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Gambia: How Yahya Jammeh Stole a Country

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For more than two decades, Yahya Jammeh ruled over Gambia. His administration was implicated in widespread human rights abuses and several waves of brutal crackdowns on dissent. And his bizarre personality drew headlines around the world after he gave himself five titles and claimed to be able to cure AIDS.

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Gambia: How Yahya Jammeh Stole a Country
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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What was not withdrawn in cash by Jammeh’s officials or funnelled to bank accounts controlled by the president went to businesses that received lucrative contracts (or for unknown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.

They included:

  • 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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Khadija Sharife and Mark Anderson are Investigative journalists with The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) a global network of investigative journalists.

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A Dictator’s Guide: How Museveni Wins Elections and Reproduces Power in Uganda

Caricatures aside, how do President Yoweri Museveni and the National Revolutionary Movement state reproduce power? It’s been 31 years.

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Recent weeks have seen increased global media attention to Uganda following the incidents surrounding the arrest of popular musician and legislator, Bobi Wine; emblematic events that have marked the shrinking democratic space in Uganda and the growing popular struggles for political change in the country.

The spotlight is also informed by wider trends across the continent over the past few years—particularly the unanticipated fall of veteran autocrats Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Yaya Jammeh in Gambia, and most recently Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—which led to speculation about whether Yoweri Museveni, in power in Uganda since 1986, might be the next to exit this shrinking club of Africa’s strongmen.

Yet the Museveni state, and the immense presidential power that is its defining characteristic, has received far less attention, thus obscuring some of the issues at hand. Comprehending its dynamics requires paying attention to at-least three turning points in the National Resistance Movement’s history, which resulted in a gradual weeding-out of Museveni’s contemporaries and potential opponents from the NRM, then the mobilisation of military conflict to shore up regime legitimacy, and the policing of urban spaces to contain the increasingly frequent signals of potential revolution. Together, these dynamics crystallised presidential power in Uganda, run down key state institutions, and set the stage for the recent tensions and likely many more to come.

The purge

From the late 1990s, there has been a gradual weeding out the old guard in the NRM, which through an informal “succession queue,” had posed an internal challenge to the continuity of Museveni’s rule. It all started amidst the heated debates in the late 1990s over the reform of the then decaying Movement system; debates that pitted a younger club of reformists against an older group. The resultant split led to the exit of many critical voices from the NRM’s ranks, and began to bolster Museveni’s grip on power in a manner that was unprecedented. It also opened the lid on official corruption and the abuse of public offices.

Over the years, the purge also got rid of many political and military elites—the so-called “historicals”—many of whom shared Museveni’s sense of entitlement to political office rooted in their contribution to the 1980-1985 liberation war, and some of whom probably had an eye on his seat.

By 2005 the purge was at its peak; that year the constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits—passed after a bribe to every legislator—saw almost all insiders that were opposed to it, summarily dismissed. As many of them joined the ranks of the opposition, Museveni’s inner circle was left with mainly sycophants whose loyalty was more hinged on patronage than anything else. Questioning the president or harboring presidential ambitions within the NRM had become tantamount to a crime.

By 2011 the process was almost complete, with the dismissal of Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, whose growing popularity among rural farmers was interpreted as a nascent presidential bid, resulting in his firing.

One man remained standing, Museveni’s long-time friend Amama Mbabazi. His friendship with Museveni had long fueled rumors that he would succeed “the big man” at some point. In 2015, however, his attempt to run against Museveni in the ruling party primaries also earned him an expulsion from both the secretary general position of the ruling party as well as the prime ministerial office.

The departure of Mbabazi marked the end of any pretensions to a succession plan within the NRM. He was unpopular, with a record tainted by corruption scandals and complicity in Museveni’s authoritarianism, but his status as a “president-in-waiting” had given the NRM at least the semblance of an institution that could survive beyond Museveni’s tenure, which his firing effectively ended.

What is left now is perhaps only the “Muhoozi project,” a supposed plan by Museveni to have his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba succeed him. Lately it has been given credence by the son’s rapid rise to commanding positions in elite sections of the Ugandan military. But with an increasingly insecure Museveni heavily reliant on familial relationships and patronage networks, even the Muhoozi project appears very unlikely. What is clear, though, is that the over time, the presidency has essentially become Museveni’s property.

Exporting peace?

