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Lies, Dam Lies, and Intrigues: The Arror and Kimwarer Dams Saga

11 min read.

Dams have long fascinated scientists and politicians alike. In the post-independent era of the late 1960s and 1970s, dams became popular in the developing countries seeking to meet the triple challenges of state-building, nation-building and economic development. But too they were exposed as huge corruption scandals that contributed to the systemic over-estimation of their benefits.



Lies, Dam Lies, and Intrigues: The Arror and Kimwarer Dams Saga
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Sometime in mid-2017, Deputy President William Ruto led a team of Jubilee Party MPs, senators and some governors deep into the Arror forest in Marakwet West. It was a big team because it was ferried in three helicopters. The Deputy President had taken the team to the forest to show them where one of two anticipated dams – the Arror hydroelectric power station (HEP) – would be located. The other dam that was to be built was Kimwarer-Talaal, which was to be on the Kimwarer River in Keiyo South, Elgeyo Marakwet County.

“We flew over the dense, thick forests of Arror and Kimwarer and from high above, we could see the mighty Arror River roaring down the plains,” said Beatrice Ilachi, then a nominated senator. “But some of us wondered loudly how the dam was ever going to be constructed. The landscape is not only very steep, it would also mean that a huge chunk of the gazetted forest would have to be cleared off.” Many in the group wondered whether the dams would further encroach on the country’s remaining dwindling forest cover.

When the choppers landed on some flat land, Ruto led the team into scaling the steep heights of the Arror forest. “We had not been prepared for the climbing – from our attires to the shoes – least of all, mentally,” said Ilachi. “Half way climbing through the thicket and scrubland, we gave up, many of us by then had even removed our shoes.”

The two multi-purpose dams were supposed to cost an arm and a leg. The latest sum given of between Sh63 billion ($630 million) and Sh38 billion ($380 million) for Arror and Sh28 billion ($280 million) for Kimwarer have generated so much heat within the ruling Jubilee Party that the Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich, had to be grilled for two days at the Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) offices on Kiambu Road and made to answer some 300 questions relating to the dams’ financing.

“It was about two months to the elections [in August 2017], and so it was obvious that countrywide campaigns had commenced. On our way to Arror and Kimwarer sites, we had stopped at Tot in Baringo County to presumably check on the state of the county’s food security. After touring the supposedly dams’ sites, we flew to West Pokot for more campaigns.” said the former senator. “We didn’t hear of the dams’ story again until last December, when talk of an Italian company and visits to Italy were made by the DP and his team and now with the explosion of the magnitude of the scandal.”

The two multi-purpose dams were supposed to cost an arm and a leg. The latest sum given of between Sh63 billion ($630 million) and Sh38 billion ($380 million) for Arror and Sh28 billion ($280 million) for Kimwarer have generated so much heat within the ruling Jubilee Party that the Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich, had to be grilled for two days at the Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) offices on Kiambu Road and made to answer some 300 questions relating to the dams’ financing. (Rotich arrived at the DCI at 6am on 5 March, 2019 and was questioned the whole day. The following day, the grilling was so intense that he requested for his favourite liquor drink to be delivered to him in the afternoon to cool his nerves.)

The Deputy President’s front line brigade, led by the cantankerous Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi, have cried foul, accusing the Jubilee wing of President Uhuru Kenyatta of opening a succession war to bar Ruto from succeeding the President come 2022. Seemingly addressing the DCI boss George Kinoti, he recently lambasted and accused him of being used by some “crooked” forces within the government to destroy Ruto by waging a smear campaign against the person of the Deputy President. In his characteristic war-like utterances at a public rally in his constituency, Sudi lunged at President Uhuru and asked him to state categorically whether he was also engaged in a mendacious campaign to mudsling his deputy.

“This dams’ saga is not about fighting corruption, but fighting William Ruto,” wailed Sudi. “If you [President Uhuru] don’t want William Ruto, just state it openly instead of engaging in purportedly phantom-like corruption wars all over the county, but in real sense your agenda is to sideline the DP.”

The beginning of a scandal

Ruto first talked of the construction of the dams in May 2016 at St Patrick’s High School in Iten. At the school’s function, he spoke of plans to build three dams: Arror, Embobut and Kimwarer (all located in forests), which he said would generate 125megawatts of power and would cost Sh80 billion. David Kimosop, the Managing Director of the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA), who was present, said that construction of the dams would be completed “before end of year, once Treasury released funds.”

