“Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.” – Nelson Mandela
Bethlehem, 2013: On Christmas Eve, I was among the crowds flocking to Bethlehem, the Palestinian city known as the birthplace of Jesus. Following festivities in the city’s famous Manger Square, I embarked to see how the Israeli occupation is still alive, away from the throngs of tourists. I headed to the separation wall, which encloses the West Bank in concrete, and is covered with vivid graffiti in protest. This segment of the wall houses some of Banksy’s famous works of art, and in 2018, a mural of Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teen who has become the face of resistance to the Israeli occupation, also cemented its place on it.
Nairobi, 2018: Wandering around the Bizarre Bazaar craft fair in Nairobi’s Karura Forest, one particular vendor caught my attention: Baraka Israel. Their booth was teeming with people sampling wines against a bold backdrop that read “Golan Heights Winery”. The sourcing of wines from a region under illegal occupation by Israel wasn’t new to me – my graduate work focused on the history and politics of the Middle East– but seeing these grapes being sold in my backyard was disturbing. And it didn’t stop there; Eliad olive oil was also being sold. Christmas was soon approaching and in keeping with the spirit and Biblical symbolism, wine and olives “from the holy land” were intended to entice. Barely holding my breath while pondering which olive groves this oil was sourced from, I was transported to a passage from Susan Abulhawa’s novel, Mornings in Jenin:
“As the dark sky gave way to light, the sounds of reaping that noble fruit rose from the sun-bleached hills of Palestine. The thumps of farmers’ sticks striking branches, the shuddering of the leaves, the plop of fruit falling onto the old tarps and blankets that had been lain beneath the trees. As they toiled, women sang the ballads of centuries past and small children played and were chided by their mothers when they got in the way.”
My foraging revealed that Eliad olive oil also originates from the occupied Golan Heights. This becomes more unsettling in the context of the occupied territories, where violence by Israeli settlers increasingly includes attacks on olive groves and farmers. In 2016, more than 1,500 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank were damaged or uprooted by settlers; this was in addition to the 2.5 million trees uprooted since 1967.
Research carried out by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) uncovered a shift towards agricultural and price tag attacks by settlers that involve destroying property and vandalism, including racist graffiti. An Israeli soldier’s 2013 testimony from Hebron, recorded by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, uncovered how these attacks are carried out:
“There was one incident where already the night prior, they said a ‘price tag’ action was going to be carried out. And the next morning, a whole grove of olive trees was discovered chopped down. To chop down 60 trees you’d need something like eight hours of work and three saws…I don’t believe that the military, with all its observation points on an olive grove located on the main road, didn’t see that taking place.”
The decision to buy unethically sourced products, which are increasingly making their way to our shelves, is a topic worth discussing as a nation. The Profiteers, the investigative documentary unearthing Kenya’s role in contributing to the conflict in South Sudan, jumpstarted conversations about how Kenya was being used to commit atrocities beyond its borders. A segment of activists and concerned citizens took to the streets, calling for greater accountability in how the Kenyan government and financial institutions facilitate the transfer of arms and resources used to wage war on civilians.
My foraging revealed that Eliad olive oil also originates from the occupied Golan Heights. This becomes more unsettling in the context of the occupied territories, where violence by Israeli settlers increasingly includes attacks on olive groves and farmers. In 2016, more than 1,500 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank were damaged or uprooted by settlers; this was in addition to the 2.5 million trees uprooted since 1967.
And the support of many Kenyan activists, writers, and well-wishers to the Ugandan musician-turned-politician, Bobi Wine, during his detention is another example of conditions being ripe for a discussion on what it takes for Kenyans to be on the right side of history. The consciousness to do better by all peoples, regardless of nationality, is critical. We can no longer pretend that events outside our borders have no bearing on our lives or are unworthy of our attention and solidarity. Edward Said captured this well when he said, “Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final— resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.”
Resisting the force of politics of money from outweighing principles of humanity and justice needs to be sustained. Our government may be succumbing easily to foreign money, but we need to safeguard our interests and public assets, and ensure that our moral compass is not lost. This may be a struggle when also faced with the large military-industrial complexes of today. And you don’t have to look far to see how big money is behind war. Despite its size, Israel is believed to be the eighth biggest arms exporter in the world and the largest one per capita. Kenya is among the growing African nations using Israeli-manufactured weapons, especially aircraft, artillery, and communications equipment.
Settler colonialism is not dead
2017 marked half a century of Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the Golan Heights, which was grabbed from Syria. Much light has been shed on the expansion of Israeli settlements— the cities, towns, and villages built on occupied land. In 2017, Israel began building the first new settlements in two decades, moving further into the heart of what is legally Palestine. At least 160 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial outposts are home to more than half a million Israelis living in colonies beyond the recognised borders of their state. And the population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has grown four times faster than Israel’s itself since 1995. Although settlements violate international humanitarian law (under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power cannot transfer parts of its own population into the territory it occupies), they are authorised and subsidised by the Israeli Government.
This disturbing development has historic parallels closer to home: Advertisements by the British colonial government also sought to entice settlers to move to Kenya, and thousands responded.
“Settle in Kenya, Britain’s youngest and most attractive colony. Low prices at present for fertile areas. Its valuable crops give high yields due to the high fertility of the soil, adequate rainfall, and abundant sunshine. Secure the advantage of native labour to supplement your own effort.” – From Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins
While Israeli settlers live in fenced and gated communities, Palestinians are effectively barred from staying in them. Palestinians’ movement is further restricted by roadblocks, checkpoints, and settler-only roads. Some of these discriminatory policies, as well as the exploitation of land and resources by a settler movement, are reminiscent of Kenya’s experiences under British colonial rule. Kenyans moving around segregated cities were required to wear an identity pass around their necks, which were designed to keep Africans out of European and Asian areas. Fast forward today and Palestinians in the occupied territories must carry their ID cards for internal travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and into East Jerusalem and Israel. These ID cards are colour-coded depending on where Palestinians reside and they affect everything from freedom of movement to family unity.
