Gambia’s former President Yahya Jammeh orchestrated the embezzlement of nearly US$1 billion of public funds and illegal timber revenue during his 22-year rule, looting the treasury in a long-running conspiracy that crippled one of the world’s poorest countries.
While president of the compact West African state of 2 million, Jammeh frequently drove his black stretch Hummer from his official residence in Banjul, the capital, to a lavish private estate in his home village of Kanilai.
His route took him past the central bank, the social welfare office, and the headquarters of the state telecom company. These were some of the institutions Jammeh pillaged by elevating privileged civil servants to prominent positions and empowering a group of corrupt businessmen led by a key Hezbollah financier.
Thousands of documents obtained exclusively by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project lay bare for the first time the massive scale of Jammeh’s corruption. They show how he hijacked government funds and departments, set up private accounts at the central bank, and built a patronage network while ruling the country through a combination of guile, unbridled power, and violence.
What was not withdrawn in cash by Jammeh’s officials or funnelled to bank accounts controlled by the president went to businesses that received lucrative contracts (or for unknown purposes). Some was sent to foreign shell companies about which little is known. The transfers may have violated Gambian law.
Just how much of the great Gambian heist ended up in Jammeh’s own pockets — through offshore accounts or bags full of cash — is still unknown.
Adama Barrow, the country’s current president, estimated in 2017 that Jammeh stole about 4 billion dalasis ($90 million) from public coffers. An official investigation known as the Janneh Commission of Inquiry is currently examining financial misconduct during his rule. And at the end of last year, the United States announced that Jammeh had been banned from entering the country, citing evidence that he had been involved in “significant corruption.”
The documents analyzed by OCCRP show a web of fraud that far exceeds the figure offered by Barrow, who defeated Jammeh at the polls in 2016 but was only able to oust the former president after neighboring states threatened a military intervention.
Jammeh was the worst of dictators, but because he ruled a nobody country, nobody cared.
“He ran the country like an organized crime syndicate,” said Jeggan Grey-Johnson, a Gambian activist and communications officer at the African regional office of the Open Society Foundation, a pro-democracy and good governance organization.
“Jammeh was the worst of dictators, but because he ruled a nobody country, nobody cared,” Grey-Johnson said.
Jammeh spent some of the stolen money on his palace in Kanilai, where he had his own private mosque, built a jungle warfare training camp, and kept camels, hyenas, zebras, and other exotic animals.
In total, Jammeh and his associates looted or misappropriated at least $975 million. Among their biggest targets:
- $363.9 million from the state-run telecoms company;
- $325.5 million in illicit timber revenue;
- more than $100 million in foreign aid and soft loans from Taiwan;
- $71.2 million from the Central Bank of The Gambia;
- $60 million from the Social Security and Housing Finance Corp., which manages disability, housing, and pension payments; and
- $55.2 million from the state-run oil company.
Jammeh spent some of the stolen money on his palace in Kanilai, where he had his own private mosque, built a jungle warfare training camp, and kept camels, hyenas, zebras, and other exotic animals. The looted funds also supported a lavish lifestyle that Jammeh’s average official monthly government salary of about $6,000 could never sustain.
Other spending was designed to portray Jammeh as a benevolent and generous ruler, but not typically in ways that benefitted ordinary Gambians, who eke out a living in an economy that is literally dependent on peanuts, a top export. In 2010, using diverted money, Jammeh held a tribute concert for Michael Jackson after the pop superstar’s death. He also hosted a Miss Black USA beauty pageant in Gambia using $1.1 million illicitly diverted from the Port Authority.
The spending did little to address Gambia’s needs. The country has poor health care, few basic services, and under 1,000 km of paved roads. According to the World Bank, its external debt at the end of 2017 was $489 million — less than the amount Jammeh allegedly stole.
The United Nations criticized Jammeh during his final election campaign for threatening to kill off the country’s most populous ethnic group — the Mandinkas — and put them “where even a fly cannot see them.
The former president gave himself five titles, insisted he could cure AIDS (but only on Mondays and Thursdays), and proclaimed that he would stay in power for a billion years if Allah wanted him to. He is now in exile in Equatorial Guinea, where he allegedly spends his days on a farm carved out of the jungle.
Ruling with an Iron Fist
The United Nations criticized Jammeh during his final election campaign for threatening to kill off the country’s most populous ethnic group — the Mandinkas — and put them “where even a fly cannot see them.”
In its 2015 report on Gambia, “State of Fear”, Human Rights Watch detailed accusations that included “enforced disappearances,” torture of political opponents, the summary execution of more than 50 African migrants, and the murder or disappearance of two journalists.
