutions humming along and ensuring continuity from one administration to another.

For Jubilee, bureaucracy is a dirty word. Both under Moi and under Jubilee, the credentialed senior public officials failed to deliver, although on balance, Moi’s cabinet, which had more court poets than individuals with diplomas from good schools abroad, did better.

Grievances and greed

Jubilee’s weaponisation of optics and breathless spin was honed when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto – the two principals in the Jubilee coalition – were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged role in 2007-2008 violence.

Ruto and Kenyatta make an unlikely political team. The latter is a prince of Kenya’s politics and the former is a self-declared “hustler”. Even when considering Kenya’s shape-shifting political landscape and allegiances, the two couldn’t be more different.

But they were brought together by grievance and greed. They regarded their prosecution at the International Criminal Court as a witch-hunt; they argued that the two top presidential candidates during the 2007 election that led to violence and displacement were former President Mwai Kibaki and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

During the course of their indictments, the duo skillfully used social media and established themselves as bona fide underdogs. As a result, they refined their enduring ability to generate sometimes pugnacious, if not altogether needless, spin, which had tremendous traction with their base. Ruto and Kenyatta cast the ICC as an imperial project bent on getting them, effectively framing themselves – not those killed, maimed or displaced – as the victims of the post-election violence. Their spin was so effective that even some of the victims of the violence held “prayer rallies” for them.

In fairness, some of the reputational damage experienced by the ICC was self-inflicted. When I visited a IDP camp in Nakuru in 2011, one of the IDPs told me that the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Moreno Ocampo, had no time to visit them, and was busy doing safaris in Nairobi National Park.

During the course of their indictments, the duo skillfully used social media and established themselves as bona fide underdogs. As a result, they refined their enduring ability to generate sometimes pugnacious, if not altogether needless, spin, which had tremendous traction with their base. Ruto and Kenyatta cast the ICC as an imperial project bent on getting them, effectively framing themselves – not those killed, maimed or displaced – as the victims of the post-election violence.

The ICC was not the only victim of Jubilee’s rage; Raila Odinga, the cottage industry of upstart politicians, felt the full weight of Jubilee’s relentless propaganda blitzkrieg, part of it also emanating from his support for the ICC process, which Ruto, his lieutenant in 2007, interpreted as throwing him under the bus. (Ruto was a leading member of Odinga’s team during the 2007 election.)

After claiming some big domestic and foreign scalps, Jubilee started believing is own hype. While many dismissed Jubilee’s breathless social media campaigns during the elections as a passing fad once the cold reality of governing sets in, for Jubilee social media was the system. Beyond the hype, any critical assessment of Jubilee’s grand ideas, such as a 24-hour economy, 9 international standard stadia, and 21st century public transport, would show that they are all sizzle and no steak. The large-scale infrastructure projects were mostly designed as a gravy train, as the Standard Gauge Railway amply demonstrated.

Politics of shamelessness

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form. The shamelessness here is not the kind citizens have come to almost expect from the politicians; in Jubilee’s case, it is its modus operandi, a blunt object to hit opponents with. The lack of shame has not only been adopted by Kenyatta and Ruto, but also by their close lieutenants.

When the presidential results were announced two days after the annulled August 8, 2017 election, demonstrators and the police engaged in a running a battle in the Mathare slum in Nairobi. Police used live bullets and killed both demonstrators and bystanders. I spoke to some of the families of the victims and corroborated their stories with medical records and family witnesses.

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form.

But on August 12, at a press conference, the then Acting Internal Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiangi’ denied that police had shot and killed people. He stated, “I am not aware of anyone who has been killed by live bullets in this country. Those are rumours. People who loot, break into people’s homes, burn buses are not peaceful protesters.” Yet it is not that Matiangi’ did not have access to the details of the people killed, some of whose deaths have been recorded in government hospitals and by the media and human rights groups.

Jubilee learnt some of this shameless spin from Moi’s Kanu party. In 2000, when drought was ravaging parts of Northern Kenya, the then government minister, Shariff Nassir, denied there was drought when pressed in Parliament by one of the area MPs. A few days later, the government declared a famine in Kenya.