Fundamental to Museveni’s personalisation of power also has been the role of military conflict, both local and regional. First was the rebellion by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, which over its two-decade span enabled a continuation of the military ethos of the NRM. The war’s dynamics were indeed complex, and rooted in a longer history that predated even the NRM government, but undoubtedly it provided a ready excuse for the various shades of authoritarianism that came to define Museveni’s rule.

With war ongoing in the north, any challenge to Museveni’s rule was easily constructed as a threat to the peace already secured in the rest of the country, providing an absurd logic for clamping down on political opposition. More importantly, the emergency state born of it, frequently provided a justification for the president to side-step democratic institutions and processes, while at the same time rationalising the government’s disproportionate expenditure on the military. It also fed into Museveni’s self-perception as a “freedom fighter,” buttressed the personality cult around him, and empowered him to further undermine any checks on his power.

By the late 2000s the LRA war was coming to an end—but another war had taken over its function just in time. From the early 2000s, Uganda’s participation in a regional security project in the context of the War on Terror, particularly in the Somalian conflict, rehabilitated the regime’s international image and provided cover for the narrowing political space at home, as well as facilitating a further entrenchment of Museveni’s rule.

As post-9/11 Western foreign policy began to prioritise stability over political reform, Museveni increasingly postured as the regional peacemaker, endearing himself to donors while further sweeping the calls for democratic change at home under the carpet—and earning big from it.

It is easy to overlook the impact of these military engagements, but the point is that together they accentuated the role of the military in Ugandan politics and further entrenched Museveni’s power to degrees that perhaps even the NRM’s own roots in a guerrilla movement could never have reached.

Policing protest

The expulsion of powerful elites from the ruling circles and the politicisation of military conflict had just started to cement Musevenism, when a new threat emerged on the horizon. It involved not the usual antagonists—gun-toting rebels or ruling party elites—but ordinary protesters. And they were challenging the NRM on an unfamiliar battleground—not in the jungles, but on the streets: the 2011 “Walk-to-Work” protests, rejecting the rising fuel and food prices, were unprecedented.

But there is another reason the protests constituted a new threat. For long the NRM had mastered the art of winning elections. The majority constituencies were rural, and allegedly strongholds of the regime. The electoral commission itself was largely answerable to Museveni. With rural constituencies in one hand and the electoral body in the other, the NRM could safely ignore the minority opposition-dominated urban constituencies. Electoral defeat thus never constituted a threat to the NRM, at least at parliamentary and presidential levels.

But now the protesters had turned the tables, and were challenging the regime immediately after one of its landslide victories. The streets could not be rigged. In a moment, they had shifted the locus of Ugandan politics from the rural to the urban, and from institutional to informal spaces. And they were picking lessons from a strange source: North Africa. There, where Museveni’s old friend Gaddafi, among others, was facing a sudden exit under pressure from similar struggles. Things could quickly get out of hand. A strategic response was urgent.

The regime went into overdrive. The 2011 protests were snuffed out, and from then, the policing of urban spaces became central to the logic and working of the Museveni state. Draconian laws on public assembly and free speech came into effect, enacted by a rubber-stamp parliament that was already firmly in Museveni’s hands. Police partnered with criminal gangs, notably the Boda Boda 2010, to curb what was called “public disorder”—really the official name for peaceful protest. As police’s mandate expanded to include the pursuit of regime critics, its budget ballooned, and its chief, General Kale Kayihura, became the most powerful person after Museveni—before his recent dismissal.

For a while, the regime seemed triumphant. Organising and protest became virtually impossible, as urban areas came under 24/7 surveillance. Moreover, key state institutions—the parliament, electoral commission, judiciary, military and now the police—were all in the service of the NRM, and all voices of dissent had been effectively silenced. In time, the constitution would be amended again, by the NRM-dominated house, this time to remove the presidential age limit—the last obstacle to Museveni’s life presidency—followed by a new tax on social media, to curb “gossip.” Museveni was now truly invincible. Or so it seemed.

But the dreams of “walk-to-work”—the nightmare for the Museveni state—had never really disappeared, and behind the tightly-patrolled streets always lay the simmering quest for change. That is how we arrived at the present moment, with a popstar representing the widespread aspiration for better government, and a seemingly all-powerful president suddenly struggling for legitimacy. Whatever direction the current popular struggles ultimately take, what is certain is that they are learning well from history, and are a harbinger of many more to come.