While Israeli settlers live in fenced and gated communities, Palestinians are effectively barred from staying in them. Palestinians’ movement is further restricted by roadblocks, checkpoints, and settler-only roads. Some of these discriminatory policies, as well as the exploitation of land and resources by a settler movement, are reminiscent of Kenya’s experiences under British colonial rule.
In colonial Kenya, many Africans were moved to free up fertile land for colonial plantations. The Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea are among the most fertile areas in the West Bank; 40 per cent of the dates produced in the occupied Jordan Valley settlements are exported to the European Union, and Israeli companies generate around $3 billion annually from the sale of Dead Sea minerals. Contrast this with the discrimination leveled against Palestinians in the provision of water and other resources: More than 70 per cent of Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli civilian and security control and home to most of the settlements, are not connected to the water network.
In Kenya, as explained by Caroline Elkins in her book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, the British settlers’ self-interest was “based on a perception of profound racial superiority, and the foundation of the settler community was the alienation of African land. Seeking to expand their numbers and increase the value of their land, they pushed for continued immigration into the colony.” Today, Israel continues to fund Birthright tours and to encourage the immigration of Jews into the country. However, the initial refusal to allow a group of Ugandan Abayudaya Jews to visit Israel on a Birthright tour showcased that not all Jews are equal in Israel’s eyes. Examples of the racial prejudice documented against Africans by the state of Israel are ubiquitous. In 2018, Israel was forced to backtrack on a plan to expel thousands of African migrants to Rwanda and Uganda. And ironically, though rejected, Britain’s proposal in 1903 allocated land for a Jewish state in the British East African Protectorate.
Colonisation in connection to wine
The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent movement founded in 2005 to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end its occupation and human rights abuses, was inspired by international sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Given that settlements thrive on economic exploitation at the expense of the natives, the movement calls for a global boycott on settlement products. Airbnb, bowing to pressure, recently announced that it would remove properties in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
Unsurprisingly, there is a countermovement that includes Israeli wineries “proudly” displaying the Israeli flag on their products. The BDS Wine Club, for instance, features wines from “Judea and Samaria” (what we know as the occupied West Bank) and their retail selection also includes wines from the Golan Heights Winery—the source of wines imported and sold in Kenya by Baraka Israel. The company brazenly markets this winery and its products as “Israel’s finest”. They have a noticeable presence at Nairobi’s wine-tasting events, as well as in restaurants and bars. Yummy magazine, Nairobi’s food and drink guide, featured Baraka Israel’s entry into the Kenyan market in 2017. It announced that “Israel has been a wine-making country over the last 3,000 years…and the diversity of Israel’s terroir makes it suitable to grow a variety of grapes.” Any further elaboration or exploration of the origins of their wines was conveniently or perhaps unknowingly omitted.
According to a 2015 UN General Assembly resolution, Syrians in the occupied Golan, the majority of whom are Druze, depend heavily on agricultural income but are disadvantaged by restricted water supplies and fewer economic opportunities. They also face throttled land access, building restrictions, and property destruction. The UN’s displeasure has not stopped Israel from building settlements, wineries, and even a ski resort in this territory. The region is strategically significant, agriculturally rich, and draws millions of tourists. And the Israeli wine industry, which benefits from accessible land, tax benefits, and other government incentives, is catching on. Settlers have discovered that the wine industry is a tourist magnet, bringing in additional income while normalising the settlement enterprise.
Over ten Israeli wineries, mostly founded between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are based in settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and produce their wine from grapes grown in the occupied territory. In Kenya, the most common wines from this region are those produced by the Golan Heights Winery under the labels Yarden, Gamla, and Golan. The oldest of the wineries based in the occupied Golan, the Golan Heights Winery, was founded in 1983 in the settlement of Katzerin where it operates to this day. Owned by four kibbutzim and moshavim (agricultural and cooperative communities), it produces around 5.4 million bottles of wine annually.
Over ten Israeli wineries, mostly founded between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are based in settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and produce their wine from grapes grown in the occupied territory. In Kenya, the most common wines from this region are those produced by the Golan Heights Winery under the labels Yarden, Gamla, and Golan.
Planting the seeds of BDS
The BDS movement made headlines again after Ilhan Omar, the recently elected U.S. Congresswoman who spent some of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya, voiced her support for the movement. On home soil, although BDS campaigns have yet to be established, there is a solidarity movement, Kenya na Palestine, which raises awareness of the movement and promotes educational activities during the global Israeli Apartheid Week.
They may seem innocuous, but profits from millions of dollars’ worth of settlement products exported internationally, including to Kenya, sustain the discriminatory policy of settlements, which also unlawfully appropriate natural resources. Common exports from Israeli settlements include cosmetics, fruits and vegetables, honey, olive oil, and wine. Israel’s wine industry is part and parcel of the settlement and colonisation project, and this is raising eyebrows worldwide: Yarden, Gamla, and Golan wines featured on lists of products boycotted by student groups at UK universities, for instance, and a major department store in Japan cancelled the participation of an importer specialising in wine from the Golan Heights at a wine fair last year.
Israel continues to face censure from its trading partners. For instance, while short of a boycott, European Union members can mark products coming from Israeli settlements. South Africa also adopted regulations to prevent the labelling of goods from settlements as being produced in Israel given that this misleads consumers. Thus, there is a growing sentiment that business activity in settlements entrenches discriminatory systems. If the Government of Kenya won’t ban settlement products for fear of jeopardising bilateral relationships, as citizens we should boycott these products and advocate that they be labeled correctly. Israeli wine, olive oil, and other such products being sold by Baraka Israel are highly substitutable by the Kenyan consumer even when it comes to quality. Further, these products are not integrated into value chains in the country and can be easily replaced.