President Kenyatta says that fighting corruption will be a key pillar of his legacy. The Auditor General’s Office has done more than any other state organ to reveal the level of corruption in government agencies through audit reports. In an ideal world, you’d think that the president would consider the Auditor General’s Office as a key ally. But the president scoffed at the Auditor General’s plan to investigate the activities of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in relation to the alleged misuse of $2 billion Eurobond cash that Kenya raised in 2014. The president was quoted telling the Auditor General, “When you say that the Eurobond money was stolen and stashed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, are you telling me that the Kenyan government and United States have colluded?” The president then insinuated that the Auditor General, Edward Ouko, was stupid. Never mind that the president’s remarks came during a State House anti-corruption summit. It is also likely that the story of the missing Eurobond money will be the story of Jubilee’s corruption.

Lack of shame is dangerous when it comes from a place of entitlement – the #Mtado? phenomenon. Which naturally breads impunity.

David Ndii wrote, “Jomo Kenyatta’s regime was corrupt, illiberal and competent. Moi’s was corrupt, illiberal and mediocre. Kibaki’s was corrupt, liberal and competent. So, Moi scores zero out of three. Jomo scores one out of three. Kibaki scores two out of three.”

The original sin after 2010 constitution was promulgated was when a court ruled that Kenyatta and Ruto could contest the 2013 elections despite being indicted by the ICC. This officially killed Chapter Six on leadership and integrity of the Katiba, which effectively set Kenya down the path of “anything goes”.

Lack of shame is dangerous when it comes from a place of entitlement – the #Mtado? phenomenon. Which naturally breads impunity.

Kanu and Jubilee have ruled Kenya longer than any other party, and in the process have created the Kenyatta and Moi family and business dynasties. When under pressure, it is not uncommon to see Kenyatta and Jubilee seek Moi’s eternal wisdom. The visits to Moi’s home are done at the exclusion of William Ruto, which sets up 2022 neatly as the battle between the princes and the hustler.

Raila was a key player in the 2002 elections, and in 2013, Ruto was a key player in defeating Raila. In 2022, Ruto could face Raila’s fate. While Ruto’s defeat could delight many, the techno-dignified political opportunism that is Jubilee, which is illiberal, incompetent and corrupt, will endure.

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TERRORISM: Officialdom’s baffling silence in the wake of Sylvia Romano’s abduction

The potential significance of the abduction of Ms Sylvia Romano has already been pushed into the background but will this be yet another wake-up call to be ignored by the Government of Kenya. By ANDREW FRANKLIN

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TERRORISM: Officialdom’s baffling silence in the wake of Sylvia Romano’s abduction

Ms Sylvia Constanca Romano, a twenty-three year-old Italian NGO worker, was abducted on Tuesday, November 20, 2018 at 8 pm from her lodging in the remote trading centre of Chakama, located 80 km west of the Kenyan Indian Ocean resort town of Malindi in Kilifi County. Ms Romano was managing a children’s home for the Italian NGO, African Milele Onlus, and the armed men who took her were identified as being of Somali origin.

Weeks later, this Italian woman is still missing and while not immediately dismissing the involvement of Al Shabaab, the Government of Kenya is still resisting suggestions that the kidnappers were terrorists rather than ordinary thugs carrying AK-47s. Although initial reports in the Italian media were quick to blame Al Shabaab, the Italian Government just as rapidly asserted that the kidnappers were “armed herders” although, as quoted in the local media, fears were expressed that Ms Romano might have been sold on to Al Shabaab elements inside Somalia.

Italy was the preeminent colonial power in the Horn of Africa, especially in what is today effectively the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) territory, which is currently being contested by jihadists. Italy contributes paramilitary police advisors to the nine-nation European Union Mission to FGS and has trained the Somalia Government police at its base in Djibouti; Italian Navy elements have participated in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia since 2008.