Kimosop even stated that a down payment of Sh4.9 billion (15 per cent of the total cost) had been made for the design of the Arror dam. “Construction work is expected to commence around September or October [2018], after detailed design plan is carried out.” The KVDA boss also stated that 400 hectares of forestland would be acquired from Kenya Forest Service (KFS) in exchange for 570 hectares of private land.

Exactly two years later, in 2018, the chairman of National Land Commission, Mohammad Swazuri, said it had begun acquiring 8,000 acres of land for the construction of Arror and Kimwarer dams. Swazuri would go on to say that Sh63 billion had been set aside to buy land for people’s resettlement and to compensate about 800 families.

However, a month ago, the Kenya Forest Service pulled out of the deal, arguing that the project was ridden with controversy and corruption. “The matter failed to go through after the project was hit by allegations of corruption,” said Benjamin Kanyili, head of Kenya Forest Service North Rift Conservancy.

“One of the biggest lessons that is coming out of these mega scandals perpetrated during the first term of the Uhuruto presidency is the president’s lackadaisical attitude towards his deputy and sole responsibility of taking presidential charge,” said a former women’s representative who was also part of the Deputy President’s campaign trip to the dams’ site and who requested anonymity. “I remember early on in their dual rulership, we Jubilee Party Kikuyu MPs, having a sitting with the president and cautioning him against being too trusting of his deputy. But he brushed aside our concerns, claiming we needed to trust Ruto by giving him space to work and be in charge.”

“The dams’ projects were among the key drivers of the Jubilee government’s economic push and development, as captured in their first manifesto,” said the former women’s rep. “The other major project included the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Scheme. Both of them were a total flop because there are some people in the government who didn’t see them as economic growth flagships, but as projects to rip off the state.”

The former women’s rep said that President Uhuru was now reaping the bitter fruits of having relegated his core duties to his deputy “who apparently took advantage of the president’s good-naturedness and his laid-back pose. Let us not kid ourselves – Ruto was the president in the first term.” In the initial days his first term, the president okayed the dams’ projects, confident in the knowledge that they were being handled efficiently and professionally by his deputy and the relevant ministries, said the former MP.

“The dams’ projects were among the key drivers of the Jubilee government’s economic push and development, as captured in their first manifesto,” said the former women’s rep. “The other major project included the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Scheme [the one-million-acre agricultural scheme on Tana River that straddles both Tana River and Kilifi counties]. Both of them were a total flop because there are some people in the government who didn’t see them as economic growth flagships, but as projects to rip off the state.”

A former MP from Central Kenya told me he had “very early on raised the red flag about the Galana project and sounded the warning that it looked like some Jubilee functionaries were keen on using the project to siphon billions of shillings”. He said he was ignored by the presidency and in the process created some serious enemies within the Deputy President’s camp. “I became a marked man, and when the time for nominations came, they dealt with me.”

“When the dams’ scandal exploded, the president was very furious with his deputy,” claimed the former women’s rep. “He asked the DP why he had taken advantage of his good-naturedness and trust in him to bungle government projects. Of course, the president, in his fury, said that the state would get to the bottom of the scam and whoever was involved would be punished. But it is not always that easy. Fighting corruption is like walking through on tightrope; you must be very careful how you manage the politics.”

President Uhuru was not only furious and supposedly embarrassed by the magnitude of the corruption engulfing his Jubilee Party government, but he was also shamed internationally. Last month, a British Conservative Party MP contributing to the Brexit motion in Parliament is reported to have cautioned Theresa May on how she managed Britain’s exit from the European Union lest the country found itself having to deal with mega corruption scandals “like the one engulfing Kenya right now”.

The Italian connection

In Italy, La Verita, a conservative-leaning newspaper, picked up the dams’ scandal in Kenya and reported that an Italian company had been fingered in the labyrinthine maze of the dams’ sleaze. “There’s a new investigation coming from Africa,” wrote the paper on March 9, 2019. “This time it relates to an Italian construction giant, CMC of Ravenna, rocked by major scandals in Kenya.” The paper stated that “the investigations affect also four minister of the government of Uhuru Kenyatta. In the middle of this scandal, there are three dams, for a total of value of 800 million Euros. Two of them are built with Itinera (Gavio Group).”