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

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The Enduring Blind Spots of America’s Africa Policy

America should move way from making the military the face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.

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The Enduring Blind Spots of America's Africa Policy
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While Donald Trump’s administration completely neglected America-Africa relations, the blind spots bedeviling America’s Africa policy preceded his 2016 election. Correcting the systemic flaws of the past 30 years will require a complete rethink after the controversial President’s departure.

To remedy America’s Africa policy, President Joseph Biden’s administration should pivot away from counterterrorism to supporting democratic governance as a principal rather than as mere convenience, and cooperate with China on climate change, peace, and security on the continent.

America’s Africa policy 

America’s post-Cold War Africa policy has had three distinct and discernible phases. The first phase was an expansionist outlook undergirded by humanitarian intervention. The second was nonintervention, a stance triggered by the experience of the first phase. The third is the use of “smart” military interventions using military allies.  

The turning point for the first phase was in 1989 when a victorious America pursued an expansive foreign policy approach predicated on humanitarian intervention. Somalia became the first African test case of this policy when, in 1992, America sent almost 30,000 troops to support Operation Restore Hope’s humanitarian mission which took place against the background of the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991.

On 3-4 October 1993, during the Battle of Mogadishu, 18 US servicemen were killed in a fight with warlords who controlled Mogadishu then, and the bodies of the marines dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The media coverage increased pressure on the politicians and six months later America withdrew from Somalia — a case of the New World Order meeting the harsh reality of civil conflict.

The chastening experience resulted in America scaling back its involvement in internal conflicts in far-flung places. The result was the emergence of the second phase — non-engagement when Rwanda’s Genocide erupted in 1994 and almost a million people died in 100 days revealed the limitations of over-correcting the Somalia experience. This “non-interference” phase lasted until the twin Nairobi and Dar es Salaam US embassy bombings by Al Qaeda in 1998.

This gave way to the third phase with the realisation that the new threat to America was no longer primarily from state actors, but from transnational non-state actors using failing states as safe havens. The 2002 National Security Strategy states: “the events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states . . . can pose as a great danger to our national interests as strong states.”

Counterterrorism training and equipping of African militaries is the central plank of this new security policy. As a result, counterterrorism funding has skyrocketed as has America’s military footprint in Africa. As a result, Africa has become the theatre in which the Global forever War on Terror is fought.

The counterterrorism traps 

The reflexive reaction to the events of September 11 2001 spawned an interlocking web of covert and overt military and non-military operations. These efforts, initially deemed necessary and temporary, have since morphed into a self-sustaining system complete with agencies, institutions and a specialised lingo that pervades every realm of America’s engagement with Africa.

The United States Africa Command (Africom) is the vehicle of America’s engagement with the continent. Counterterrorism blurred the line between security, development, and humanitarian assistance with a host of implications including unrelenting militarisation which America’s policy establishment embraced uncritically as the sine qua non of America’s diplomacy, their obvious flaws notwithstanding. The securitisation of problems became self-fulfilling and self-sustaining.

The embrace of counterterrorism could not have come at a worse time for Africa’s efforts at democratization. In many African countries, political and military elites have now developed a predictable rule-based compact governing accession to power via elections rather than the coups of the past.

“Smart” African leaders exploited the securitised approach in two main ways: closing the political space and criminalising dissent as “terrorism” and as a source of free money. In Ethiopia, Yonatan Tesfaye, a former spokesman of the Semayawi (Blue) Party, was detained in December 2015 on charges under Article 4 of Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation ((EATP), arguably one of the the country’s most severe pieces of legislation. But Ethiopia has received millions of dollars from the United States.

The Department of Defense hardly says anything in public but gives out plenty of money without asking questions about human rights and good governance. Being a counterterrorism hub has become insurance policy against any form of criticism regardless of state malfeasance.

Egypt is one such hub. According to the Congressional Research Service, for the 2021 financial year, the Trump Administration has requested a total of US$1.4 billion in bilateral assistance for Egypt, which Congress approved in 2018 and 2019. Nearly all US funding for Egypt comes from the Foreign Military Finance (FMF) account and is in turn used to purchase military equipment of US origin, spare parts, training, and maintenance from US firms.