In October 2018, Al Shabaab in Mogadishu targeted a convoy of Italian security personnel returning to their base with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED). Although there were no Italian casualties, this attack on foreigners is not Shabaab’s modus operandi; the main targets of the terrorist organisation’s operations within Somalia have mainly been Somalis, although neighbouring Kenya has been a target since Operation Linda Nchi – the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) incursion into Somalia in October 2011. Some of the most deadly Al Shabaab attacks on Kenyan soil include the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 in which 67 people lost their lives and the Garissa University College massacre in April 2015, in which 147 students were brutally gunned down.

Elsewhere in the region, the Kenya Police recently took delivery of four Italian-made utility helicopters for use in its operations domestically against terrorists. Italy’s continuing role in the war on terror within the region remains low key and its government prefers to keep it that way.

It has been confirmed that at least three of the attackers had arrived in Chakama several days earlier and had rented lodgings and apparently observed village routines, including Ms Romano’s activities. Initial reports were that five heavily armed assailants had shot wildly during the Tuesday evening attack, wounding five Kenyans before seizing the Italian; there has yet to be an explanation for the origin of AK-47s or when they were smuggled into the trading centre. According to the police, the attackers fled with their hostage using two subsequently abandoned motorbikes before crossing a major river and disappearing into a rather thick bush.

It has been confirmed that at least three of the attackers had arrived in Chakama several days earlier and had rented lodgings and apparently observed village routines, including Ms Romano’s activities. Initial reports were that five heavily armed assailants had shot wildly during the Tuesday evening attack, wounding five Kenyans before seizing the Italian…

There is no permanent police presence in Chakama, which is located in a remote area of Kilifi County. It seems that there was no organised security forces’ response during the first 24 hours following the abduction. The security forces’ operating capabilities during the hours of darkness cannot be evaluated except for certain elite units (i.e. General Service Unit [GSU] Recon and KDF Rangers and Special Forces). Regular police and Administration Police (AP) units, regardless of designation, are not trained, organised or equipped for extensive patrolling. Although police helicopters were deployed to the area, it’s unlikely that the hastily cobbled together rescue force, comprising Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Game Rangers, KDF troops, GSU, APs and regular police, had the ability to coordinate ground forces with air support.

In fact, in the event that this was an Al Shabaab operation, the seeming reticence on the part of the security forces is understandable as it would be expected that Al Shabaab would plant IEDs and organise ambushes to slow down pursuit and inflict maximum damage on the rescuers. This is standard procedure and characteristic of all guerrillas fighting road-bound conventional forces; since 2016 Al Shabaab has been regularly ambushing KDF and/or police patrols across all five frontline counties in Kenya. Another foreseeable risk is that Al Shabaab will attempt to shoot down a police helicopter, as was reported on 2 September in the vicinity of Boni Forest in Lamu County.

Although remaining somewhat tight-lipped about the actual affiliation of the attackers, the expansion of search activities outside Kilifi County into neighbouring Lamu, specifically into Boni Forest, which straddles the Kenya-Somalia border, and the issuance of “WANTED” posters for three men of ethnic Somali origin – albeit without specific background details – point to officials believing this to have been an Al Shabaab terrorist operation. Since the kidnapping, the Kenya Police have taken more than twenty civilians in and around Chakamba into custody for questioning; the wife and brother-in-law of one of the three named suspects were arrested in Garsen in Tana River County when a telephone call was intercepted and traced back. As with the previously noted lack of explanation regarding the presence of AK-47s in Chakamba, there was no information provided as to whether the security forces were able to trace the GPS signatures of the suspects; Al Shabaab operatives would no doubt discard their phones to avoid detection. Perhaps these men are part-time insurgents or even freelancers?

Although remaining somewhat tight-lipped about the actual affiliation of the attackers, the expansion of search activities outside Kilifi County into neighbouring Lamu, specifically into Boni Forest, which straddles the Kenya-Somalia border, and the issuance of “WANTED” posters for three men of ethnic Somali origin – albeit without specific background details – point to officials believing this to have been an Al Shabaab terrorist operation.