According to, Cooperative Muratoi Cementisti Di Ravenna filed for creditor protection in a court in Ravenna on December 4, 2018. (Around the same time that Ruto visited Rome.) “Distressed CMC Ravenna stokes HY’s Italian Fears,” read the headline story. (HYs stands for high yield.) Coincidentally, the company filed for bankruptcy just when it was about to take another construction job in Uganda – the UGSh500-billion contract work for the construction of the Busega-Mpigi Expressway. In Kenya, by the time CMC was filing for bankruptcy, it had pocked Sh15 billion ($150 million) as down payment and had done just half of the work at Itare Dam in Meru County, which had been valued at Sh38 billion ($380 million).

The “historical” CMC Ravenna, as the La Verita newspaper describes the company started in the beginning of last century, had three jobs in Kenya: Arror, Kimwarer and Itare dams construction, all totaling about Sh150 billion ($1.5 billion). “That’s a whacking lot of money to give to one company,” said a government land economist who was involved in land evaluation for some of the intended dams’ construction. “It means a very influential person was behind the awarding of the contracts to this company. Do you have to be super clever to guess the name of that person other than the president himself?”

The paper listed the chronology of events leading to the contracts. “A contract in Kenya was obtained by CMC in 2014. The other two were signed in 2015 on occasion of a visit to Nairobi by our former Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, who was photographed together with President Uhuru Kenyatta wearing a bullet-proof vest.”

La Verita reported that CMC requested to be admitted to the so-called “arrangement with the creditors” procedure. The paper said the company “is suspected of having paid bribes to win bids related to three dams.”

The paper listed the chronology of events leading to the contracts. “A contract in Kenya was obtained by CMC in 2014. The other two were signed in 2015 on occasion of a visit to Nairobi by our former Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, who was photographed together with President Uhuru Kenyatta wearing a bullet-proof vest.”

The work of the company, said La Verita, was meant to be “part of a wider project to redesign the water distribution in Kenya, which was one of the electoral promises of Mr Kenyatta himself.” The paper wrote that a sum of Sh4.9 billion ($49 million) was deposited in a bank in Westlands, “the Nairobi neighbourhood where the [Italian] expats live and international companies have their offices”. The newspaper mentions four cabinet secretaries in connection with the scam: Henry Rotich, the Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, the Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Najib Balala, the Tourism Cabinet Secretary, and Simon Chelugui the Water Cabinet Secretary.

“Once it was clear that the project had been given the go-ahead, Rotich allegedly bought Elgeyo Sawmills owned by some South Asians through proxies for Sh1 billion,” confided a land economist working at the Treasury. (This is part of the land where KVDA had planned to build the dam.) “In 60 days, Rotich had offloaded the saw mills for Sh6.6 billion. What the CS did was to resell the land to KVDA for a killing.”

The newspaper speculated this could be one of the biggest misappropriation of public funds ever experienced in Kenya. In February, reported the newspaper, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Noordin Haji, visited Italy, to, among other things, establish Rotich’s alleged association with Rita Ricciardi, the chairperson of the Italy-Kenya Association. The paper concluded by saying that “in reality, the 2015 negotiation with CMC was managed by the Ministry of Treasury,” clearly placing the onus of the scandal at Rotich’s feet.

Conflict of interest

The Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich, is alleged to be markedly neck deep in the dams’ saga. Sources at the Treasury, who asked that their names not be revealed because they are not authorised to speak to the media, spoke of a person who knew precisely what he was doing in relation to the Arror and Kimwarer dams project.

“Once it was clear that the project had been given the go-ahead, Rotich allegedly bought Elgeyo Sawmills owned by some South Asians through proxies for Sh1 billion,” confided a land economist working at the Treasury. (This is part of the land where KVDA had planned to build the dam.) “In 60 days, Rotich had offloaded the saw mills for Sh6.6 billion. What the CS did was to resell the land to KVDA for a killing.”

This is where the real murkiness begins, added the economist. “This is illegal. Rotich technically paid himself in a clear case of conflict of interest, abuse of office and negligence of duty,” said the economist. “The Evaluation Act is very clear: Such a sale of a huge going concern cannot be sold in at least under 90 days. The sale must appreciate for at least six months for it to be resold at 25 per cent of the appreciation.”