Another country that is a counterterrorism hub in the Horn of Africa is Ethiopia. For the few months they were in charge, the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU) brought order and stability to the country.  Although they were linked to only a few of Mogadishu’s local courts, on 24 December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to contain the rise of Al Shabaab’s political and military influence.

The ouster of the ICU by Ethiopia aggravated the deep historical enmity between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab — initially the youth wing of the ICU — subsequently exploited through a mix of Somali nationalism, Islamist ideology, and Western anti-imperialism. Al Shabaab presented themselves as the vanguard against Ethiopia and other external aggressors, providing the group with an opportunity to translate their rhetoric into action.

Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia could not have taken place without America’s blessing. The intervention took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, met with the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.  The intervention generated a vicious self-sustaining loop. Ethiopians are in Somalia because of Al Shabaab, and Al Shabaab says they will continue fighting as long as foreign troops are inside Somalia.

America has rewarded Ethiopia handsomely for its role as the Horn of Africa’s policeman. In both Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s case, on the score of human rights and good governance, the net losers are the citizens.

Drone attacks 

In keeping with the War on Terror being for forever, and despite departing Somalia in 1993, America outsourced a massive chunk of the fight against Al Shabaab to Ethiopia primarily, and later, to AMISOM. America is still engaged in Somalia where it has approximately 800 troops, including special forces that help train Somalia’s army to fight against Al Shabaab.

America carried out its first drone strike in Somalia in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Under the Trump administration, however, the US has dramatically increased the frequency of drone attacks and loosened the oversight required to approve strike targets in Somalia. In March 2017, President Trump secretly designated parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”, meaning that the high-level inter-agency vetting of proposed strikes and the need to demonstrate with near certainty that civilians would not be injured or killed no longer applied. Last year, the US acknowledged conducting 63 airstrikes in the country, and in late August last year, the US admitted that it had carried out 46 strikes in 2020.

A lack of transparency regarding civilian casualties and the absence of empirical evidence that the strikes lead to a reduction in terrorism in Somalia suggest that expanding to Kenya would be ill-advised. The US has only acknowledged having caused civilian casualties in Somalia three times. Between 2016 and 2019, AFRICOM failed to conduct a single interview with civilian witnesses of its airstrikes in Somalia.

Despite this level of engagement, defeating Al Shabaab remains a remote possibility.

Containing the Chinese takeover 

The Trump Administration did not have an Africa policy. The closest approximation of a policy during Trump’s tenure was stated in a speech delivered by John Bolton at a Conservative think tank decrying  China’s nefarious activities in Africa.  Even with a policy, where the counterterrorism framework views Africa as a problem to be solved by military means, the containing China policy views African countries as lacking the agency to act in their own interests. The problem with this argument is that it is patronising; Africans cannot decide what is right for them.

Over the last decades, while America was busy creating the interlocking counterterrorism infrastructure in Africa, China was building large-scale infrastructure across the continent. Where America sees Africa as a problem to be solved, China sees Africa as an opportunity to be seized.

Almost two years into the Trump administration, there were no US ambassadors deployed in 20 of Africa’s 54 countries even while America was maintaining a network of 29 military bases.  By comparison China, has 50 embassies spread across Africa.

For three consecutive years America’s administration has proposed deep and disproportionate cuts to diplomacy and development while China has doubled its foreign affairs budget since 2011. In 2018, China increased its funding for diplomacy by nearly 16 per cent and its funding for foreign aid by almost 7 per cent.

As a show of how engagement with Africa is low on the list of US priorities, Trump appointed a luxury handbag designer as America’s ambassador to South Africa on 14 November 2018. Kenya’s ambassador is a political appointee who, when he is not sparring with Kenyans on Twitter, is supporting a discredited coal mining project.

The US anti-China arguments emphasize that China does not believe in human rights and good governance, and that China’s funding of large infrastructure projects is essentially debt-trap diplomacy. The anti-China rhetoric coming from American officials is not driven by altruism but by the realisation that they have fallen behind China in Africa.

By the middle of this century Africa’s population is expected to double to roughly two billion. Nigeria will become the second most populous country globally by 2100, behind only India. The 24-country African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) entered into force on 30 May 2019. AfCFTA will ultimately bring together all 55 member states of the African Union covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people — including a growing middle class — and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$3.4 trillion.