Israel continues to face censure from its trading partners. For instance, while short of a boycott, European Union members can mark products coming from Israeli settlements. South Africa also adopted regulations to prevent the labelling of goods from settlements as being produced in Israel given that this misleads consumers.
Israel is joining the scramble for Africa
From a diplomatic perspective, Israeli-Kenyan ties have been growing stronger over recent years and are centred on security, religious and development cooperation. Two recent visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represent a push to improve ties with Kenya, among other African countries, and to open up markets to Israeli products.
These economic efforts are also intended to improve Israel’s diplomatic position by getting African countries to stop voting against Israel in international forums. In late 2018, upon recommendations by the UN’s Special Political and Decolonization Committee, the General Assembly voted in favour of nine resolutions on Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights, urging an end to settlement construction. Kenya voted in favour of all resolutions and it is this voting record at the UN that Israel is hoping to sway.
However, Kenya did not participate in the UN vote that rejected U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The official reason given was the closure of the Kenyan mission for the holidays, but this may have been tactical given President Donald Trump’s threat to cut aid to countries that voted against the U.S. Despite international condemnation, Kenyan diplomats were among representatives from 33 countries that nonetheless attended the opening of the U.S embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018.
The arms trade
Israel’s weapons trade in 2016 included a 70 per cent jump in sales to Africa. In 2017, its defence exports reached a record $9.2 billion, mostly comprising military hardware, such as missiles and aerial defence weapons.
Though details often remain opaque, it is no secret that security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Kenya remains strong. This has grown in the aftermath of terror attacks, including the targeting of Israeli tourists at the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa and the attempt to down an Israeli airliner taking off from the coastal city in 2002. And in the wake of the 2013 Westgate mall attack, there were local and foreign media reports of Israeli advisers and security personnel assisting Kenyan security forces in their operation to end the siege.
Israel has been among the top 15 arms exporters for decades, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales are integral to the Israeli economy, accounting for possibly as much as 8 per cent of GDP. Israel’s occupation has also gone global: Revelations emerged that Israel was sending weapons to Myanmar in defiance of a U.S. and European arms embargo, thereby abetting the persecution and massacre of the Muslim-minority Rohingya, who have also been subjected to “apartheid-like conditions” in Rakhine, as detailed by Amnesty International.
Israel has also been selling weapons and military services to human rights violators on the continent. A 2015 UN report found that Israeli arms were fuelling the civil war in South Sudan, and a retired IDF General was recently found to have used an agricultural company as cover for the sale of weapons to the government. Kenya is not lagging behind: From 2006 onwards, Kenya transferred large quantities of arms, including T-72 tanks from Ukraine, to South Sudan. These transfers only became public when Somali pirates hijacked a ship carrying some of the tanks in 2008. In 2013, the South Sudanese government used the tanks to quell protests and destroy homes.
Israel has been among the top 15 arms exporters for decades, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales are integral to the Israeli economy, accounting for possibly as much as 8 per cent of GDP.
Netanyahu has now befriended Chadian President Idriss Deby, one of Africa’s longest- serving leaders. Security sources say the country has acquired Israeli equipment to help battle rebels in the country’s north. Kenya too uses Israeli-manufactured weapons and is a recipient of military training and counterterrorism support. Inside Kenya’s Death Squads, an investigative film by Al Jazeera, found Israel complicit in the perpetration of extrajudicial killings in Kenya by counterterrorism police through its intelligence and training of the General Service Unit to eliminate suspects. And in keeping with its approach of building walls and barriers in the name of security, Israel has pledged to help Kenya speed up the construction of a wall along its border with Somalia.
A growing tribe: The ethically-conscious consumer
The rise of a consumerism culture in Kenya may present economic opportunities but it is also fraught with challenges. There is a market in Kenya for fair-trade products, as well as ethically and sustainably sourced products, including those that don’t harm the environment, animals, and I would add to this list, human beings. Consumers are rightly demanding more transparency from businesses and companies, and the latter are slowly responding. Green Spoon, the online store in Kenya targeting consumers “who care about what they eat”, stocks products and brands supporting local producers and communities. These include unadulterated pork from farms near Mount Kenya, free-range chickens from the highlands of Tigoni, and craft-beer made from 100 per cent spring water. Their philosophy emanates from the need to no longer worry about the “source of the food, how it was made, who made it, and what went into it”. It may come as a surprise that Baraka Israel is among their featured producers, “bringing Israel’s finest quality products to Kenya”. Whether this is aligned with their philosophy is a question they and their consumers need to contend with.
Information about supply chains can be an inspiring part of a brand, but this information can also be hidden and spun. Yesterday Romans made slaves crush grapes by foot; today Baraka Israel will selectively educate you about their ancient wine-making culture, playing to the ignorance of many. As citizens we have voiced our indignation about the mercury-laden sugar we have been consuming and the poor quality tilapia imported from China. As we advocate for quality products that don’t poison us, we should likewise refuse to consume products that explicitly harm others.
Mandela’s words, alluding to the collective importance of achieving freedom for the Palestinians, serve as a reminder to fight discriminatory and unjust systems at home and abroad. And this resistance can begin in the pantry or cellar. Wine and food lovers may have revelled in the innocence of consuming these products but these products’ sinister history and continued tainting is inching upwards from the vines, blossoming, and will soon be harvesting on your tongue. Will you be ready?
A Dictator’s Guide: How Museveni Wins Elections and Reproduces Power in Uganda
Caricatures aside, how do President Yoweri Museveni and the National Revolutionary Movement state reproduce power? It’s been 31 years.