Operation Linda Nchi and its after-effects

Operation Linda Nchi, a cross-border punitive expedition by 1,800 KDF troops, was launched on 15 October 2011 ostensibly in retaliation for alleged Al Shabaab kidnappings of Spanish MSF workers from the Dadaab refugee camp and tourists from Manda Island in Lamu, The latter attacks were eventually found to be the work of common criminals based in Ras Kamboni where pro-FGS forces hold sway. Al Shabaab’s involvement in the kidnapping of the Spanish volunteers was neither confirmed nor denied. Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that the kidnappings within Somalia of locals has been used to raise funds not only by criminals but also by Al Shabaab, which has long made money from participating in transnational organised criminal activities, including charcoal smuggling, arms dealing, human trafficking and trade in illicit narcotics.

Al Shabaab attacks have taken place fairly regularly across the five Kenyan counties bordering Somalia, whose populations are overwhelmingly Muslim and predominately of ethnic Somali origin. Although Al Shabaab has eschewed headline-grabbing terror attacks, such as that on the Westgate mall in September 2013, its fighters regularly target police and KDF patrols, permanent security force bases, mobile telephone masts and power stations. Occasionally they also take control of villages and harangue inhabitants at night with little or no government interference. In June 2016, for instance, Al Shabaab took control of the villages of Mpeketoni and Poromoko in Lamu County and killed 60 men. The security response to this attack was dismal; there were stories of police stations in Mpeketoni being abandoned prior to the attack and villagers being left to their own devices to deal with the terrorists.

Since 2016, most professional security analysts agree that the Al Shabaab attacks have derailed devolution in the frontline counties of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Lamu and Tana River by severing the people from administrative functions. The attacks have throttled formal economic activities and disrupted delivery of education and social and health services. Civil servants, teachers, traders and students from outside these counties fear returning there after an attack. Most of the students who survived the Garissa University College attack, for example, were relocated to campuses in other parts of the country. Many teachers have also refused to be sent to these counties for fear of being attacked by Al Shabaab. These attacks have effectively normalised a state of endemic insecurity within which police elements and KDF units are alienated from the local citizens, many of whom are not convinced that they are truly citizens of the Republic of Kenya as their regions have been systematically marginalised and neglected since independence in 1963.

Despite attempts by all parties in Nairobi to portray events in Garissa, Tana River, Mandera, Wajir and Lamu counties as merely episodic terrorism that can happen anywhere in the world, the reality is that Al Shabaab insurgents are conducting a reasonably successful, low-intensity conflict that complements its operations to defeat the Western-backed FGS based in Mogadishu. In fact, the KDF invasion of Somalia and its subsequent incorporation into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inadvertently provided Al Shabaab opportunities to subvert the Kenyan government’s influences across the restive predominantly ethnic Somali counties, to expand recruitment, to increase revenue from transnational crime and to undermine the morale of a major troop-contributing country. Kenya, out of all the states adjacent to Somalia or involved in AMISOM, has been shown to have the most fragile domestic security architecture amidst a fractious political environment in which little or no attention is paid to matters of national insecurity.

Despite attempts by all parties in Nairobi to portray events in Garissa, Tana River, Mandera, Wajir and Lamu counties as merely episodic terrorism that can happen anywhere in the world, the reality is that Al Shabaab insurgents are conducting a reasonably successful, low-intensity conflict that complements its operations to defeat the Western-backed FGS based in Mogadishu.

The abduction of an Italian NGO worker from a remote market centre in Kilifi County, which is outside of Al Shabaab’s normal area of operations, had to have been well-researched and carefully planned. Nearly all Western states have prohibited their officials from working within the five frontline counties and tourists have been actively discouraged from visiting even popular resorts on Lamu Island. Travel advisories issued since 2012 have crippled Kenya’s tourism sectors, especially along the Coast in Malindi, Watamu, Kilifi and the beaches north of Mombasa; however foreigners like Sylvia Romano would not really have been warned off by their governments and are now the best targets available to Al Shabaab and/or disparate armed groups, including livestock raiders and poachers.