While Chinese infrastructure projects grab the headlines, China has moved into diversifying its engagement with Africa. The country has increased its investments in Africa by more than 520 per cent over the last 15 years, surpassing the US as the largest trading partner for Africa in 2009 and becoming the top exporter to 19 out of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of the legacy Chinese investments have come at a steep environmental price and with an unsustainable debt. Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway is bleeding money and is economically unviable.

A fresh start

Supporting democratic governance and learning to cooperate with China are two areas that will make America part of Africa’s future rather than its past.

America should pivot way from making the military the most visible face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.

Despite the elegy about its retreat in Africa, democracy enjoys tremendous support. According to an Afro barometer poll, almost 70 per cent of Africans say democracy is their preferred form of government. Large majorities also reject alternative authoritarian regimes such as presidential dictatorships, military rule, and one-party governments. Democracy, while still fledgling, remains a positive trend; since 2015, there have been 34 peaceful transfers of power.

However, such positive metrics go hand in hand with a worrying inclination by presidents to change constitutions to extend their terms in office. Since 2015, leaders of 13 countries have evaded or overseen the weakening of term limit restrictions that had been in place. Democracy might be less sexy, but ignoring it is perilous. There are no apps or switches to flip to arrest this slide. It requires hard work that America is well equipped to support but has chosen not to in a range of countries in recent years There is a difference between interfering in the internal affairs of a country and complete abdication or (in some cases) supporting leaders who engage in activities that are inimical to deepening democracy.

The damage wrought by the Trump presidency and neo-liberal counterterrorism policies will take time to undo, but symbolic efforts can go a long way to bridging the gap.

America must also contend with China being an indispensable player in Africa and learn to cooperate rather than compete in order to achieve optimal outcomes.

China has 2,458 military and police personnel serving in eight missions around the globe, far more than the combined contribution of personnel by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia, the US, France and Britain. China had more than 2,400 Chinese troops take part in seven UN peacekeeping missions across the continent — most notably in Mali and South Sudan. Of the 14 current UN peacekeeping missions, seven are in Africa, consuming two-thirds of the budget.

Climate change and conflict resolution provide opportunities for cooperation. Disproportionate reliance on rain-fed agriculture and low adaptation to the adverse impact of climate change make Africa vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, the consequences of which will transcend Africa. Through a combination of research, development, technological transfer and multilateral investment, America and China could stave off the impact of climate change in Africa.

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Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts

Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee.

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Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts
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Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee, an investigation by Africa Uncensored and The Elephant has uncovered.

One of the companies was also awarded a mysterious Ksh 4.3 billion agreement to supply 8 million bottles of hand sanitizer, according to the government’s procurement system.

The contracts were awarded in 2015 as authorities moved to contain the threat from the Ebola outbreak that was ravaging West Africa and threatening to spread across the continent as well as from flooding related to the El-Nino weather phenomenon.

The investigation found that between 2014 and 2016, the Ministry of Health handed out hundreds of questionable non-compete tenders related to impending disasters, with a total value of KSh176 billion including three no-bid contracts to two firms, Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, linked to Mrs Nyamai, whose committee oversaw the ministry’s funding – a clear conflict of interest.

Number of Suppliers Allocated BPAAlthough authorities have since scrutinized some of the suspicious contracts and misappropriated health funds, the investigation revealed a handful of contracts that were not made public, nor questioned by the health committee.

Mrs Nyamai declined to comment for the story.

Nyamai has been accused by fellow members of parliament of thwarting an investigation of a separate alleged fraud. In 2016, a leaked internal audit report accused the Ministry of Health — colloquially referred to for its location at Afya House — of misappropriating funds in excess of nearly $60 million during the 2015/2016 financial year. Media stories described unauthorized suppliers, fraudulent transactions, and duplicate payments, citing the leaked document.

Members of the National Assembly’s Health Committee threatened to investigate by bringing the suppliers in for questioning, and then accused Nyamai, the committee chairperson, of blocking their probe. Members of the committee signed a petition calling for the removal of Nyamai and her deputy, but the petition reportedly went missing. Nyamai now heads the National Assembly’s Committee on Lands.

Transactions for companies owned by Mrs Nyamai’s relatives were among 25,727 leaked procurement records reviewed by reporters from Africa Uncensored, Finance Uncovered, The Elephant, and OCCRP. The data includes transactions by eight government agencies between August 2014 and January 2018, and reveals both questionable contracts as well as problems that continue to plague the government’s accounting tool, IFMIS.

