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A President, His Generals and a Buccaneer: Vincent Miclet’s Angolan (Mis)Adventures

12 min read.

In Le Monde, Vincent Miclet alleged he was the victim of a cabal of corrupt Angolan generals. He painted himself as the king of imports in Angola, in partnership with the then Minister of State and Presidential Security Chief, General Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Júnior “Kopelipa”.



A President, His Generals and a Buccaneer: Vincent Miclet’s Angolan (Mis)Adventures
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When Le Monde profiled the African-born businessman Vincent Miclet in November 2018, it called him the “Gatsby” of Francophone Africa. The inference was clear: opulence and decadence combined in a single name.

Gatsby was the fatally-flawed character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, whose fabulous wealth was obtained through mysterious – and possibly illegal – means and whose machinations led to his downfall. Vincent Miclet was presented as somewhat exotic: a slick, fifty-something millionaire playboy, born and educated at Baccalaureate level in Africa, his business acumen, in his own words, “self-taught”. In a self-serving interview with Le Monde, Miclet hoped to portray himself as a business genius cheated by Angola’s corrupt generals. (However, the businessman did not respond the questionnaire sent to him for this article.)

Buddies and bribes

According to Liberation, Miclet owes his business success to a combination of showy connections and bribery (in French: “Bling Bling et Bakchichs). It was thanks to his French-African connections that Miclet expanded his business interests across Africa, launching him to number 180 on France’s rich list. And, as Miclet himself told Le Monde, “In Africa, you can’t do business without paying commission (baksheesh).” And he proudly admitted that his personal commission on deals was 30 per cent.

For 20 years Vincent Miclet had operated under the radar. However, a relationship with a French reality TV celebrity in 2013 propelled him onto France’s gossip pages. They gleefully documented this divorcé’s life of luxurious excess during his four years with glamorous Ayem Nour, with whom he fathered a son. Pictures of the couple showed a man in his early fifties with plump unlined features, streaky blonde highlights, and a receding hairline.

After the split from Ayem Nour (which he publicly and unchivalrously blamed on his interfering mother-in-law, Farida), he sold their vast villa in the Dordogne for nearly 30 million euros. The sumptuous Moroccan palace he calls home is reputed to rival that of the King of Morocco. It’s where he played host to the notorious Alexandre Benalla, the former bodyguard of French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, who was fired after he violently attacked the May 1st protesters.

How did the son of non-profit workers become so rich and well-connected? Born in modest circumstances to French non-profit volunteers in Chad, Miclet portrays himself as a self-made business genius – but many suspect that his good fortune can be attributed to modern-day buccaneering.

According to Le Libre Penseur, Miclet’s French-African network was built on connections to the Masons and Corsican MafiosiLibération reported that Miclet hired Benalla as a bodyguard for the mother of his child and then engineered a new career for him via another friend, the veteran French-African business fixer Philippe Hababou Solomon. Miclet is also reported to have been the link between Benalla and Marc Francelet, another interesting Frenchman whose criminal record seems to have presented no obstacle to his security connections.

How did the son of non-profit workers become so rich and well-connected? Born in modest circumstances to French non-profit volunteers in Chad, Miclet portrays himself as a self-made business genius – but many suspect that his good fortune can be attributed to modern-day buccaneering.

After his school days in Africa, Miclet set up his first company, Cash Distribution (a cargo transport company) in 1984. He was 19. Within five years he had entered the food supply business, expanding from dried fish to oil, tomatoes and rice – allegedly becoming the number one importer of rice to Congo.

His entry into Angola is said to have come about thanks to the Féliciaggi family connections (the Féliciaggis had connections to Congo, the Corsican mafia and the disgraced former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua).

According to Liberation, “It was the Corsican connection that led Miclet directly to Angola, where a general close to the president opened the doors to juicy business deals supplying contracts.”

By 1995, he was already reported as partnering with China to supply food and uniforms to the Angolan Armed Forces before diversifying into international logistics and construction. He also went into a joint venture with the French company Necotrans to establish and operate a port terminal in the Angolan capital, Luanda, which, he boasted, was the largest refrigeration plant in Africa.

So what went wrong? Why was he forced to make a hasty exit from Angola amid complaints of undelivered goods and missing millions?

Victim or villain?

In Le Monde, Vincent Miclet alleged he was the victim of a cabal of corrupt Angolan generals. He painted himself as the king of imports in Angola, in partnership with then Minister of State and Presidential Security Chief, General Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Júnior “Kopelipa”.

In 2011, President Dos Santos received intelligence that Tajideen was suspected of funding a terrorist organisation. He summoned the Presidency’s Civilian and Military Chiefs of Staff (Carlos Feijó and General Kopelipa, respectively) to draw up a plan to buy out Kassim Tajideen and expel him from Angola.

