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The Troika Laundromat: How Vast Offshore Network Moved Billions With Help From Major Russian Bank

10 min read.

The Laundromat wasn’t just a money laundering system. It was also a hidden investment vehicle, a slush fund, a tax evasion scheme, and much more.

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The Troika Laundromat: How Vast Offshore Network Moved Billions With Help From Major Russian Bank
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At first blush, Ruben Vardanyan and Armen Ustyan have nothing in common beyond their Armenian roots.

Vardanyan is a wealthy Russian banker who once led Troika Dialog, the country’s largest private investment bank. He’s spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos and spent tens of millions of dollars on philanthropic projects in his native Armenia. Ustyan is a seasonal construction worker who shares a chilly apartment with his wife and parents in northern Armenia when he isn’t renovating flats in Moscow.

Ustyan’s name and a copy of his passport appear in the bank documents for an offshore shell company that played a role in Troika’s system. The company was one of at least 75 that formed the complex financial web, which functioned from 2006 to early 2013. Over that period, Troika enabled the flow of US$ 4.6 billion into the system and directed the flow of $4.8 billion out. Among the counterparties on these transactions were major Western banks such as Citigroup Inc., Raiffeisen, and Deutsche Bank. The dozens of companies in the system also generated $8.8 billion of internal transactions to obscure the origin of the cash.But Ustyan’s signatures on documents he says he’s never seen draw a direct line to Troika — and to a financial Laundromat that shuffled billions of dollars through offshore companies on behalf of the bank’s clients, many of whom were members of Russia’s elite. The system enabled people to channel money out of Russia, sidestep restrictions in place at the time, hide their assets abroad, and launder money. It also supplied cash to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s friends and powerful oligarchs, and enabled criminals to mask the illicit origins of their cash.

(Citigroup didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story; Raiffeisen declined to comment, citing client confidentiality; and Deutsche Bank said it had “limited access” to information about Troika client transactions and couldn’t comment on specific businesses for legal reasons.)

At the time, Vardanyan was Troika’s president, chief executive officer, and principal partner. He enjoyed a reputation as a Western-friendly representative of Russian capitalism, known for working to improve the country’s business environment and for co-founding the Moscow School of Management Skolko

As with the previous Laundromats, many of the large transactions were made on the back of fictitious trade deals. The bogus deals were invoiced variously as “goods,” “food goods,” “metal goods,” “bills,” and “auto parts.” All the invoices included in the leak were signed by proxies and sent from Troika.ru email addresses. Meanwhile, employees at Troika were setting up the opaque financial system — dubbed here the Troika Laundromat because of its resemblance to previous money laundering schemes uncovered by OCCRP.

This portrait of the operation emerges from a trove of leaked banking transactions and other documents obtained by OCCRP and the Lithuanian news site 15min.lt, and shared with 21 media partners.

As a whole, the data set includes over 1.3 million banking transactions from 238,000 companies and people, as well as thousands of emails, contracts, and company registration forms. This analysis of Troika’s network is based on a subset of the data.

In an interview, Vardanyan said his bank did nothing wrong and that it acted as other investment banks did at the time. He stressed that he couldn’t have known about every deal his enormous bank facilitated for its clients. Reporters found no evidence that he was ever investigated or accused of any wrongdoing by authorities. His signature was found on only one document in the entire scheme, in which he gives a loan to a Troika Laundromat company.

Vardanyan described the system as a private wealth management service.

Referring to the constellation of offshore companies that comprised the Laundromat, he said: “Those are technical service companies of Troika Dialog clients, among them, mine.”

“It could be called a ‘multi-family office,’” he said. “A similar practice still exists at foreign banks. Most of their clients work through international companies. I repeat: We always acted according to the rules of the world financial market of that time … Obviously, rules change, but measuring a market in the past by today’s laws is like applying modern compliance standards to the time of the Great Depression. You’ll agree that this distorts the true situation.”

Asked about the fictitious trade deals, Vardanyan said Troika Dialog’s revenue topped 2 trillion rubles from 2006–2010 ($63–85 billion, depending on currency fluctuations) and that he “couldn’t possibly know about all the deals in a company of this size.”

Though such practices were considered business as usual in Russia at the time, specialists note that systems like the Troika Laundromat can have serious repercussions.

The schemes stunt national economic development, undermine human security, and diminish the quality of life for people left behind, said Louise Shelley, director and founder of George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center and author of the book “Dark Commerce.”

“Money laundering countries, particularly in the developing world, are losing enormous amounts of capital that are needed for infrastructure development, education, health, [and] the development of new businesses, of entrepreneurship,” Shelley said. “With this much money lying overseas, you can do all sorts of malicious things. You can interfere in electoral processes. You can help pay for fake news.”

Criminal Services

The Laundromat wasn’t just a money laundering system. It was also a hidden investment vehicle, a slush fund, a tax evasion scheme, and much more.