The Integrated Financial Management Information System was adopted to improve efficiency and accountability. Instead, it has been used to fast-track corruption.

Hand sanitizer was an important tool in fighting transmission of Ebola, according to a WHO health expert. In one transaction, the Ministry of Health paid Sh5.4 million for “the supply of Ebola reagents for hand sanitizer” to a company owned by a niece of the MP who chaired the parliamentary health committee. However, it’s unclear what Ebola reagents, which are meant for Ebola testing, have to do with hand sanitizer. Kenya’s Ministry of Health made 84 other transactions to various vendors during this period, earmarked specifically for Ebola-related spending. These included:

  • Public awareness campaigns and adverts paid to print, radio and tv media platforms, totalling at least KSh122 million.
  • Printed materials totalling at least KSh214 million for Ebola prevention and information posters, contact tracing forms, technical guideline and point-of-entry forms, brochures and decision charts, etc. Most of the payments were made to six obscure companies.
  • Ebola-related pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical supplies, including hand sanitizer
  • Ebola-related conferences, catering, and travel expenses
  • At least KSh15 millions paid to a single vendor for isolation beds

Hacking the System

Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, appear to have no history of dealing in hygiene or medical supplies. Yet they were awarded three blanket purchase agreements, which are usually reserved for trusted vendors who provide recurring supplies such as newspapers and tea, or services such as office cleaning.

“A blanket agreement is something which should be exceptional, in my view,” says former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko.

But the leaked data show more than 2,000 such agreements, marked as approved by the heads of procurement in various ministries. About KSh176 billion (about $1.7 billion) was committed under such contracts over 42 months.

“Any other method of procurement, there must be competition. And in this one there is no competition,” explained a procurement officer, who spoke generally about blanket purchase agreements on background. “You have avoided sourcing.”

The Ministry of Health did not respond to detailed questions, while Mrs Nyamai declined to comment on the contracts in question.

Procurement experts say blanket purchase agreements are used in Kenya to short-circuit the competitive process. A ministry’s head of procurement can request authority from the National Treasury to create blanket agreements for certain vendors. Those companies can then be asked by procurement employees to deliver supplies and services without competing for a tender.

Once in the system, these single-source contracts are prone to corruption, as orders and payments can simply be made without the detailed documentation required under standard procurements. With limited time and resources, government auditors say they struggle especially with reconciling purchases made under blanket agreements.

The agreements were almost always followed by standard purchase orders that indicated the same vendor and the same amount which is unusual and raises fears of duplication. Some of these transactions were generated days or weeks after the blanket agreements, many with missing or mismatched explanations. It’s unclear whether any of these actually constituted duplicate payments.

For example, the leaked data show two transactions for Ameken Minewest for Sh6.9 million each — a blanket purchase order for El Nino mitigation supplies and a standard order for the supply of chlorine tablets eight days later. Tira Southshore also had two transactions of Sh12 million each — a blanket purchase for the “supply of lab reagents for cholera,” and six days later a standard order for the supply of chlorine powder.

Auditors say both the amounts and the timing of such payments are suspicious because blanket agreements should be paid in installments.

“It could well be a duplicate, using the same information, to get through the process. Because you make a blanket [agreement], then the intention is to do duplicates, so that it can pass through the cash payee phase several times without delivering more,” said Ouko upon reviewing some of the transactions for Tira Southshore. This weakness makes the IFMIS system prone to abuse, he added.

In addition, a KSh4 billion contract for hand sanitizer between the Health Ministry’s Preventive and Promotive Health Department and Tira Southshore was approved as a blanket purchase agreement in April 2015. The following month, a standard purchase order was generated for the same amount but without a description of services — this transaction is marked in the system as incomplete. A third transaction — this one for 0 shillings — was generated 10 days later by the same procurement employee, using the original order description: “please supply hand sanitizers 5oomls as per contract Moh/dpphs/dsru/008/14-15-MTC/17/14-15(min.no.6).

Reporters were unable to confirm whether KSh4 billion was paid by the ministry. The leaked data doesn’t include payment disbursement details, and the MOH has not responded to requests for information.