He wasn’t lying; his pre-eminence in the import sector came about because the Angolan élite needed a straw man when they ousted the previous “king of imports”, the Lebanese businessman, Kassim Tajideen. Tajideen (currently serving a prison term in the USA) was the majority owner of the Arosfran Group of companies, (amongst them Afribelg, Golfrate and Muteba), which together imported $50 million-dollars-worth of foodstuffs per month, that is $600 million a year.

In 2011, President Dos Santos received intelligence that Tajideen was suspected of funding a terrorist organisation. He summoned the Presidency’s Civilian and Military Chiefs of Staff (Carlos Feijó and General Kopelipa, respectively) to draw up a plan to buy out Kassim Tajideen and expel him from Angola.

Feijó and Kopelipa came up with a scheme to create a new company that they named Nova Distribuidora Alimentar e Diversos, Lda (NDAD), which aimed to buy out the entire assets of the Arosfran Group in Angola (including 170 warehouses) for $150 million. Another of President Dos Santos’s close associates, General Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento “Dino”, obtained a personal loan of $150 million to this end from the Angolan Investment Bank (Banco Angolano de Investimento, BAI).

Several highly-placed sources told Maka Angola that Feijó and Kopelipa co-opted Vincent Miclet and his secretary, Adélia Bandeira El-Bichuti, into lending their names to the company to mask the involvement of politically-exposed persons. Miclet omits this detail from his account. He says he negotiated directly with Kassim Tajideen’s lawyer, Rui Ferreira, for the buy-out.

Yet by 2011 Ferreira had left his legal practice upon being appointed President of the Constitutional Court (today he is Supreme Court President). Questioned by Maka Angola, Judge Ferreira justified his role, denying a conflict of interest (which would have been contrary to Angolan law): It’s true that I was across the sale of the Arosfran Group to NDAD in 2011 and that I had a semi-supervisory role in the process,” he stated. “As is well known, I was a lawyer in private practice for 23 years, between 1985 and 2008. And during that time, I was the legal consignor for a number of the companies in the Arosfran Group, including Golfrate and Afribelg, which belonged to Kassim Tajideen. Back then it was the largest organisation in the field of food distribution in Angola, in particular for essentials.”

However, upon his appointment to the Constitutional Court, Rui Ferreira ceased to represent his previous clients. When the Angolan President decided Kassim Tajideen had to be forced out of Angola, his Chiefs of Staff consulted Judge Ferreira, as he recalls: “They [Carlos Feijó and General Kopelipa] approached me to request my assistance on a matter of national interest. Because of the trust and respect I’d established with Tajideen over the many years of our previous professional relationship, they sought my help to persuade him to agree to an exit deal.They argued that this was a delicate matter of exceptional national interest in that a quick agreement needed to be reached, without dispute, so as not to affect essential food supplies.”

Judge Ferreira’s former client, Kassim Tajideen, was suspicious that the Angolan government was trying to oust him without payment and the President’s envoys needed Ferreira to serve as an unofficial go-between, simply to reassure Tajideen that he would be fully compensated. In these circumstances, said Rui Ferreira, “I agreed. Because it was a request from my country’s government which considered that I was uniquely placed to help them resolve this process, which was in the national interest.” He emphasised that there was no remuneration or other benefit to him and justified his role as an act of patriotism and good citizenship.

“I did what I did. It was nothing more than an unpaid ‘good offices mission’ required of me by my country’s government in the national interest,” he explained. “Both parties accepted that this was a ‘good offices mission’ and welcomed it. I did not act (in an official capacity as lawyer) for either party, but simply as a facilitator of the agreement.”

Miclet and NDAD

The contract for the sale of all the Arosfran Group’s assets was signed on 7 June 2011 by Kassim Tajideen and Vincent Miclet, the latter signing in his capacity as a “partner and manager of NDAD”. Out of the $150 million bank loan obtained by General Dino, two-thirds ($100 million) was paid directly to Kassim Tahjideen in September 2011 to compensate him for his expulsion from Angola. (He is banned from returning to Angola for a period of 20 years.)

As for the other part of the BAI loan ($50 million), well, it simply vanished.

Rui Ferreira admits that he was kept in the dark on the finer points of the deal: “Only some months later, after the fact, and without my being officially informed, did I hear on the grapevine who the real owners of NDAD were.” He names no names but sources have told Maka Angola that the real owners were Generals Kopelipa and Dino.