Troika’s clients also used it to buy properties in Great Britain, Spain, and Montenegro; to acquire luxury yachts and artwork; to pay for medical services and World Cup tickets; to cover tuition at prestigious Western schools for their children, and even to make donations to churches.

In addition, the Troika Laundromat enabled organized criminal groups and fraudsters to launder the proceeds of their crimes. OCCRP and partners have identified several high-level frauds perpetrated in Russia that used Laundromat companies to hide the origins of their money.

Troika’s clients also used it to buy properties in Great Britain, Spain, and Montenegro; to acquire luxury yachts and artwork; to pay for medical services and World Cup tickets; to cover tuition at prestigious Western schools for their children, and even to make donations to churches.

One of these schemes, known as the Sheremetyevo Airport fuel fraud, took place from 2003 to 2008 and artificially inflated aviation fuel prices while depriving the Russian state of more than $40 million in tax revenue. The scheme led to a hike in plane ticket prices. More than $27 million was sent by companies involved in the fraud to Troika Laundromat accounts. Vardanyan has not been implicated in the scheme and said he had no knowledge of it. In 2010, two years after the fraud ended, Troika Dialog began consulting for the airport along with Credit Suisse.

A second significant criminal inquiry tied to the Laundromat, from which $17 million ended up in the system, involves a tax avoidance scheme allegedly perpetrated by several Russian insurance companies. A man named Sergei Tikhomirov was accused of concluding false service contracts with the insurers as a pretext for having them send him large sums of money, which his accusers say he cycled through several accounts before depositing it abroad or cashing in. A portion of the money ended up in the Laundromat. (Tikhomirov did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)

Roldugin didn’t respond to an email requesting comment, and Vardanyan said that he knew of the cellist, but was not aware that he had any business dealings with Troika.In a third case, at least $69 million went to companies associated with Sergei Roldugin, a Russian cellist and one of Putin’s best friends, who became famous after his vast unexplained wealth was revealed by OCCRP, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and other media partners in the Panama Papers project. Some of the money that Roldugin’s companies received from the Laundromat originated in a massive Russian tax fraud exposed by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in jail after revealing it.

The Troika Laundromat enabled organized criminal groups and fraudsters to launder the proceeds of their crimes. OCCRP and partners have identified several high-level frauds perpetrated in Russia that used Laundromat companies to hide the origins of their money.

Companies involved in the fraud exposed by Magnitsky moved more than $130 million through the Troika Laundromat. In fact, hundreds of millions of dollars went into and out of the Laundromat for unknown purposes.

Vardanyan said he was not aware of any of these transactions.

“Understand, I’m no angel,” he said. “In Russia, you have three paths: Be a revolutionary, leave the country, or be a conformist. So I’m a conformist. But I have my own internal restraints: I never participated in loans-for-shares schemes, I never worked with criminals, I’m not a member of any political party. That’s why, even in the ’90s, I went around with no security guards. … I’m trying to preserve myself and my principles.”

Vardanyan and his family were among those who received money from the Laundromat. More than $3.2 million was used to pay for his American Express card, went to accounts belonging to his wife and family, and paid school fees for his three children in Great Britain.

Asked about these sums, Vardanyan said the offshore companies Troika created serviced his own companies in addition to the bank’s clients.

Troika as Capstone

The Troika Laundromat is unique among the Laundromats that have been uncovered in recent years in that it was created by a prestigious financial institution.

Like all investment banks, Troika handled stock and bond issuance, initial public offerings, and acted as an underwriting agent. It also had a strong relationship with the local office of Citibank Inc., with up to 20 percent of Troika’s new investors coming via the American behemoth. That made New York-based Citibank Troika’s biggest “external agent,” according to a 2006 interview with Troika co-founder Pavel Teplukhin. (Citibank didn’t respond to requests for comment.)Established in the early 1990s, Troika Dialog became Russia’s largest private investment bank. It operated under Vardanyan’s leadership until 2012, when it was purchased by Sberbank, the nation’s largest state-owned lender.

The Troika Laundromat is unique among the Laundromats that have been uncovered in recent years in that it was created by a prestigious financial institution.

Other major international banks, including Credit Suisse and Standard Bank Group, did significant business with Troika as well.

Starting in 2006, Troika employees began putting together the pieces of the Troika Laundromat.

Four essential elements are needed to build a functioning Laundromat: a bank with low anti-money laundering compliance standards; a maze of secretive offshore companies to hold accounts at the bank; proxy directors and shareholders for both the companies and the accounts; and the so-called formation agents that can quickly create, maintain, and dissolve the offshore companies as needed.

The bank orchestrated all of these components of the Troika Laundromat, in addition to directing the money flows and fake trade deals that made up its operations.

The pivotal mechanism was based on trade: Shell companies created bogus invoices for non-existent goods and services to be purchased by other companies in the system. The practice provides a fig leaf of legitimate economic activity that makes the transactions appear less suspicious to regulators.