Three weeks ago, the former Attorney General, Prof Githu Muigai said at the DCI offices that he had advised Rotich against entering into a deal with CMC Ravenna. Githu said that due diligence had not been done on the Italian company and both Rotich and KVDA ignored his pleas to first conduct a thorough legal/financial status of the company.

The dams’ saga gets murkier when three senior government officials (Susan Koech, Principal Secretary, East African Community and Regional Development, David Kimosop, KVDA MD and Henry Rotich CS Treasury), all coming from the same village in Arror, are alleged to have been involved in the scam. It is alleged that Susan Koech, who was once the North Rift Regional Manager for Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), arranged for payments to be made to the CMC. “By then the dams had been transferred to the EAC ministry for easy follow-up because the scam’s perpetrators’ person was there.”

This is not the first time such shenanigans – of shifting or retaining projects in certain ministries to either follow their minders or stay with them – have taken place. In 1986, Kamau Ngotho, writing in the Sunday Nation, last month said: “So personalised was the Turkwel (Gorge Dam) project, that when the Ministry of Regional Development, under which KVDA fell, was carved out from Mr Biwott’s Ministry of Energy and Regional Development, President Daniel arap Moi issued an executive order that the parastatal be retained in Mr Biwott’s docket.”

Peter Munya, the former Meru governor, who is the current Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation, served at the East African Community and Regional Development (the ministry in charge of constructing the phantom dams) for six months. “Munya was very uneasy about the goings-on about the dams’ project, which was in his ministry,” said a senior bureaucrat at the ministry. He didn’t want to be suckered up in a mess that was clearly going to blow up sooner than later.”

The bureaucrat told me that there is no love lost between Ruto & Ruto Inc. and Munya. “Munya still smarts from the fact that Ruto organised for his losing of the Meru governor’s seat. He has never forgiven him for that defeat to his political nemesis, Kiraitu Murungi. “So when Rotich allegedly approached Munya and pleaded with him to hush-hush the dams’ murky ongoings, Munya ignored him.” Consider Munya the whistle blower of this particular dams’ sleaze, said the civil servant.

Dams and development

“Dams have long fascinated scientists and politicians alike,” writes Dr Harry Verhoeven. “In the post-independent era of the late 1960s and 1970s, dams become popular in the developing countries seeking to meet the triple challenges of state-building, nation-building and economic development.”

The professor of politics, who has worked in the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa, argues that Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India saw dams as the “modern temples of India, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty through spectacular multiplier effect in industry and irrigated agriculture”.

In Africa, Gamal Abdel Nasser, considered to be the father of Pan-Arabism and the second President of Egypt, viewed the building of the Aswan High Dam – the biggest dam in Africa built in the 1960s – as Egypt’s “second independence”. Aswan has remained Africa’s largest and most important infrastructure project. It is credited with controlling the Nile flood for the first time in history. Aswan Dam is considered to be Egypt’s greatest engineering marvel, possibly only comparable to the construction of the pyramids.

Dr Verhoeven, observes that “dams are believed to magically transform barren wastelands into fertile acreage, elevating the nation and integrating, through irrigation and electrification, the domestic political economy.”

From the 1950s through to the 1970s, the World Bank provided the ideological and financial backing for the construction of hundreds of mega dams across Africa, Asia and Latin America. “But from the 1970s dams as development instruments become contested sites,” reports the don. “They were exposed as huge corruption scandals that contributed to the systemic over-estimation of their benefits. But from 2012, dams seems to be staging a comeback.”

To be continued…

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‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened

With the launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change, Zimbabwe’s political landscape has undergone a significant shift, with a younger activist generation increasingly impatient with the unfulfilled promises of liberation.



‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened
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On the 26th of February 2022, Zimbabwe’s Vice President delivered a chilling threat to the opposition. In a speech the “retired” army general Constantino Chiwenga, the chief architect of the November of 2017 putsch that removed Robert Mugabe, threatened that the opposition will be “crushed and ground on a rock like lice”. The General claimed that the ruling party was a “Goliath”; the Biblical imagery of the diminutive David “slaying” the giant Goliath was entirely lost on the Vice President. Here are his words:

“Down with CCC. You see when you crush lice with a rock, you put it on a flat stone and then you grind it to the extent that even flies will not eat it… But we are as big as Goliath we will see it [the opposition] when the time comes”.