For his part Kopelipa’s erstwhile civilian colleague at the Office of the President categorically denies any involvement in NDAD. “The fact someone worked or held a senior position in the Office of the Presidency doesn’t mean they automatically enjoy illicit advantages of any kind,” said Carlos Feijó. (That was his only government role, from 2010 to 2012, after which he returned to the private sector and academic life. He’s currently a tenured Professor of Law at Agostinho Neto University.)

Feijó confirmed to Maka Angola that the expulsion of Tajideen and the compulsory purchase of the Arosfran Group were the result of a United Nations subpoena received by the Foreign Ministry of Angola regarding Tajideen’s links to Hezbollah. “I immediately advised [the President] that we must comply without hesitation. My understanding, from the constitutional and legal point of view, was that the Angolan State could not directly intervene and confiscate [the business] as we have no law providing for confiscation of assets unless there has been a guilty verdict in a court of law.”

“At the same time”, said Feijó, “we had to be cognisant of the fact that the Arosfran Group was the main operator in the import and sale of the vast majority of foodstuffs, in particular what we refer to as the ‘essential basket of goods’, and that any action taken against Arosfran could have a grave impact on the inflation rate which we were at pains to control.”

For these reasons, it was believed that the best solution would be to find a private Angolan-owned company to acquire the real estate and assets of the commercial companies in the Arosfran Group.

According to Carlos Feijó, “As General Dino led Kero [a supermarket chain] and had knowledge and experience of the market, he was charged with finding a financial solution, which involved taking out a loan from the BAI.” “Dino arranged the BAI financing. I was not part of what followed. The rest is a private matter which had nothing to do with me.”

Why Vincent Miclet? Because General Kopelipa already knew him from his role as a conduit for Chinese supplies to the Angolan military. Feijó says it was because they already had a business relationship that Miclet was chosen to act as the head of the Arosfran Group.

“All I know is that, from a business point of view, there was a decision to set up an Angolan commercial company and use that for the subsequent acquisition of the Arosfran Group”, explained Feijó. “There was a legitimate contract of sale and purchase of the Arosfran Group’s real estate and assets,” he added.

Why Vincent Miclet? Because General Kopelipa already knew him from his role as a conduit for Chinese supplies to the Angolan military. Feijó says it was because they already had a business relationship that Miclet was chosen to act as the head of the Arosfran Group.

To the best of his recollection, Vincent Miclet and his secretary, Adélia Bichuti, drew up the inventory and valuation of the Arosfram Group based on consultations with Rui Ferreira who had worked with the Group: “To clarify, I mean Rui Ferreira’s private law firm, because I must emphasise that I have no knowledge of whether he was still a partner in that law firm.”

However, once other lawyers took over to draw up the agreement documentation, he says neither he nor General Kopelipa and Dino played any further part in the negotiations. “I must emphasise that I did not see either of the Generals (Kopelipa and Dino) involved in the negotiations. I would say that General Dino’s role was only to arrange the financing.”

Once there was agreement for the sale of the Arosfran Group, the Interior Minister drew up the order to expel Kassim Tajideen from Angola and ban his return. Tajideen was subsequently found guilty of money laundering and funding Hezbollah and was ordered to pay a $50 million fine. He is currently serving a five-year prison sentence in the United States of America.

Some months later, President Dos Santos replaced Carlos Feijó and by 2013 the latter had returned to his private legal practice and took no further part in public life. His subsequent role was in his capacity as head of a private law firm after he was contacted to “try to resolve a situation in which NDAD was in technical bankruptcy, without the wherewithal to pay off the contracted loan”. From 2013, Feijó’s legal firm supplied a lawyer on monthly retainer to NDAD.

Documents received by Maka Angola show that NDAD was bankrupt and incapable of honouring its commitments. At this juncture, General Dino then reappeared to organise the restructuring of the formal shareholder composition of NDAD, with legal assistance from the office of Carlos Feijó.

The remaining $50 million of the debt to Kassim Tajideen was paid off towards the end of 2013, largely thanks to a second loan of $45 million obtained from Banco Privado Atlântico (the BPA, since renamed Millenium Atlântico), also arranged by General Dino.

In Feijó’s view, the relationship with Miclet had broken down due to the poor financial situation. He said there was a loss of confidence (in Vincent Miclet) and an erosion of trust between the various parties involved in the creation of NDAD and the takeover of the Arosfran Group. The reason given was Vincent Miclet’s “erratic management” of NDAD and the lack of clarity regarding conflicting interests between NDAD and Miclet’s company Angodis, which also supplied the Angolan Armed Forces.