The sentiment was typical of a president who ruled through terror. At the center of his ability to strip Gambia of its meager wealth was Jammeh’s ruthless control of the government and its institutions. After capturing power in a bloodless coup in 1994 at just 29, he quickly deployed an array of official and unofficial security forces to silence dissent.
In a climate of fear, and with the complicity of a powerful circle in and out of the government, Jammeh’s brazen corruption continued unchecked for more than two decades.
The Jungulers, an unofficial unit of about 40 men largely drawn from the Presidential Guard, carried out the most egregious offenses. In its 2015 report on Gambia, “State of Fear”, Human Rights Watch detailed accusations that included “enforced disappearances,” torture of political opponents, the summary execution of more than 50 African migrants, and the murder or disappearance of two journalists.
In a climate of fear, and with the complicity of a powerful circle in and out of the government, Jammeh’s brazen corruption continued unchecked for more than two decades.
Merely questioning Jammeh’s often erratic rule could result in entire departments being seized. When a senior official at the state-run oil company questioned the president’s office on whether its income could be exempt from taxes, Jammeh responded by seizing control of the company’s bank accounts and diverting its funds for his use.
His micromanagement of government affairs allowed him to exert “complete control” over Gambia, said Fatou Camara, who twice served as Jammeh’s press secretary between 2011 and 2013.
“Every minister would wait for him before they made decisions,” Camara said. “Everything had to wait for the Office of the President to agree.”
Jammeh’s human rights abuses and corruption went largely unchallenged by the international community because of his country’s small size and relative obscurity. A wave of violence across West Africa during his reign — in Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — also helped him fly under the radar.
“The Gambia wasn’t even like a back-burner issue — it was a backwater issue,” said Cameron Hudson, a former West Africa analyst for the CIA.
The ‘Number One Bank’ as a Slush Fund
The Central Bank of The Gambia was known as the “number one bank” among Jammeh’s staff because they knew its coffers would continually be replenished with public money.
Central banks are only supposed to regulate local banks, control currency in circulation, and set interest rates. Typically, individuals can’t have accounts. But Jammeh treated Gambia’s central bank as his personal slush fund.
Much of the time, the money he stole flowed electronically between domestic and foreign accounts. But sometimes the cash literally traded hands. Beneath the hum of air conditioning units in a loading bay on the central bank’s east side, presidential aides were known to shove suitcases stuffed with dollars, euros, and other currencies into waiting vehicles, according to testimony received by the commission of inquiry. The official investigation, led by lawyer Surahata Janneh, has not yet released its final report.
On one occasion, when Jammeh wanted to withdraw cash from the central bank, his office wrote directly to the bank’s second deputy governor with a blunt request that circumvented lawmakers and regulators. The bank complied.
Amadou Colley, the central bank’s governor from 2010 to 2017, told the commission that Jammeh and his cronies exerted significant control over the institution. Government records, testimonies, and directives show senior bank officials routinely allowing the president’s office unfettered access.
Colley, who declined to comment for this story, testified that he saw officials close to the president withdraw funds without proper paperwork. Able to obtain withdrawal notes from Jammeh’s office only occasionally, he resorted to accepting hastily-written statements from those retrieving the money that they had been “directed by President Jammeh [or] the Office of the President to make this withdrawal.”
Documents obtained by reporters show that Jammeh diverted over $71 million from the central bank’s reserves in just a few years. He used three main techniques: hijacking the bank’s accounts, creating new accounts on which he and his chosen aides were sole signatories, and using dormant accounts (which are seldom found at well-managed central banks). Sometimes he ordered the withdrawal of cash from accounts without any funds, causing them to become overdrawn.
Accounts such as the Consolidated Revenue Fund received millions of dollars every year from income taxes and other sources. There is little accounting for how money from the fund was spent between 2007 and 2016, despite laws that require parliamentary approval of expenditures.
Thousands of internal bank documents reviewed by OCCRP revealed other major accounts Jammeh plundered.
- The International Gateway Account: This account received revenues from Gambia’s state telecommunications operator, known as Gamtel. The practice of collecting such revenues, earned from long-distance telephone calls and internet services, occurs in every country. In Gambia, however, a disproportionate 82 percent went to private companies through secret contracts that bypassed the country’s regulatory body. About $363 million disappeared this way. The remaining 18 percent which did land in the account was largely withdrawn by Jammeh’s office without explanation. Among other things, the president spent the money on cattle, vehicles, and extravagant carpets.