Al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden used a similar system to move money around the Middle East, she said.“You’re disguising an illegal payment by pretending that it is linked to a shipment of goods,” said Shelley, the George Mason corruption expert. “The trade-based system is one of the most central parts of money laundering in the world today.”

If Troika was the capstone of the Laundromat, its cornerstones were three British Virgin Islands-based shell companies: Brightwell Capital Inc., Gotland Industrial Inc., and Quantus Division Ltd. Brightwell’s first known transaction was on April 12, 2005. Gotland was established on Feb. 17, 2006, and Quantus followed six months later on Aug. 23.

An analysis of these companies’ banking records reveals how they put the Laundromat together: Starting in 2006, they made numerous small payments to a formation agent called IOS Group Inc. to create the dozens of companies that comprised the complete Laundromat. IOS didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The three cornerstone companies then continued making payments to IOS ranging from 40 to almost 5,000 euros over almost six years to keep the entire network operating. Over that span, the total reached over 143,000 euros.

Quantus, for example, paid formation and maintenance fees for the British Virgin Islands-based Kentway SA. This company was later used, among many others, to send millions of dollars to Sandalwood Continental Ltd., a company connected to Sergei Roldugin, the cellist, and one of Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends.

Quantus’ involvement with Kentway demonstrates the many ways in which the Laundromat companies were interconnected. In this case, after first helping establish Kentway, Quantus then funded it with money that Kentway forwarded to Roldugin’s company.

The Bank

To direct the flow of funds through the Laundromat, Troika needed a commercial bank to host accounts for the companies involved. And it needed that bank to avoid looking too closely at the contracts and trades Laundromat businesses used to justify moving money from one offshore company to another.

Troika chose Lithuania’s Ukio Bankas for the job. (The Lithuanian lender would later be seized by the country’s National Bank in 2013 for engaging in risky deals and failing to follow regulators’ orders.) Ukio is known to have set up accounts for 35 companies used in the Troika Laundromat, and likely more.

Because Lithuania wasn’t yet using the euro, Ukio needed correspondent accounts at European banks, such as the Austrian Raiffeisen or the German Commerzbank AG, to handle euro-denominated transactions. Those two lenders and many other large European and U.S. financial institutions accepted Laundromat money, though they did sporadically inquire about the nature of some transactions. After prodding by one of the correspondent banks, for example, some Ukio compliance officers made inquiries about Laundromat payments that didn’t make commercial sense.

“What is the essence of this transaction? We have a contract (attached), but to be honest, I don’t really get what’s happening,” one officer wrote, adding an unhappy face, in relation to a payment that went to a company associated with Roldugin.

By this point, the money had already left Ukio’s accounts.

Asked why Ukio was chosen as the banker for the offshore companies Troika created, Vardanyan said it was just one of about 20 banks Troika used around the world.

The Armenian Proxies

A central figure in many of the transactions involving the Laundromat companies was Armen Ustyan. Far from being an investment banker, Ustyan, 34, works seasonally as a construction worker in Moscow.

Ustyan said he had never heard of Dino Capital SA, the Panama-based Laundromat company whose Ukio bank account was registered using his signature. A copy of his passport was attached, but Ustyan insisted he had no idea how it got there. Ustyan’s signature can be found on contracts and banking paperwork in the Troika Laundromat along with those of a few other Armenians. Wearing an old military jacket and hat, he sat down with reporters this January in his cold living room to answer questions about high finance.

At his mother’s request, he wrote his signature on a piece of paper and concluded that the one associated with Dino Capital had probably been forged.

The Armenian said he knew none of this, though he did recall a slim connection to Troika Dialog: While in Moscow looking for work, Ustyan stayed with a Russian Armenian whose brother he said worked for the investment bank and helped him find employment. In addition to having his signature associated with Dino Capital’s bank account, Ustyan is also listed as an attorney authorized to sign contracts on the company’s behalf, and his signature appears on at least $70 million worth of financial agreements.

The Moscow address is indeed that of Nerses Vagradyan, a Russian citizen of Armenian descent. Nerses’ brother, Samvel Vagradyan, is a director of a Russian company that received millions of dollars from Brightwell, a core Laundromat company. A Samvel Vagradyan is also mentioned on Vardanyan’s website as a donor to the banker’s charitable causes. It’s unknown whether Samvel really worked for Troika.

Neither of the Vagradyan brothers could be reached for comment. Ustyan said he doesn’t believe they used his identity.

Another Armenian front man in the Laundromat appears to be Edik Yeritsyan. His identity was used to register an account at Ukio for the Cyprus-based Popat Holdings Ltd. This company was involved in Laundromat transactions worth millions of dollars.

Yeritsyan told OCCRP that he lost his memory three years ago after a car accident and doesn’t remember some parts of his life. However, Ustyan said that he and Yeritsyan lived together in the same flat they were renovating in Moscow.

This article was first published by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) a global network of investigative journalists.

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Paul Radu is an investigative reporter with OCCRP

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.

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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
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Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.

The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.

The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.

The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He/she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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Politics

IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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Politics

East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

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