The following day violent mayhem broke out in Kwekwe, the very town where the fiery speech was made. By the time the chaos ended, the opposition reported that 16 of their supporters had been hospitalised and it was recorded that a young man was sadistically speared to death. The supporters of the ruling party had taken the threat to “crush” and “grind” the opposition seriously. Details emerged—from the police—that the suspects were from the ruling party and had tried to hide in a property owned by a former minister of intelligence.

The launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has galvanised the opposition. Going by the youthful excitement at the rallies, the violence flaring against its supporters, and the way the police has been clamping down on CCC rallies, the ruling elites have realised they face a serious political threat from what has been called the “yellow” movement.

Exit Mugabe and Tsvangirai: Shifts in opposition and ruling class politics

The death of opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018 came in the wake of the November 2017 coup and other significant political events that followed. The death was a big blow to the opposition; there had been no succession planning, which was rendered more complex by the existence of three vice presidents deputising Tsvangirai. The MDC Alliance succession debacle set in motion a tumultuous contest that splintered the opposition. Court applications followed, and the ruling elites took an active interest. When the court battles ended, the judiciary ensured a “win” for the faction favoured by the ruling class. That faction was formally recognised in parliament, given party assets and provided with financial resources by the Treasury that were meant for the opposition.

As for the ruling party, there has been a shift in the political contests along factional lines, accentuated following the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe in September of 2019. There is high suspicion that the 2017 coup plotters (generals and commanders) now want their proverbial “pound of flesh”—the presidency. With the presidency as the bull fighter’s prize, the factions are now lining up either behind the president or the behind generals and this is cascading through the ruling party structures. The historical faction known as G40 (Generation 40) that hovered around the then first lady has been practically shut out of political power, with its anchors remaining holed up outside the country. Remnants of the G40 faction in Zimbabwe have been side-lined, with some of them subjected to the endless grind of court processes to ensure they keep their heads down.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block, bringing into the matrix a potent powder keg waiting to explode in the future.

The ruling party has gone further to entice Morgan Tsvangirai’s political orphans in order to decimate the leadership ranks of the opposition. Patronage is generously dished out: an ambassadorial appointment here, a gender commissioner position there, a seat on the board of a state parastatal…, and so on. These appointments come with extreme state largesse—cars, drivers, state security, free fuel, housing, pensions and the list goes on. The patronage also includes lucrative gold mining claims and farms running into hundreds of acres that come with free agricultural inputs. The former opposition stalwarts must be “re-habilitated” by being taught “patriotism” at a Bolshevik-like ideological school and then paraded at rallies as defectors to ZANU-PF.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block.

As these political shifts take place and the opposition divorces itself from the succession mess, there are also changes in Zimbabwe’s economy and this has a direct impact on the trajectory of politics in the country.

Transformed political economy: Informality, diaspora and agrarian change  

From about the end of the 1990s and stretching into the subsequent two decades up to 2022, Zimbabwe’s political economy has shifted significantly. Firstly, the fast-track land reform of the early 2000s altered land ownership from white settler “commercial” farmers to include more black people. The white-settler class power was removed as a factor in politics and in its place is a very unstable system of tenure for thousands of black farmers that have been married to the state for tenure security and stability.

Secondly, the follow-on effect of the land reform meant that Zimbabwe’s industrial base was altered, and this has resulted in a highly informalized economy or what others have called the “rubble”. An informal economy is now the new normal across the board for ordinary citizens and this has weakened organized labour as a voice in political contests. In 2020, the World Bank estimated extreme poverty at 49 per cent; this is infusing a sense of urgency for political change and is putting pressure on the political elites in Harare.

Thirdly, the exodus of Zimbabwe’s younger population into the diaspora has introduced another factor into the political matrix. According to official figures, the diaspora transferred about US$1.4 billion in 2021 alone, but this figure doesn’t capture remittances that are moved into Zimbabwe informally; the figure is much higher. The diaspora has actually used its cash to have a political voice, often via the opposition or independent “citizen initiatives”. It is proving to be a significant player in the political matrix to the extent that Nelson Chamisa has appointed a Secretary for Diaspora Affairs. For its part, the ruling party has blocked the diaspora vote.