Recent weeks have seen increased global media attention to Uganda following the incidents surrounding the arrest of popular musician and legislator, Bobi Wine; emblematic events that have marked the shrinking democratic space in Uganda and the growing popular struggles for political change in the country.
The spotlight is also informed by wider trends across the continent over the past few years—particularly the unanticipated fall of veteran autocrats Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Yaya Jammeh in Gambia, and most recently Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—which led to speculation about whether Yoweri Museveni, in power in Uganda since 1986, might be the next to exit this shrinking club of Africa’s strongmen.
Yet the Museveni state, and the immense presidential power that is its defining characteristic, has received far less attention, thus obscuring some of the issues at hand. Comprehending its dynamics requires paying attention to at-least three turning points in the National Resistance Movement’s history, which resulted in a gradual weeding-out of Museveni’s contemporaries and potential opponents from the NRM, then the mobilisation of military conflict to shore up regime legitimacy, and the policing of urban spaces to contain the increasingly frequent signals of potential revolution. Together, these dynamics crystallised presidential power in Uganda, run down key state institutions, and set the stage for the recent tensions and likely many more to come.
From the late 1990s, there has been a gradual weeding out the old guard in the NRM, which through an informal “succession queue,” had posed an internal challenge to the continuity of Museveni’s rule. It all started amidst the heated debates in the late 1990s over the reform of the then decaying Movement system; debates that pitted a younger club of reformists against an older group. The resultant split led to the exit of many critical voices from the NRM’s ranks, and began to bolster Museveni’s grip on power in a manner that was unprecedented. It also opened the lid on official corruption and the abuse of public offices.
Over the years, the purge also got rid of many political and military elites—the so-called “historicals”—many of whom shared Museveni’s sense of entitlement to political office rooted in their contribution to the 1980-1985 liberation war, and some of whom probably had an eye on his seat.
By 2005 the purge was at its peak; that year the constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits—passed after a bribe to every legislator—saw almost all insiders that were opposed to it, summarily dismissed. As many of them joined the ranks of the opposition, Museveni’s inner circle was left with mainly sycophants whose loyalty was more hinged on patronage than anything else. Questioning the president or harboring presidential ambitions within the NRM had become tantamount to a crime.
By 2011 the process was almost complete, with the dismissal of Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, whose growing popularity among rural farmers was interpreted as a nascent presidential bid, resulting in his firing.
One man remained standing, Museveni’s long-time friend Amama Mbabazi. His friendship with Museveni had long fueled rumors that he would succeed “the big man” at some point. In 2015, however, his attempt to run against Museveni in the ruling party primaries also earned him an expulsion from both the secretary general position of the ruling party as well as the prime ministerial office.
The departure of Mbabazi marked the end of any pretensions to a succession plan within the NRM. He was unpopular, with a record tainted by corruption scandals and complicity in Museveni’s authoritarianism, but his status as a “president-in-waiting” had given the NRM at least the semblance of an institution that could survive beyond Museveni’s tenure, which his firing effectively ended.
What is left now is perhaps only the “Muhoozi project,” a supposed plan by Museveni to have his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba succeed him. Lately it has been given credence by the son’s rapid rise to commanding positions in elite sections of the Ugandan military. But with an increasingly insecure Museveni heavily reliant on familial relationships and patronage networks, even the Muhoozi project appears very unlikely. What is clear, though, is that the over time, the presidency has essentially become Museveni’s property.
Fundamental to Museveni’s personalisation of power also has been the role of military conflict, both local and regional. First was the rebellion by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, which over its two-decade span enabled a continuation of the military ethos of the NRM. The war’s dynamics were indeed complex, and rooted in a longer history that predated even the NRM government, but undoubtedly it provided a ready excuse for the various shades of authoritarianism that came to define Museveni’s rule.
With war ongoing in the north, any challenge to Museveni’s rule was easily constructed as a threat to the peace already secured in the rest of the country, providing an absurd logic for clamping down on political opposition. More importantly, the emergency state born of it, frequently provided a justification for the president to side-step democratic institutions and processes, while at the same time rationalising the government’s disproportionate expenditure on the military. It also fed into Museveni’s self-perception as a “freedom fighter,” buttressed the personality cult around him, and empowered him to further undermine any checks on his power.
By the late 2000s the LRA war was coming to an end—but another war had taken over its function just in time. From the early 2000s, Uganda’s participation in a regional security project in the context of the War on Terror, particularly in the Somalian conflict, rehabilitated the regime’s international image and provided cover for the narrowing political space at home, as well as facilitating a further entrenchment of Museveni’s rule.
As post-9/11 Western foreign policy began to prioritise stability over political reform, Museveni increasingly postured as the regional peacemaker, endearing himself to donors while further sweeping the calls for democratic change at home under the carpet—and earning big from it.
It is easy to overlook the impact of these military engagements, but the point is that together they accentuated the role of the military in Ugandan politics and further entrenched Museveni’s power to degrees that perhaps even the NRM’s own roots in a guerrilla movement could never have reached.
The expulsion of powerful elites from the ruling circles and the politicisation of military conflict had just started to cement Musevenism, when a new threat emerged on the horizon. It involved not the usual antagonists—gun-toting rebels or ruling party elites—but ordinary protesters. And they were challenging the NRM on an unfamiliar battleground—not in the jungles, but on the streets: the 2011 “Walk-to-Work” protests, rejecting the rising fuel and food prices, were unprecedented.
But there is another reason the protests constituted a new threat. For long the NRM had mastered the art of winning elections. The majority constituencies were rural, and allegedly strongholds of the regime. The electoral commission itself was largely answerable to Museveni. With rural constituencies in one hand and the electoral body in the other, the NRM could safely ignore the minority opposition-dominated urban constituencies. Electoral defeat thus never constituted a threat to the NRM, at least at parliamentary and presidential levels.