- The Special Vision Account: Once the International Gateway account was emptied, Jammeh turned to this account, also funded by Gamtel revenues and intended to finance his development plan for Gambia. From July 2014 until January 2017, Jammeh’s office diverted about $43 million — with $35.7 million taken as cash. Jammeh’s close business associates were among the beneficiaries. Other expenses included doctors’ salaries, a donation to fight the West African Ebola outbreak, and funding for Jammeh’s personal charitable foundation. The last transaction occurred two days after Jammeh went into exile in 2017.
- The State Aircraft Fund: This state travel fund was financed by donor aid from Qatar, tax revenues, and other sources. Jammeh’s office withdrew cash from the account without stating any purpose and used it to purchase a luxury jet, buses, and vehicles from a close associate.
- The State Security Account: This account was set up by Jammeh’s office with no declared purpose. About $466,000, or 95 percent of its funds, were diverted from another account called the Consolidated Revenue Fund and used for cash withdrawals, entertainment, travel, payments to Jammeh’s favorite wife Zeinab, and other expenses.
- Mineral-related accounts collected royalty payments from private mining companies such as Carnegie, Sand Mining, Gamico, and Heavy Minerals. Though this money was intended for the Consolidated Revenue Fund, the payments fell under the control of the president’s office, which oversaw the use of $4.9 million.
- The Office of the First Lady: There is no such office in Gambia, but Jammeh created this account, filled it with public revenues, and spent the entire $35,706.
- The National Youth Development Fund: Dozens of scholarships were awarded to young African-American women who Jammeh brought to Gambia to compete in the 2007 Miss Black USA beauty pageant, which he hosted. The fund also paid for maintenance on Jammeh’s jet and other expenses. The source of the $4.5 million that passed through the account is unknown.
- The Green Industry Account: Although the central bank is not allowed to open accounts for private entities, an account named Green Industry — presumably after a private company of the same name — was created. The source of the funds, which were illegally transferred to the company’s account at Trust Bank, is unclear.
- The Fish Landing Account: Funded by revenue from a 10 percent fee on fish caught by trawlers in Gambian waters, this account received multiple requests from withdrawals from Jammeh’s office.
During Jammeh’s rule, the central bank became heavily indebted. One of his government’s first acts in 1994 was to take out a secret $25 million loan in the form of a bond. Decades of fraud, hidden debts in the form of bonds, and account manipulation followed, draining the bank of its revenues. Almost 40 percent of the bank’s spending went toward interest payments on debts, according to OCCRP’s analysis.
In a 2015 letter to the International Monetary Fund, while Jammeh was still in power, central bank officials wrote that the institution remained highly indebted because of significant interest charges, bad investments, over-lending to the government, and violations of its own rules — described as “policy slippages.”
Today, the central bank remains in dire straits. The country owes lenders 130 percent of its gross domestic product, mainly due to “external arrears” incurred by the Jammeh administration, the IMF said in May 2018.
Jammeh’s manipulation of the central bank may have violated several of Gambia’s laws, including the Government Budget and Management Accountability Act of 2004, the Social Security Act of 2010, and the Public Finance Act of 2014. He has not been charged with any crimes.
“Jammeh ran the country like it was his own,” said William Gumede, an economist and chair of the Democracy Works Foundation, a South African pro-democracy group. “Who can question you when everything is considered yours?”
Gambia’s current government did not respond to requests for comment. The government of Equatorial Guinea did not respond to requests to reach Jammeh.
The true scale of Jammeh’s thefts from the central bank may never be fully known.
Taiwan Led the Way, Hezbollah Followed
Jammeh’s thirst for public money began soon after he captured power in 1994. In 1995, he recognized Taiwan’s independence from China in a strategic establishment of diplomatic ties also made by several other African countries. In doing so, he opened the door to some $100 million in foreign aid.
The East Asian island’s development assistance was deposited into a “Special 3M” donor aid account at Citibank, the New York-based lender. Documents show that $35 million of the funding was dispersed in less than two years.
In total, $58 million was processed, primarily by Citibank, meaning the account was presumably overdrawn. The bank transferred the money to just over 20 beneficiaries, allowing the funds to vanish into the accounts of Jammeh and his close associates, including Mohamed Bazzi, one of the country’s richest and most influential businessmen, whom Jammeh used as a middleman.