“The issues between Vincent Miclet, Kopelipa and Dino resulted in General Dino submitting a criminal complaint to the DNIAP [Direcção Nacional de Investigação e Acção Penal – the National Directorate for Criminal Investigation and Action]. I didn’t see it necessarily as a criminal situation but rather a civil matter which could be resolved through the courts,” said Feijó.

Adieu, Vincent

On February 25, 2015, measures were put in place to rescind the 80 per cent stock quota allocated in the name of Vincent Miclet and the 20 per cent quota in the name of Adélia El-Bichuti and re-allocate them instead to Paulo César Rocha Rasgado (80 per cent) and Samora Borges Sebastião Albino (20 per cent) both of whom were frontmen for General Dino. The process made no reference to any compensation or payment to the outgoing “partners”. After all, they were not the real owners.

However, Vincent Miclet then demanded a pay-off of $56.6 million as “recompense for the acquisition of merchandise by three of his companies” – Pointpark Limited (registered in Dubai), Taycast Investiment Limited (also registered in Dubai) and Angodis – Angola Distribuição, Lda.

The already murky situation was further complicated by grave doubts about the legality of the transactions between them. The contract to supply the Defence Ministry was not with Angodis but his other firm Pointpark; however, Angodis received payments on Pointpark’s behalf.

There is documentary evidence that nefarious schemes were afoot. For example, on 30 May 2015 Angodis wrote to General Kopelipa and the then Defence Minister, Cândido Van-Dúnem, to effect the return of $64 million “received in error”. Maka Angola has not been able to verify whether the sum was, in fact, returned.

It seems fair to say that the arrangement between Miclet’s companies and the Angolan Defence Ministry were not entirely above board. One of the best documented examples of theft by Miclet’s companies was that they devised a strategy to hold back a proportion of the supplies delivered to the Angolan Armed Forces.

In his written reply to Angodis, dated July 18, Lieutenant-General Francisco Firmino Jacinto (Director of the National Directorate for Administration and Finance at the Defence Ministry) begins by explaining the [erroneous] transfers as having been a “budgetary manoeuvre…to avoid their having to withdraw this amount from the Finance Ministry”.

It seems fair to say that the arrangement between Miclet’s companies and the Angolan Defence Ministry were not entirely above board. One of the best documented examples of theft by Miclet’s companies was that they devised a strategy to hold back a proportion of the supplies delivered to the Angolan Armed Forces. Paperwork prepared by senior officials working for Angodis, Pointpark and NDAD show that between 2011 and 2013 Miclet’s companies kept back $20 million of food that was already paid for.

Everyone wanted a piece of the pie

Vincent Miclet committed his version of events to paper in a report for the then President José Eduardo dos Santos, a copy of which was obtained by Maka Angola. In it, he says negotiations [to acquire the Arosfran Group] began in April 2011 and were chaired by “Mr Rui Ferreira, in the presence of the interested parties”.

He went on to state: “On April 7, 2011, Mr Rui Ferreira drew up and signed a contract for the sale and purchase of the fixed and liquid assets of the commercial branch of the Arosfran Group.” He said that initially the Group had demanded $327.3 million but eventually settled for $144.5 million.

Further: “On April 5, 2011, on ‘orders from above’ [generally understood as coming from the Angolan President], the BAI bank granted a loan for the purpose of payment for the contractually agreed price for the parcel of assets as signed by the parties, with the transfer taking effect on July 20, 2011 of US $100 million to the Alicomerce company.”

Miclet said that thereafter he used his own funds to restructure the company and pay for imports. But his summary of events gives the game away when he refers to an intervention by the President’s sister, Marta dos Santos, being interpreted as “treachery” by the “partners” (Generals Kopelipa and Dino). The fact is that they were the real owners of NDAD, not Miclet. He simply lent his name to the enterprise and ‘managed’ the company on their behalf until it was more or less bankrupt and they lost faith in him.

Why was NDAD was in such financial distress? Perhaps because the key figures were bleeding the company dry. Although NDAD reported profits of $1.5 million in its first year of operation, former employees agreed that there was no transparent accounting system in place. Indeed, NDAD’s accounts were handled by Adélia Bandeira, an accountant with Miclet’s firm, Angodis. A former NDAD executive told us: “We [NDAD staffers] had no means of knowing the day-to-day financial situation of the firm.”

With NDAD nominally under new “management”, things came to a head in August of 2013 when Miclet flew his private jet to Luanda for the transfer or powers to Paulo Rasgado and Samora Albino. His jet was prevented from leaving. A furious Miclet blamed General Dino.

As his price for stepping away from NDAD, Miclet is said to have demanded compensation of $82.5 million, which he claimed was the value he had injected into the restructuring of the business and its import activities. After an audit by Deloitte, his erstwhile “partners” offered him a sweetener of $26 million, which Miclet rejected.