But now the protesters had turned the tables, and were challenging the regime immediately after one of its landslide victories. The streets could not be rigged. In a moment, they had shifted the locus of Ugandan politics from the rural to the urban, and from institutional to informal spaces. And they were picking lessons from a strange source: North Africa. There, where Museveni’s old friend Gaddafi, among others, was facing a sudden exit under pressure from similar struggles. Things could quickly get out of hand. A strategic response was urgent.
The regime went into overdrive. The 2011 protests were snuffed out, and from then, the policing of urban spaces became central to the logic and working of the Museveni state. Draconian laws on public assembly and free speech came into effect, enacted by a rubber-stamp parliament that was already firmly in Museveni’s hands. Police partnered with criminal gangs, notably the Boda Boda 2010, to curb what was called “public disorder”—really the official name for peaceful protest. As police’s mandate expanded to include the pursuit of regime critics, its budget ballooned, and its chief, General Kale Kayihura, became the most powerful person after Museveni—before his recent dismissal.
For a while, the regime seemed triumphant. Organising and protest became virtually impossible, as urban areas came under 24/7 surveillance. Moreover, key state institutions—the parliament, electoral commission, judiciary, military and now the police—were all in the service of the NRM, and all voices of dissent had been effectively silenced. In time, the constitution would be amended again, by the NRM-dominated house, this time to remove the presidential age limit—the last obstacle to Museveni’s life presidency—followed by a new tax on social media, to curb “gossip.” Museveni was now truly invincible. Or so it seemed.
But the dreams of “walk-to-work”—the nightmare for the Museveni state—had never really disappeared, and behind the tightly-patrolled streets always lay the simmering quest for change. That is how we arrived at the present moment, with a popstar representing the widespread aspiration for better government, and a seemingly all-powerful president suddenly struggling for legitimacy. Whatever direction the current popular struggles ultimately take, what is certain is that they are learning well from history, and are a harbinger of many more to come.
The Enduring Blind Spots of America’s Africa Policy
America should move way from making the military the face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.
While Donald Trump’s administration completely neglected America-Africa relations, the blind spots bedeviling America’s Africa policy preceded his 2016 election. Correcting the systemic flaws of the past 30 years will require a complete rethink after the controversial President’s departure.
To remedy America’s Africa policy, President Joseph Biden’s administration should pivot away from counterterrorism to supporting democratic governance as a principal rather than as mere convenience, and cooperate with China on climate change, peace, and security on the continent.
America’s Africa policy
America’s post-Cold War Africa policy has had three distinct and discernible phases. The first phase was an expansionist outlook undergirded by humanitarian intervention. The second was nonintervention, a stance triggered by the experience of the first phase. The third is the use of “smart” military interventions using military allies.
The turning point for the first phase was in 1989 when a victorious America pursued an expansive foreign policy approach predicated on humanitarian intervention. Somalia became the first African test case of this policy when, in 1992, America sent almost 30,000 troops to support Operation Restore Hope’s humanitarian mission which took place against the background of the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991.
On 3-4 October 1993, during the Battle of Mogadishu, 18 US servicemen were killed in a fight with warlords who controlled Mogadishu then, and the bodies of the marines dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The media coverage increased pressure on the politicians and six months later America withdrew from Somalia — a case of the New World Order meeting the harsh reality of civil conflict.
The chastening experience resulted in America scaling back its involvement in internal conflicts in far-flung places. The result was the emergence of the second phase — non-engagement when Rwanda’s Genocide erupted in 1994 and almost a million people died in 100 days revealed the limitations of over-correcting the Somalia experience. This “non-interference” phase lasted until the twin Nairobi and Dar es Salaam US embassy bombings by Al Qaeda in 1998.
This gave way to the third phase with the realisation that the new threat to America was no longer primarily from state actors, but from transnational non-state actors using failing states as safe havens. The 2002 National Security Strategy states: “the events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states . . . can pose as a great danger to our national interests as strong states.”
Counterterrorism training and equipping of African militaries is the central plank of this new security policy. As a result, counterterrorism funding has skyrocketed as has America’s military footprint in Africa. As a result, Africa has become the theatre in which the Global forever War on Terror is fought.
The counterterrorism traps
The reflexive reaction to the events of September 11 2001 spawned an interlocking web of covert and overt military and non-military operations. These efforts, initially deemed necessary and temporary, have since morphed into a self-sustaining system complete with agencies, institutions and a specialised lingo that pervades every realm of America’s engagement with Africa.
The United States Africa Command (Africom) is the vehicle of America’s engagement with the continent. Counterterrorism blurred the line between security, development, and humanitarian assistance with a host of implications including unrelenting militarisation which America’s policy establishment embraced uncritically as the sine qua non of America’s diplomacy, their obvious flaws notwithstanding. The securitisation of problems became self-fulfilling and self-sustaining.
The embrace of counterterrorism could not have come at a worse time for Africa’s efforts at democratization. In many African countries, political and military elites have now developed a predictable rule-based compact governing accession to power via elections rather than the coups of the past.
“Smart” African leaders exploited the securitised approach in two main ways: closing the political space and criminalising dissent as “terrorism” and as a source of free money. In Ethiopia, Yonatan Tesfaye, a former spokesman of the Semayawi (Blue) Party, was detained in December 2015 on charges under Article 4 of Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation ((EATP), arguably one of the the country’s most severe pieces of legislation. But Ethiopia has received millions of dollars from the United States.
The Department of Defense hardly says anything in public but gives out plenty of money without asking questions about human rights and good governance. Being a counterterrorism hub has become insurance policy against any form of criticism regardless of state malfeasance.