“I can assure you there’s no 4 billion, not even 1 billion. Not even 10 million that I have ever done, that has ever gone through Tira’s account, through that bank account,” said the co-owner of the company, Abigael Mukeli. She insisted that Tira Southshore never had a contract to deliver hand sanitizer, but declined to answer specific questions. It is unclear how a company without a contract would appear as a vendor in IFMIS, alongside contract details.

It is possible that payments could end up in bank accounts other than the ones associated with the supplier. That is because IFMIS also allowed for the creation of duplicate suppliers, according to a 2016 audit of the procurement system. That audit found almost 50 cases of duplication of the same vendor.

“Presence of active duplicate supplier master records increases the possibility of potential duplicate payments, misuse of bank account information, [and] reconciliation issues,” the auditors warned.

They also found such blatant security vulnerabilities as ghost and duplicate login IDs, deactivated requirements for password resets, and remote access for some procurement employees.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

IFMIS was promoted as a solution for a faster procurement process and more transparent management of public funds. But the way the system was installed and used in Kenya compromised its extolled safeguards, according to auditors.

“There is a human element in the system,” said Ouko. “So if the human element is also not working as expected then the system cannot be perfect.”

The former head of the internal audit unit at the health ministry, Bernard Muchere, confirmed in an interview that IFMIS can be manipulated.

Masking the Setup

Ms Mukeli, the co-owner of Tira Southshore and Ameken Minewest, is the niece of Mrs Nyamai, according to local sources and social media investigation, although she denied the relationship to reporters. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Mukeli works at Kenya Medical Supplies Agency, a medical logistics agency under the Ministry of Health, now embroiled in a COVID procurement scandal.

Ms Mukeli’s mother, who is the MP’s elder sister, co-owns Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., which shares a post office box with Tira Southshore and Mematira Holdings Limited, which was opened in 2018, is co-owned by Mrs Nyamai’s husband and daughter, and is currently the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest. Documents also show that a company called Icpher Consultants was originally registered to the MP, who was listed as the beneficial owner.

Co-owner of Tira Southshore Holdings Limited, Abigael Mukeli, described the company to reporters as a health consulting firm. However Tira Southshore also holds an active exploration license for the industrial mining in a 27-square-kilometer area in Kitui County, including in the restricted South Kitui National Reserve. According to government records, the application for mining limestone in Mutomo sub-county — Nyamai’s hometown — was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018.

Mukeli is also a minority owner of Ameken Minewest Company Limited, which also holds an active mining license in Mutomo sub-county of Kitui, in an area covering 135.5 square kilometers. Government records show that the application for the mining of limestone, magnesite, and manganese was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018. Two weeks after the license was granted, Mematira Holdings Limited was incorporated, with Nyamai’s husband and daughter as directors. Today, Mematira Holdings is the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest, which is now in the process of obtaining another mining license in Kitui County.

According to public documents, Ameken also dabbles in road works and the transport of liquefied petroleum gas. And it’s been named by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in a fuel fraud scheme.

Yet another company, Wet Blue Proprietors Logistics Ltd., shares a phone number with Tira Southshore and another post office box with Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., according to a Kenya National Highway Authority list of pre-qualified vendors.

Family LinksMrs Nyamai and her husband co-own Wet Blue. The consulting company was opened in 2010, the same year that the lawmaker completed her PhD work in HIV/AIDS education in Denmark.

Wet Blue was licenced in 2014 as a dam contractor and supplier of water, sewerage, irrigation and electromechanical works. It’s also listed by KENHA as a vetted consultant for HIV/AIDS mitigation services, together with Icpher Consultants.

It is unclear why these companies are qualified to deliver all these services simultaneously.

“Shell companies receiving contracts in the public sector in Kenya have enabled corruption, fraud and tax evasion in the country. They are literally special purpose vehicles to conduct ‘heists’ and with no track record to deliver the public goods, works or services procured,” said Sheila Masinde, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya.

Both MOH and Ms Mukeli refused to confirm whether the ordered supplies were delivered.

Mrs Nyamai also co-owns Ameken Petroleum Limited together with Alfred Agoi Masadia and Allan Sila Kithome.

Mr Agoi is an ANC Party MP for Sabatia Constituency in Vihiga County, and was on the same Health Committee as Mrs Nyamai, a Jubilee Party legislator. Mr Sila is a philanthropist who is campaigning for the Kitui County senate seat in the 2022 election.

Juliet Atellah at The Elephant and Finance Uncovered in the UK contributed reporting.

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