In spite of his ouster, Miclet tried to regroup, in particular via his new oil and gas venture, Petroplus Overseas. But according to African Intelligence (IOL 814) his firm has “lost the lion’s share of its portfolio” in Gabon as well as its permits in Mali. Having taken so much of the pie over the past couple of decades, it appears Vincent may have bitten off more than he could chew.

*D. Quaresma Santos contributed to the English version of this report.

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Marques de Morais, Angola’s leading anti-corruption advocate, is winner of the Allard Law School 2015 Prize for International Integrity and the Transparency International Integrity Prize.


The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration

The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.



The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
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The information disorder (i.e., mis- and disinformation) pervasive on social media has arguably interfered with democratic processes across the world. As public authorities and political actors continue to embrace social media as a broadcast and civic engagement tool, the potency of manipulated narratives online is further entrenched. This is debatably truer in electoral contexts where issues are perhaps more emotive and divisive. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s general elections, a notable amount of mis- and disinformation on social media was observable. As Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal noted, doctored images of crowds during political rallies, mild deepfake videos, doctored photos, and fake accounts passing off as political actors or mainstream media were just some of the categories of mis- and disinformation observable on social media. These observations tie in with earlier research by Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, highlighting the practice of using bloggers for disinformation campaigns. During the actual elections, the EU Election Observer Mission also observed “manufactured amplification and coordination of messages online by fake accounts and malicious, bot-driven activity in support of the presidential candidates”.

The impact of the information disorder on democracies has been extensively discussed and will not be the subject of this article. Instead, this article focuses on the diverse responses which have been mooted and implemented in Kenya by policy makers, media, civil society, and social media platforms in response to the information disorder. In particular, this article argues that these responses are largely ineffective when used in isolation and suggests that collectives comprised of a broad range of multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively are likely to have a higher chance at success. One such collective, Fumbua, was established in the run-up to the 2022 general elections in Kenya, and this article argues that the frameworks for collaboration it established can be repurposed to address the information disorder in numerous contexts.

Contextualizing the information disorder on social media

The proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media is made easier by the fact that such platforms, by nature, enable peer-to-peer engagement with little to no gatekeeping. While this characteristic has also meant that these platforms have served to create room for civic engagement and act as an equalizer, such civic engagement is often undermined by the harmful content that is prevalent. In recognition of the potential for harm their platforms pose to democratic processes, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies and tools specifically designed to address election-related mis-and disinformation. Comparatively, the content moderation tools applied in the Global South have arguably been scant. For example, in Brazil, the individuals tasked with enforcing Twitter’s policies during the presidential election only got access to the necessary internal tools a day prior to the election, and only in a limited capacity. Twitter allegedly utilized automatic enforcement technology and third-party service providers. According to numerous commentators, it is not uncommon for content moderation efforts in the Global South to be below par. From automatic enforcement tools trained on datasets lacking in local context, to human content moderators facing the same challenge, these platforms’ efforts to curb the information disorder are handicapped from the outset. These challenges are exacerbated in electoral contexts. Recent developments have shown that it sometimes takes third parties such as researchers or civil society pointing out harmful content for platforms to act.

It is generally agreed that mis-and disinformation was prevalent on social media during Kenya’s August 2022 general election. For example, the EU Election Observer Mission indicated in its report that it had identified hundreds of misleading Facebook and Twitter profiles. Platforms triggered their civic integrity policies a few weeks prior to the election and set up information centres and moderately labelled misleading content. However, these labels were not consistently applied and were in fact only deployed during the election tallying process. Stakeholders seemingly lacked a clear solution to address the information disorder on social media. The lack of sustainable and scalable solutions is not unique to Kenya and the region. It is certainly a global problem and a key step in the right direction is securing more transparency from platforms in relation to their enforcement processes as this will enable stakeholders to co-create solutions. However, in the interim, the information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed. One way to accomplish this is through multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua.

Addressing the information disorder

Fumbua is a collective of media and media-related organisations which came together in the run-up of the 2022 general election with a view to addressing the information disorder as it relates to political campaigning. The efforts to address the information disorder in Kenya’s 2022 general election can largely be categorized into actions taken in anticipation of the mis- and disinformation (pre-emptive measures) and actions taken in response to the information disorder (reactive measures). Fumbua brought together organisations involved in both areas, such as fact checkers, “pre-bunkers” and traditional media. Both these reactive and pre-emptive measures are discussed below.

The information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed.