Egypt is one such hub. According to the Congressional Research Service, for the 2021 financial year, the Trump Administration has requested a total of US$1.4 billion in bilateral assistance for Egypt, which Congress approved in 2018 and 2019. Nearly all US funding for Egypt comes from the Foreign Military Finance (FMF) account and is in turn used to purchase military equipment of US origin, spare parts, training, and maintenance from US firms.
Another country that is a counterterrorism hub in the Horn of Africa is Ethiopia. For the few months they were in charge, the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU) brought order and stability to the country. Although they were linked to only a few of Mogadishu’s local courts, on 24 December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to contain the rise of Al Shabaab’s political and military influence.
The ouster of the ICU by Ethiopia aggravated the deep historical enmity between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab — initially the youth wing of the ICU — subsequently exploited through a mix of Somali nationalism, Islamist ideology, and Western anti-imperialism. Al Shabaab presented themselves as the vanguard against Ethiopia and other external aggressors, providing the group with an opportunity to translate their rhetoric into action.
Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia could not have taken place without America’s blessing. The intervention took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, met with the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The intervention generated a vicious self-sustaining loop. Ethiopians are in Somalia because of Al Shabaab, and Al Shabaab says they will continue fighting as long as foreign troops are inside Somalia.
America has rewarded Ethiopia handsomely for its role as the Horn of Africa’s policeman. In both Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s case, on the score of human rights and good governance, the net losers are the citizens.
In keeping with the War on Terror being for forever, and despite departing Somalia in 1993, America outsourced a massive chunk of the fight against Al Shabaab to Ethiopia primarily, and later, to AMISOM. America is still engaged in Somalia where it has approximately 800 troops, including special forces that help train Somalia’s army to fight against Al Shabaab.
America carried out its first drone strike in Somalia in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Under the Trump administration, however, the US has dramatically increased the frequency of drone attacks and loosened the oversight required to approve strike targets in Somalia. In March 2017, President Trump secretly designated parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”, meaning that the high-level inter-agency vetting of proposed strikes and the need to demonstrate with near certainty that civilians would not be injured or killed no longer applied. Last year, the US acknowledged conducting 63 airstrikes in the country, and in late August last year, the US admitted that it had carried out 46 strikes in 2020.
A lack of transparency regarding civilian casualties and the absence of empirical evidence that the strikes lead to a reduction in terrorism in Somalia suggest that expanding to Kenya would be ill-advised. The US has only acknowledged having caused civilian casualties in Somalia three times. Between 2016 and 2019, AFRICOM failed to conduct a single interview with civilian witnesses of its airstrikes in Somalia.
Despite this level of engagement, defeating Al Shabaab remains a remote possibility.
Containing the Chinese takeover
The Trump Administration did not have an Africa policy. The closest approximation of a policy during Trump’s tenure was stated in a speech delivered by John Bolton at a Conservative think tank decrying China’s nefarious activities in Africa. Even with a policy, where the counterterrorism framework views Africa as a problem to be solved by military means, the containing China policy views African countries as lacking the agency to act in their own interests. The problem with this argument is that it is patronising; Africans cannot decide what is right for them.
Over the last decades, while America was busy creating the interlocking counterterrorism infrastructure in Africa, China was building large-scale infrastructure across the continent. Where America sees Africa as a problem to be solved, China sees Africa as an opportunity to be seized.
Almost two years into the Trump administration, there were no US ambassadors deployed in 20 of Africa’s 54 countries even while America was maintaining a network of 29 military bases. By comparison China, has 50 embassies spread across Africa.
For three consecutive years America’s administration has proposed deep and disproportionate cuts to diplomacy and development while China has doubled its foreign affairs budget since 2011. In 2018, China increased its funding for diplomacy by nearly 16 per cent and its funding for foreign aid by almost 7 per cent.
As a show of how engagement with Africa is low on the list of US priorities, Trump appointed a luxury handbag designer as America’s ambassador to South Africa on 14 November 2018. Kenya’s ambassador is a political appointee who, when he is not sparring with Kenyans on Twitter, is supporting a discredited coal mining project.
The US anti-China arguments emphasize that China does not believe in human rights and good governance, and that China’s funding of large infrastructure projects is essentially debt-trap diplomacy. The anti-China rhetoric coming from American officials is not driven by altruism but by the realisation that they have fallen behind China in Africa.
By the middle of this century Africa’s population is expected to double to roughly two billion. Nigeria will become the second most populous country globally by 2100, behind only India. The 24-country African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) entered into force on 30 May 2019. AfCFTA will ultimately bring together all 55 member states of the African Union covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people — including a growing middle class — and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$3.4 trillion.
While Chinese infrastructure projects grab the headlines, China has moved into diversifying its engagement with Africa. The country has increased its investments in Africa by more than 520 per cent over the last 15 years, surpassing the US as the largest trading partner for Africa in 2009 and becoming the top exporter to 19 out of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the legacy Chinese investments have come at a steep environmental price and with an unsustainable debt. Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway is bleeding money and is economically unviable.
A fresh start
Supporting democratic governance and learning to cooperate with China are two areas that will make America part of Africa’s future rather than its past.
America should pivot way from making the military the most visible face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.
Despite the elegy about its retreat in Africa, democracy enjoys tremendous support. According to an Afro barometer poll, almost 70 per cent of Africans say democracy is their preferred form of government. Large majorities also reject alternative authoritarian regimes such as presidential dictatorships, military rule, and one-party governments. Democracy, while still fledgling, remains a positive trend; since 2015, there have been 34 peaceful transfers of power.
However, such positive metrics go hand in hand with a worrying inclination by presidents to change constitutions to extend their terms in office. Since 2015, leaders of 13 countries have evaded or overseen the weakening of term limit restrictions that had been in place. Democracy might be less sexy, but ignoring it is perilous. There are no apps or switches to flip to arrest this slide. It requires hard work that America is well equipped to support but has chosen not to in a range of countries in recent years There is a difference between interfering in the internal affairs of a country and complete abdication or (in some cases) supporting leaders who engage in activities that are inimical to deepening democracy.