Western governments have pretty much placed most of the five frontline counties off limits to their employees and strongly discouraged their citizens from visiting them for any purposes. Al Shabaab has been very active in mainland Lamu County, which resulted in foreigners being discouraged from visiting popular locations on Lamu Island and adjoining islands. Although the UK lifted its travel advisory in May 2017, the position of the US Government and others remains oddly ambiguous.

However, Al Shabaab is considered one of the most dangerous of Al Qaeda’s global franchises; Al Qaeda cells blew up US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August 1998 and the terrorist organisation launched a suicide bomber against the Israeli owned Paradise Hotel in Kikambala in 2002. Simultaneously, Al Qaeda operatives unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down an El Al charter flight taking off from Mombasa. Al Qaeda has never backed away from threats to retaliate against citizens of enemy nations wherever they are located and it seems likely that Al Shabaab will expand activities wherever targets can be found.

The Italian connection

There are nearly 15,000 Italian citizens living in Malindi, Watamu and elsewhere on the Kenyan coast. The Italian government operates an official satellite tracking/space research facility just north of Malindi. During the pending festive season, hundreds more Italians will descend on an otherwise depressed holiday destination. In my view, Al Shabaab is implicitly threatening the safety of these people in order to leverage the Italian government to reduce its footprint in Mogadishu.

As with the kidnappings of foreigners in 2011, whether Al Shabaab fails to take responsibility or is ultimately found not to be culpable is less important than popular perception. The longer Sylvia Constanca Romano remains unfound, the greater the possibility that media attention, particularly in Italy, will speculate on whether Al Shabaab is involved and whether there is a link between the Italian government’s counterterrorism activities against Al Qaeda/Al Shabaab and her abduction.

Although the Chakamba market centre is several kilometres away from major Indian Ocean tourist towns, it is located in an area traversed by foreigners visiting Kenya for luxury safaris – the very same bush into which the Italian woman’s abductors fled. Whether this incident is the start of a high season offensive intended by Al Shabaab to further undermine the economy of Kilifi County cannot be ruled out. Doing so would further undermine support by the Kenyan public, especially at the coast, for KDF’s continued deployment to AMISOM, particularly if Italian security assistance to FGS is seen to falter.

So far, Nairobi’s Western allies have not extended stringent travel advisories outside of the five frontline counties but it can be expected that an unhappy outcome of yet another botched Government of Kenya anti-terrorist operation will impact negatively on economies of already shell-shocked coastal counties where there are strong undercurrents of opinion favouring self-determination and even secession.

Regardless of how this unfortunate incident plays out, the fact of its occurrence indicates that expert advice concerning best practices to respond to cross-border and even domestic attacks of this type have been ignored for more than seven years. The initial reaction to the news of the kidnapping followed the same old script in which personnel from different security forces were thrown together without appropriate training and organisation to track a small gang through unfamiliar terrain during the hours of darkness. Reports that police were detaining witnesses may mask employment by security personnel of heavy-handed and counterproductive methods, which have been the trademark of government forces since before independence in 1963.

It is notable, however, that the Kenyan government has successfully controlled the flow of information although it has to date set the narrative by avoiding any narrative. In this, the authorities have been aided by a seemingly disinterested and largely uninformed domestic media. Kenya’s mainstream press has avoided anything suggesting that the government’s war on terror, whether at home or in the near abroad, is less than a reasonable success under the circumstances. Local and international media have excluded security professionals who can document how officialdom has perversely ignored practical, common sense solutions to the myriad security issues that have evolved into a comprehensive existential threat to national security.

It is notable, however, that the Kenyan government has successfully controlled the flow of information although it has to date set the narrative by avoiding any narrative. In this the authorities have been aided by a seemingly disinterested and largely uninformed domestic media.

The potential significance of this kidnapping has already been pushed into the background; will this be yet another wake-up call to be ignored?

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