Mis- and disinformation has reportedly featured in Kenyan elections since 2013. Consequently, with each passing cycle, stakeholders have been able to understand its nature and develop solutions which are alive to Kenya’s specific context. Unfortunately, due to the rapidly evolving nature of mis- and disinformation practices, the solutions developed have often been reactive in that they seek to get rid of such harmful content or undo its effects after the fact. For example, by criminalizing false content through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, by fact checking such content, by using labels to warn audiences of the nature of the content, and by obtaining the takedown of such content from social media sites.

Fact checking has perhaps been the most prevalent or visible response to the information disorder. It essentially entails systematically breaking down the validity of claims made by public officials, institutions, and political actors with a view to identifying whether the claim is factual or not. In Kenya’s elections, various fact-checkers were active. These included independent media, the fact-checking desks of mainstream media, and collectives or associations. To name a few, Africa Check, Africa Uncensored, Pesa Check, Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Editors Guild and The Star were involved in fact-checking claims made during the Kenyan elections. While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder, especially when empirical evidence on the subject is divided. In highly politicized environments, it is unlikely that being exposed to verification of claims will affect an audience’s world view. This is more so the case where the objectivity and impartiality of the fact-checkers are in question. Fact-checkers often must compete with an audience’s confirmation bias and their credibility is often questioned due to the conflict their narrative poses to the world view of some audiences. This is not made easier by the fact that fact-checking is a difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive process which cannot compete with the speed at which false information is spread through social media. Add in the fact that false information more easily captures attention due to its ability to trigger negative emotions and one can understand why the utility and efficacy of fact-checking is limited. Fact-checking claims made through social media have also been especially difficult in Kenya due to the minimal and often performative support given to fact-checkers by social media platforms.

For fact-checking to be effective, it must offer an alternative narrative to that which it is disputing. The challenge is that such a narrative must exist in the first place and must be capable of being accepted by an audience. Where such a narrative exists, there is a risk that it may come with “political baggage” and as such be difficult to accept. In such cases, the efficacy of fact-checking is limited, and this is essentially the challenge faced by fact-checkers – purveyors of false information are not bound by the same rules. Despite all this, fact-checking has been found to positively affect audience beliefs notwithstanding pre-existing beliefs and whether an alternative narrative was presented. However, these credentials are limited as the effects on belief are weak and gradually becoming negligible. Additionally, they do not always translate to downstream effects (i.e., changing of votes).

For a long time, stakeholders seeking to curb the information disorder have found themselves on the back-foot, always responding after the fact. By the time interventions such as fact-checks, social media takedowns, and flags are deployed, harmful content has likely taken root. With this in mind, some pre-emptive solutions have been contemplated and used by stakeholders. These are discussed below.

While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder.

As discussed earlier in this article, fact-checkers often face the challenge of having to overcome an audience’s inherent biases and the political baggage accompanying the alternative narratives they seek to put forth. In seeking to overcome this reactionary approach, Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden argue that it may be more effective to inoculate audiences against harmful content by priming their minds to anticipate it. This has come to be referred to as prebunking, and it essentially entails exposing audiences to watered down versions of false or misleading content with a view to highlighting the tactics used by purveyors of such content. Prebunking efforts recognize that the information disorder may not necessarily be solved by disseminating more accurate information given that harmful content is often consumed in highly politicized contexts. Instead, these efforts seek to redesign information architecture through behavioural interventions (i.e., changing how audiences consume information). In Kenya, Stop Reflect Verify was the first publicly documented election-related prebunking program. It offered a misinformation quiz focused on the Kenyan elections.

While prebunking seemingly promises to reduce the reactionary nature of stakeholder efforts, there is insufficient proof that skills learned in prebunking programmes are applied in practical situations. Counterfactual thinking may be a useful strategy to incorporate into prebunking efforts. Counterfactual thinking involves stimulating an audience’s mind to consider alternative facts and hypotheses when presented with information in a bid to logically deduce the likely truth. The lack of consensus on the utility and efficacy of prebunking as an alternative to fact-checking points to the need for the deployment of multiple interventions in a coordinated fashion, and this is where multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua come in.

Building in sustainability 

Periodically, civil society, media practitioners, and the donor community focus their efforts on election-related programmes in a collaborative manner (for example the media’s collaboration during presidential debates). In most cases, the collaboration does not survive the post-election period. As a result, these election stakeholders have to start anew during each election. A considerable amount of time and resources are dedicated to establishing the frameworks for collaboration, taking away from the potential impact these programmes may have. With collectives such as Fumbua, stakeholders are able to repurpose the goodwill that fostered collaboration during elections to continue to address the information disorder in other contexts. By sustaining the collaboration, stakeholders would be able to leverage on incremental gains and make a more impactful change. In relation to the information disorder, they would be better able to move towards how media is generated and consumed. The effect of this would be a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.