Fourth, the national political economy has been “captured” by an unproductive crony class to the extent that researchers have estimated that as much as half of Zimbabwe’s GDP is being pilfered:

“It is estimated that Zimbabwe may lose up to half the value of its annual GDP of $21.4bn due to corrupt economic activity that, even if not directly the work of the cartels featured in the report, is the result of their suffocation of honest economic activity through collusion, price fixing and monopolies. Ironically, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been a public critic of illicit financial transfers, is identified by the report as one of the cartel bosses whose patronage and protection keeps cartels operating.”

Fifthly, and often under-researched, is the substantial role of China across Zimbabwe’s political economy as Harare’s political elites have shifted to Beijing for a closer alliance. This has paid handsomely for China which has almost unrestrained access to Zimbabwe’s natural resources, and the political elites are “comrades in business” with—mostly—Chinese state corporations; China’s influence is pervasive and evident across the country. Put together, the factors above mean that the political economy structure has changed significantly and it is within this landscape that the Citizens Coalition for Change—dubbed the “yellow movement” — that has been launched by the opposition will have to operate and organise.

‘Yellow Movement’: Re-articulating the future beyond the ‘Harare Bubble’? 

Since its launch, the opposition movement has swept into the CCC’s ranks the younger demographic of activists together with some solid veterans who survived the brutal years of Robert Mugabe’s terror. Zimbabwe’s median age is reported to be about 18 years of age; if these young people can register, turn out to vote and defend their vote, there is a whirlwind coming for the old nationalists in Harare.

Some within the ruling party have noticed this reality, with a former minister and ruling party member stating that “Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”. This admission is consistent with the words of Temba Mliswa, another “independent” member of parliament and a former leading activist in the ruling party, who stated that:

“The generational approach is like you trying to stop a wave of water with your open hands. You cannot ignore it. It’s a generational issue. You cannot ignore it. You need to look at it. You need to study it… There is no young person in ZANU PF who is as vibrant as Chamisa, who is as charismatic as Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa is going to go straight for ED (President Emmerson Mnangagwa)… There is no gate preventing this.’

These admissions are an indication that the CCC movement poses a serious threat to the ruling party. But beyond the contest of politics, of ideas, of policy platforms, the “yellow movement” will have to divorce itself from the “Harare Bubble”. The ruling nationalists polished a rigid centralised political system inherited from settler-colonialism, and have used this to build a crony network of robbery based in the capital city while impoverishing other regions. But they are not alone in this; even the opposition has often overlooked the fact that “all politics is local” and it has also created a “Harare Bubble” of yesterday’s heroes and gatekeepers who, armed with undynamic analyses, continue to cast their shadows into the arena long after their expiry date.

“Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”.

The yellow movement will have to go local and divorce itself from the parochial legacy of previously progressive platforms that have now been cornered by an elite who have become careerist, corrupt, inward-looking and, like civil warlords, only loyal to imported 10-year-old whisky bottles and their kitambis—their visibly ballooning stomachs.

Yet there is no ignoring it; Zimbabwe’s youth have been emboldened by political change in Zambia and Malawi, and by the rise of younger leaders in South Africa. The winds are blowing heavily against the status quo. In the 2023 general election, the ruling nationalists will face a more tactful, daring and politically solid Nelson Chamisa who has strategically pushed back against “elite pacts”. Added to his eloquence, his speeches are getting more structured, substantially more polished, and he is projecting the CCC movement as a capable alternative government. With the indelible footprints of Morgan Tsvangirai in the background, the next general election, in 2023, will be an existential contest for Harare’s old nationalists—they are facing their Waterloo.

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The Dictatorship of the Church

From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.



The Dictatorship of the Church
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
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In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.

Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.

Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.

Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.

The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.

Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health servicesCritics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”

Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.

A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.

Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.

In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique

Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.

Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.

The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.

A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.

More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.

In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.

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

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Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror

The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.



Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
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Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.

“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”

Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.

Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.

At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.

Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.

Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned.  US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.

The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.

AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.

Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”

Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.

I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.

Sweet home Alabama! 

An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.

Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.

He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.

We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.

What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.

Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”

ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked

King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.

In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.

Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.

Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”

Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.

Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.

“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.

The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.

According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.

A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.

The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.  “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.

These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.

The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.

The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.

The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.

The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”

With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:

And this bird, you cannot change

Lord help me, I can’t change….

Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.

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