The damage wrought by the Trump presidency and neo-liberal counterterrorism policies will take time to undo, but symbolic efforts can go a long way to bridging the gap.
America must also contend with China being an indispensable player in Africa and learn to cooperate rather than compete in order to achieve optimal outcomes.
China has 2,458 military and police personnel serving in eight missions around the globe, far more than the combined contribution of personnel by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia, the US, France and Britain. China had more than 2,400 Chinese troops take part in seven UN peacekeeping missions across the continent — most notably in Mali and South Sudan. Of the 14 current UN peacekeeping missions, seven are in Africa, consuming two-thirds of the budget.
Climate change and conflict resolution provide opportunities for cooperation. Disproportionate reliance on rain-fed agriculture and low adaptation to the adverse impact of climate change make Africa vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, the consequences of which will transcend Africa. Through a combination of research, development, technological transfer and multilateral investment, America and China could stave off the impact of climate change in Africa.
Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts
Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee.
Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee, an investigation by Africa Uncensored and The Elephant has uncovered.
One of the companies was also awarded a mysterious Ksh 4.3 billion agreement to supply 8 million bottles of hand sanitizer, according to the government’s procurement system.
The contracts were awarded in 2015 as authorities moved to contain the threat from the Ebola outbreak that was ravaging West Africa and threatening to spread across the continent as well as from flooding related to the El-Nino weather phenomenon.
The investigation found that between 2014 and 2016, the Ministry of Health handed out hundreds of questionable non-compete tenders related to impending disasters, with a total value of KSh176 billion including three no-bid contracts to two firms, Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, linked to Mrs Nyamai, whose committee oversaw the ministry’s funding – a clear conflict of interest.
Although authorities have since scrutinized some of the suspicious contracts and misappropriated health funds, the investigation revealed a handful of contracts that were not made public, nor questioned by the health committee.
Mrs Nyamai declined to comment for the story.
Nyamai has been accused by fellow members of parliament of thwarting an investigation of a separate alleged fraud. In 2016, a leaked internal audit report accused the Ministry of Health — colloquially referred to for its location at Afya House — of misappropriating funds in excess of nearly $60 million during the 2015/2016 financial year. Media stories described unauthorized suppliers, fraudulent transactions, and duplicate payments, citing the leaked document.
Members of the National Assembly’s Health Committee threatened to investigate by bringing the suppliers in for questioning, and then accused Nyamai, the committee chairperson, of blocking their probe. Members of the committee signed a petition calling for the removal of Nyamai and her deputy, but the petition reportedly went missing. Nyamai now heads the National Assembly’s Committee on Lands.
Transactions for companies owned by Mrs Nyamai’s relatives were among 25,727 leaked procurement records reviewed by reporters from Africa Uncensored, Finance Uncovered, The Elephant, and OCCRP. The data includes transactions by eight government agencies between August 2014 and January 2018, and reveals both questionable contracts as well as problems that continue to plague the government’s accounting tool, IFMIS.
The Integrated Financial Management Information System was adopted to improve efficiency and accountability. Instead, it has been used to fast-track corruption.
Hand sanitizer was an important tool in fighting transmission of Ebola, according to a WHO health expert. In one transaction, the Ministry of Health paid Sh5.4 million for “the supply of Ebola reagents for hand sanitizer” to a company owned by a niece of the MP who chaired the parliamentary health committee. However, it’s unclear what Ebola reagents, which are meant for Ebola testing, have to do with hand sanitizer. Kenya’s Ministry of Health made 84 other transactions to various vendors during this period, earmarked specifically for Ebola-related spending. These included:
- Public awareness campaigns and adverts paid to print, radio and tv media platforms, totalling at least KSh122 million.
- Printed materials totalling at least KSh214 million for Ebola prevention and information posters, contact tracing forms, technical guideline and point-of-entry forms, brochures and decision charts, etc. Most of the payments were made to six obscure companies.
- Ebola-related pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical supplies, including hand sanitizer
- Ebola-related conferences, catering, and travel expenses
- At least KSh15 millions paid to a single vendor for isolation beds
Hacking the System
Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, appear to have no history of dealing in hygiene or medical supplies. Yet they were awarded three blanket purchase agreements, which are usually reserved for trusted vendors who provide recurring supplies such as newspapers and tea, or services such as office cleaning.
“A blanket agreement is something which should be exceptional, in my view,” says former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko.
But the leaked data show more than 2,000 such agreements, marked as approved by the heads of procurement in various ministries. About KSh176 billion (about $1.7 billion) was committed under such contracts over 42 months.
“Any other method of procurement, there must be competition. And in this one there is no competition,” explained a procurement officer, who spoke generally about blanket purchase agreements on background. “You have avoided sourcing.”
The Ministry of Health did not respond to detailed questions, while Mrs Nyamai declined to comment on the contracts in question.
Procurement experts say blanket purchase agreements are used in Kenya to short-circuit the competitive process. A ministry’s head of procurement can request authority from the National Treasury to create blanket agreements for certain vendors. Those companies can then be asked by procurement employees to deliver supplies and services without competing for a tender.
Once in the system, these single-source contracts are prone to corruption, as orders and payments can simply be made without the detailed documentation required under standard procurements. With limited time and resources, government auditors say they struggle especially with reconciling purchases made under blanket agreements.
The agreements were almost always followed by standard purchase orders that indicated the same vendor and the same amount which is unusual and raises fears of duplication. Some of these transactions were generated days or weeks after the blanket agreements, many with missing or mismatched explanations. It’s unclear whether any of these actually constituted duplicate payments.