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The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy

Crisis is the new constant and advocacy efforts should seek ways of growing public awareness through civic education.



The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
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Are East African countries ready to face the next crisis or are they simply keen to go back to how things were? What does a new normal mean when speaking about public finance management (PFM)?

In continuing the struggle for structural transformation, economic justice efforts must work towards developing a new citizen and preparing for unpredictable or unforeseen events, more so those with extreme socio-economic and political consequences.

This is because, besides known challenges posed by existing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out how “unusual circumstances such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks and warfare … depress the ability of citizens to engage in economic activity and pay taxes as well as that of governments [capacity] to collect revenue [or] provide services”.

Such circumstances therefore demand more inclusion of human rights-based approaches in economic justice efforts to champion greater fairness within existing financial architecture.

Disasters should, therefore, not obliterate human rights but should heighten the need to respect, protection, and fulfilment of obligations through prioritizing expenditure on service delivery, as well as all elements of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) to “boost the capacity of residents to withstand shocks” by improving coping mechanisms.

Promotion of fair taxes among other broader economic justice initiatives within PFM should consequently adapt towards championing ESCRS within the context of more disruptive and unexpected incidents. Crisis is constant in the new normal.

Fiscal democracy and civil protection: Recovery, resilience, and transformation

Currently, conversations on recovery are focused on tackling reduced tax collection; slowed growth; depressed formal or informal productivity; exploding unemployment; diminished remittances; persistent poverty; decline in energy access; and escalating food insecurity.

This emphasis seeks to reverse the effects of various lockdown policies that placed restrictions on businesses, mobility, movement within and across international borders, [plus] public gatherings. However, it speaks mostly of a desire to return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity while vital systems in tackling the next crisis such as water, education, or health remain unaddressed.

Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda. This will then speak to the resilience, and transformation needed to ensure PFM works for Africans in good times or bad.

Understanding fiscal democracy takes the form of better prioritization, response to problems, and improved sanctions for mistakes in the revenue cycle.

Advocacy for increased domestic opportunities, promotion of childhood development, enhanced socio-economic mobility, support for workers, motivation of local entrepreneurship, diversification of public infrastructure from mega projects, as well as increased innovation through subsidized research and development should be at the heart of economic justice efforts.

Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda.

Civil protection gives a new framework of planning by envisioning contexts or processes in which a series of unfortunate events can emerge, thus providing adequate responses without breaking the social contract.

Transformation therefore occurs when both go hand in hand so that public facilities are not overstretched in the event of crisis. Hence, in looking at the impact of Covid-19, across the East Africa region, we must ask ourselves: How transformative are the current recovery efforts underway? Will they offer a new resilience?

The salvage job: Economic sustainability through reliefs, guarantees, subsidies, and funds

Responses have clearly been driven by the urgency to overcome the pandemic and the need to forestall outright disaster or collapse. The “short-term rescue mode” has seen efforts to ensure vaccine access and bolstering of public health systems.

On the economic front governments “Have sought debt relief, implemented corporate tax deferrals plus exemptions, made direct citizen transfers and interest rate adjustments. [They have also] implemented guarantees and subsidies, liquidity support and food relief … [with] examples of support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Cash transfers and other safety nets for poor and vulnerable populations are critical for an integrated … response. While not transformational, they are building blocks for a basic level of resilience to external shocks.”

The fact that these efforts are not transformational must motivate the infusion of a justice quotient in recovery efforts. This will enable a movement beyond an emergency-oriented recovery that recognizes existing modern challenges such as climate change, population growth, scarce resources, man-made or natural calamities.

In the case of tax justice, to make the linkages that will establish economic sustainability in East Africa, it is important to understand the effect of recovery efforts in relation to public debt; the tax burden on individuals or households; illicit financial flows; harmful tax practices; economic growth; and resource distribution.

Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities. Concerns were looming over the fact that 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries were in or at high risk of debt distress. Between 2010 and 2018, public debt in East Africa grew rapidly as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

In this time, East African Community (EAC) governments failed to mobilize sufficient revenue despite an overall increase in taxes. The situation was therefore exacerbated by COVID-19, the consequence being that these countries are now stuck in a situation where they must tax more to bridge revenue gaps.

Basically this, first and foremost, creates a context of unfair tax policies in the region that burden their respective citizens, does not enhance service delivery, and is exclusionary in how debt repayment strategies are developed.

Lack of open debate about a country’s fiscal priorities within the existing PFM system neglects the needs of youth who constitute the majority of the population among other segments of society, curtails ideas on how to increase resources needed to provide for new economic opportunity(ies) and respond to the next emergency.

Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities.

Secondly, an environment or ecosystem of illicit financial flows (IFFs) that constitutes the formation of International Financial Centres (IFCs) in Kigali and Nairobi plus the signing of numerous Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) continues to perpetuate itself thereby providing loopholes within the tax architecture that undermine efforts at domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) because the monies going out of countries are so massive, outweighing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).

This is thanks to “Constitutionalism [among other legal questions] plus demands to implement new public finance management principles, growth in trade and services across countries in the region or with other countries across the globe, and discovery of natural resources requiring more inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI).”

On average IFFs accounts form 6.1 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thereby impeding economic development and sustainability. For instance, since 2011, Kenya is estimated to lose KSh40 billion annually “as government, local firms and multinationals engage in fraudulent schemes to avoid tax payments”. As of 2021, The State of Tax Justice Report indicates this has grown to an estimated KSh69 billion annually at current exchange rates.

Third, growing account deficits and rising external debt are heavily limiting to economic growth. Increased spending on debt repayment is restricting prioritization on essential public goods and services while borrowing remains one of the key sources of budget financing.

In as much as Kenya cancelled its recent pursuit of another Eurobond, the about-turn towards borrowing domestically following a surge in yields within international markets because of the Russia-Ukraine war is still going to punish the country’s citizens by squeezing them out of access to credit.

Lastly, the debt burden is disempowering the citizen. Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable. This is further worsened by limited access to information on debt or public spending. Moreover, there is weak oversight by parliaments as executives take full control of processes.

Policy-making processes during cascading crises: Fiscal Consolidation, Special Drawing Rights, and Open Government

By understanding that crisis is constant, and that it is likely to manifest as confluence events — merging risks of mitigatable disaster(s) — or major confluence events, that is, the combination of potentially unmitigated risk(s) at any one point in time, how does policy making at such a time help to prepare for the emergency next time?

For example, what does Kenya’s fiscal consolidation programme — which comprises of reforms to improve oversight, monitoring, and governance of state-owned enterprises; improved transparency of fiscal reporting; and comprehensive information of public tenders awarded including beneficial ownership information of awarded entities — have to do with preparing for the next series of cascading crises?

Several emergency relief funds have been established to address the impact of COVID-19, such as the Rapid Credit Facility, the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).

However, these efforts are not likely to unlock the existing “trilemma” of solving the health plus economic crisis and meeting development targets while dealing with a tightening fiscal space. This is because they are stuck in the present circumstances with no consciousness of how much the challenge is likely to prevail into the future.

East African Community governments, in this time, failed to mobilize sufficient revenue, despite an overall increase in taxes.

Adopting fiscal democracy not only provides a new agenda determining organizing principles, but it has the potential for establishing a new citizenship through further entrenchment of human rights-based approaches in economic justice, and commitment to open government principles.

It will also anticipate and prevent the disaster capitalism witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries seem to be in a constant state of crisis, thus allowing for IFFs through PFM malfeasance that locks corruption and fraud into procurement through bid rigging or collusion.

Principals of public participation, demands for accountability, championing non-discrimination, advocacy for empowering programing, and legitimacy through the rule of law should set standards on beneficial ownership while open contracting, open data for development, legislative openness, improving service delivery, access to information, and access to justice will help build resilience in government.

A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations

Somewhere along the way, capacity building and training programming took prominence over civic education. Advocacy efforts should look for ways to bring back more popular public awareness. Denial of resources for these kinds of activities has been a major blow for PFM advocacy among other activist efforts.

Civic education will re-establish links between individual claims to service delivery and assigned duties in the fulfilment of public demands. Citizens will be able to identify how the problem manifests and engage on the immediate, underlying or root causes of an issue.

Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable.

It will also allow them to establish the patterns of relationships which may result in the non-fulfilment of rights or absconding of obligations. This will enable them to assign appropriate responsibility by identifying the relevant authorities. It will keep an eye on resources through participating in decision making.

Governments and political leadership should therefore work to improve their communication capabilities in engaging the public so that once this new citizenry is involved, they can work together to achieve representative priorities for action.

This article is based on a presentation and comments made at the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Debt Conference, Towards strengthening accountability and transparency around public debt management and the use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in Eastern and Southern Africa, 20–21 June 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.

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‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’

Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.



‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
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Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.

Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.

The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.

Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.

On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.

Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.

Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.

This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.

Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.

It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.

At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.

A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.

More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.

Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.

Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.

Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?


The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.

Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.

“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.

A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.

At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.

None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.


The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.

My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.

Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.

In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.

Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.

A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.


As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?

None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.

To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?

Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.

For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.

Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).

What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.

Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.

Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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