Some of the world’s biggest banks — including Barclays, Citibank, HSBC Bank, and Standard Chartered — approved transactions for what would turn out to be Jammeh’s seizure of state funds for his personal use
Bazzi, identified by the U.S. as a key financier for Hezbollah, introduced another financier who invested $35 million in Gamtel, Gambia’s state-owned telecommunications provider. He and other Hezbollah-linked businessmen were the primary beneficiaries of oil and telecommunications monopolies worth more than $100 million.
Some of the world’s biggest banks — including Barclays, Citibank, HSBC Bank, and Standard Chartered — approved transactions for what would turn out to be Jammeh’s seizure of state funds for his personal use.
In a statement to reporters, Citibank declined to comment on possible legal violations of standard anti-money laundering, due diligence, and “know your customer” requirements as well as potential violations of U.S. laws regarding banking secrecy, corrupt practices and even terrorism laws.
Standard Chartered declined to comment and Barclays declined to comment on the record. HSBC did not respond to requests for comment.
Former World Bank anti-corruption specialist Richard Messick said U.S. law enforcement might have been working with the banks to monitor where the funds were going.
“It’s possible they reported the transactions to the authorities,” he said. “I know of cases where law enforcement authorities have … ‘spooked’ the account holders … so that they could see where it was going to. So that’s not all beyond the pale.”
“Assuming the banks didn’t alert authorities to the transactions moving the money out of the accounts, they should have applied enhanced due diligence … to ensure the money wasn’t being laundered,” Messick said.
Keep Your Friends Close
None of Jammeh’s plundering would have been possible without the close network of advisers he posted to key positions and shuffled around at will. The aides, often used as signatories to bank accounts and loan agreements, played a key role in his money transfer schemes.
Jammeh’s right-hand man, Gen. Sulayman Badjie, was identified in commission testimonies as the president’s enforcer — both in politics and in business. Even as he ran the country as second-in-command and headed its armed forces, he also provided protection for Jammeh’s timber smuggling operation. Badjie could not be reached by reporters.
The secretary-general of the Office of the President, Nuha Touray, was a crucial intermediary between Jammeh’s office and various government departments. Documents obtained by reporters include directives Touray signed that authorized the seizure of bank accounts and the sacking of public officials who questioned orders.
In addition to Jammeh’s official salary, his personal bank accounts reveal that Bazzi paid Jammeh $500,000 a month for several months. Bazzi testified to the commission that he paid the sum to the president’s account for 20 months and the money was related to an incentive to the president for a telecommunications deal that Bazzi organized for his associate, Ali Charara, another Lebanese Hezbollah financier.
Bazzi did not respond to requests for comment.
Jammeh’s favored officials shared in his prosperity, but were also vulnerable to his propensity for violence and punishment.
Many officials who fell out of favor found themselves incarcerated alongside journalists, political activists, human rights campaigners, and those perceived to be gay or lesbian in the country’s notorious Mile 2 prison.
Touray told the commission that failure to carry out the president’s orders resulted in one of three consequences: “dismissal, imprisonment, or disappeared.”
Exiled in Comfort in Equatorial Guinea
Jammeh’s plundering ended after his seesaw exit from power in 2016, a spectacle that briefly captivated the world. After losing the presidential election to Barrow, a former property developer, on Dec. 1 of that year, the strongman shocked the region by conceding defeat.
But in true Jammeh style, he quickly reversed course and rejected the outcome. As President-elect Barrow called for an investigation into human rights abuses and corruption under Jammeh’s regime, the outgoing president appeared to be buying time to get his affairs in order.
After seven weeks of negotiations, which brought several prominent West African heads of state to Jammeh’s palace for talks, the embattled leader fled the country on Jan. 21, 2017, on a Falcon 900 private jet owned by the government of Equatorial Guinea and used by its president.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, known as Obiang, is a longtime friend of Jammeh. The two men have a similar propensity for using state finances for personal gain and quashing opponents. According to media reports, they even owned houses next to each other in Potomac, Maryland.
Once Jammeh arrived in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s island capital, Obiang granted him refuge from the chorus of human rights and anti-corruption campaigners who were seeking to put him on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity.
Jammeh remains in Equatorial Guinea to this day, nearly 5,000 km from Banjul and the commission investigating him.
Back in Gambia, the people Jammeh hurt most are hoping for better times at the hands of the government of Barrow, his replacement. “We’ve been told that our pensions will be increased by 100 percent,” said Abubacarr Dem, 79, a retired civil servant who lives near the capital. “That’s good if it works out. For now, we haven’t seen it. I don’t even know whether they have enough money there for us.
With additional reporting by Saikou Jammeh and Daniela Lepiz.
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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.
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 or she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.
KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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