For example, the leaked data show two transactions for Ameken Minewest for Sh6.9 million each — a blanket purchase order for El Nino mitigation supplies and a standard order for the supply of chlorine tablets eight days later. Tira Southshore also had two transactions of Sh12 million each — a blanket purchase for the “supply of lab reagents for cholera,” and six days later a standard order for the supply of chlorine powder.
Auditors say both the amounts and the timing of such payments are suspicious because blanket agreements should be paid in installments.
“It could well be a duplicate, using the same information, to get through the process. Because you make a blanket [agreement], then the intention is to do duplicates, so that it can pass through the cash payee phase several times without delivering more,” said Ouko upon reviewing some of the transactions for Tira Southshore. This weakness makes the IFMIS system prone to abuse, he added.
In addition, a KSh4 billion contract for hand sanitizer between the Health Ministry’s Preventive and Promotive Health Department and Tira Southshore was approved as a blanket purchase agreement in April 2015. The following month, a standard purchase order was generated for the same amount but without a description of services — this transaction is marked in the system as incomplete. A third transaction — this one for 0 shillings — was generated 10 days later by the same procurement employee, using the original order description: “please supply hand sanitizers 5oomls as per contract Moh/dpphs/dsru/008/14-15-MTC/17/14-15(min.no.6).
Reporters were unable to confirm whether KSh4 billion was paid by the ministry. The leaked data doesn’t include payment disbursement details, and the MOH has not responded to requests for information.
“I can assure you there’s no 4 billion, not even 1 billion. Not even 10 million that I have ever done, that has ever gone through Tira’s account, through that bank account,” said the co-owner of the company, Abigael Mukeli. She insisted that Tira Southshore never had a contract to deliver hand sanitizer, but declined to answer specific questions. It is unclear how a company without a contract would appear as a vendor in IFMIS, alongside contract details.
It is possible that payments could end up in bank accounts other than the ones associated with the supplier. That is because IFMIS also allowed for the creation of duplicate suppliers, according to a 2016 audit of the procurement system. That audit found almost 50 cases of duplication of the same vendor.
“Presence of active duplicate supplier master records increases the possibility of potential duplicate payments, misuse of bank account information, [and] reconciliation issues,” the auditors warned.
They also found such blatant security vulnerabilities as ghost and duplicate login IDs, deactivated requirements for password resets, and remote access for some procurement employees.
IFMIS was promoted as a solution for a faster procurement process and more transparent management of public funds. But the way the system was installed and used in Kenya compromised its extolled safeguards, according to auditors.
“There is a human element in the system,” said Ouko. “So if the human element is also not working as expected then the system cannot be perfect.”
The former head of the internal audit unit at the health ministry, Bernard Muchere, confirmed in an interview that IFMIS can be manipulated.
Masking the Setup
Ms Mukeli, the co-owner of Tira Southshore and Ameken Minewest, is the niece of Mrs Nyamai, according to local sources and social media investigation, although she denied the relationship to reporters. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Mukeli works at Kenya Medical Supplies Agency, a medical logistics agency under the Ministry of Health, now embroiled in a COVID procurement scandal.
Ms Mukeli’s mother, who is the MP’s elder sister, co-owns Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., which shares a post office box with Tira Southshore and Mematira Holdings Limited, which was opened in 2018, is co-owned by Mrs Nyamai’s husband and daughter, and is currently the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest. Documents also show that a company called Icpher Consultants was originally registered to the MP, who was listed as the beneficial owner.
Co-owner of Tira Southshore Holdings Limited, Abigael Mukeli, described the company to reporters as a health consulting firm. However Tira Southshore also holds an active exploration license for the industrial mining in a 27-square-kilometer area in Kitui County, including in the restricted South Kitui National Reserve. According to government records, the application for mining limestone in Mutomo sub-county — Nyamai’s hometown — was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018.
Mukeli is also a minority owner of Ameken Minewest Company Limited, which also holds an active mining license in Mutomo sub-county of Kitui, in an area covering 135.5 square kilometers. Government records show that the application for the mining of limestone, magnesite, and manganese was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018. Two weeks after the license was granted, Mematira Holdings Limited was incorporated, with Nyamai’s husband and daughter as directors. Today, Mematira Holdings is the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest, which is now in the process of obtaining another mining license in Kitui County.
According to public documents, Ameken also dabbles in road works and the transport of liquefied petroleum gas. And it’s been named by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in a fuel fraud scheme.
Yet another company, Wet Blue Proprietors Logistics Ltd., shares a phone number with Tira Southshore and another post office box with Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., according to a Kenya National Highway Authority list of pre-qualified vendors.
Mrs Nyamai and her husband co-own Wet Blue. The consulting company was opened in 2010, the same year that the lawmaker completed her PhD work in HIV/AIDS education in Denmark.
Wet Blue was licenced in 2014 as a dam contractor and supplier of water, sewerage, irrigation and electromechanical works. It’s also listed by KENHA as a vetted consultant for HIV/AIDS mitigation services, together with Icpher Consultants.
It is unclear why these companies are qualified to deliver all these services simultaneously.
“Shell companies receiving contracts in the public sector in Kenya have enabled corruption, fraud and tax evasion in the country. They are literally special purpose vehicles to conduct ‘heists’ and with no track record to deliver the public goods, works or services procured,” said Sheila Masinde, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya.
Both MOH and Ms Mukeli refused to confirm whether the ordered supplies were delivered.
Mrs Nyamai also co-owns Ameken Petroleum Limited together with Alfred Agoi Masadia and Allan Sila Kithome.
Mr Agoi is an ANC Party MP for Sabatia Constituency in Vihiga County, and was on the same Health Committee as Mrs Nyamai, a Jubilee Party legislator. Mr Sila is a philanthropist who is campaigning for the Kitui County senate seat in the 2022 election.
Juliet Atellah at The Elephant and Finance Uncovered in the UK contributed reporting.
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