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The Truth About the ‘Single Source of Truth About Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly

13 min read.

That the Kenyan state has been strengthened by the rise of Safaricom is probably most evident in the doubling of the population of formal taxpayers in this same period. Yet, it is also clear that this relationship has defeated the NDRS’s goals for addressing the weaknesses of formal credit provision for ordinary Kenyans.



The Truth About the ‘Single Source of Truth About Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly
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Kenyans walking to work on Nairobi’s Haile Selassie Avenue on the 16th of June 2016 were shocked to find that a pile of well-worn identity cards and driver’s licences had been dumped during the night on the pavement outside the Jesus is Alive Ministries’ church. The identity cards were those that Kenyans mistakenly call the second and third generation IDs – one, dating from 1995, is laminated, and the other, issued after 2011, is printed directly onto plastic. Both types of cards were produced by Thales, a French parastatal, so they are administratively identical. On the front side, they present the card’s serial number, the holder’s identity number, full name, date of birth, sex, district of birth, place of issue, date of issue, signature, thumbprint; on the reverse are the functional categories of colonial indirect rule: district; division; location; sub-location.

None of the cards in the pile were the third-generation or digital IDs that Kenyans have been promised for a decade: the polycarbonate sheet, laser-printed with solid colour images and etched holograms containing, critically, a machine-readable chip and a full set of digital finger and iris biometrics.

In 2007, the main archives of the National Registration Bureau (issuer of ID cards) contained the scanned records of the inked fingerprints of 14 million Kenyans. In an attempt to bolster the identity card system and the integrity of the register that authenticated applications for cards, the KNCHR called for the fast-tracking of a biometric database – the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). In 2009, the development of that system was awarded, apparently without controversy, to a consortium from the Ukraine called EDAPS.

The third generation card was first announced publicly in 2007 in the wake of an investigation by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) into accusations of widespread corruption and discrimination in the issuing of IDs. The commission’s concerns were split evenly between the general complaint about the cash bribes officials demanded to perform basic administrative services and the more specific accusation that Somali-Kenyans were being systematically denied identity cards and their basic rights as citizens. Behind both worries lurked fears about the fragility of the laminated card, and its susceptibility to forgery. The notorious weakness of the cards had much to do with the seven-digit identity number and the vulnerability of the registry that was being used to authenticate claims for citizenship.

In 2007, the main archives of the National Registration Bureau (issuer of ID cards) contained the scanned records of the inked fingerprints of 14 million Kenyans. In an attempt to bolster the identity card system and the integrity of the register that authenticated applications for cards, the KNCHR called for the fast-tracking of a biometric database – the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). In 2009, the development of that system was awarded, apparently without controversy, to a consortium from the Ukraine called EDAPS.

The appointment of a contractor for the production of the third generation cards was not so simple. The 2005 Anglo Leasing scandal – where the Mwai Kibaki government was notoriously implicated in the payment of a massively inflated tender to a British shell company for printing passports – loomed in the background of the call for tender for the new identity cards. The processes were fraught and contested, especially as losing bidders could bring show-stopping appeals to the newly established Public Procurement Oversight Authority after 2007.

The call for tender for the new cards was issued in May 2009, specifying a “third generation ID Card” with the establishment of an “elaborate infrastructure supported by appropriate software modules, including installation of live data capture equipment both at the headquarters and in the field offices, personalisation centre and a centralised database production facility, complete with the necessary biometric and facial recognition features”. The government allocated $10 million to the project, and the international biometrics giants all submitted proposals. In September that same year, the whole process came to a sudden halt when NADRA, the Pakistan identification agency (who were making Kenyan passports) raised a successful protest about the decision of the tender board.

Thales continued printing the laminated cards after the tender collapsed, but in July 2011 the cabinet refused to endorse their ongoing production, and the issuing of the indispensable IDs stopped completely, prompting something of a national emergency. The Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons issued a second tender in 2011 but that succumbed in the same way when the French ID contractor, Imprimerie Nationale, protested its exclusion on the basis of the tender board’s sloppy paperwork. With the 2013 election looming, the ministry had little choice but to restore Thales’ contract to print the backlog of two million – rising quickly to four million – of the new plastic (not laminated but also not third generation) cards.

That was the situation, at least as far as the ID cards were concerned, when Mwende Gatabaki arrived to join the Office of the President from her job at the African Development Bank in Tunis in February 2014. Gatabaki was chosen as the architect of the new plan for identification and information-sharing – the National Digital Registry System (NDRS) – as she had extensive experience working on the networking requirements of the cumbersome Kenyan parastatals and the large donor organisations in East Africa.

Clean, complete, correct

The plan to register the entire Kenyan population “afresh” was first made public at the ConnectedKenya conference in Mombasa in April 2014. It was presented by Gatabaki, who was tasked with assembling a new government agency that would unify the different functions of birth and death registration, the registration of aliens and refugees, and the issuing of identity cards, which were all spread across the detached Departments of Civil Registration, Immigration, Refugee Affairs and the National Registration Bureau.

The Act establishing the new service had already been passed in 2011. It called for a new co-ordinating agency that would develop a unique identifier for every person, manage all issues related to citizenship and immigration, and maintain a comprehensive and accurate national population register. Gatabaki’s plan drew on the heightened public concern around national security in the wake of the September 2013 attacks on the Westgate shopping mall. It lay out a potentially revolutionary reorganisation of the entire Kenyan state around a “single source of truth”. The new database would link together existing and new registries of population, land holdings, companies and moveable assets. Gatabaki argued that the new database and registrations would be significantly cheaper than the cost of upgrading existing but separate projects of registration and identification underway in the separate departments. To do all of this required a break from the existing forms of paper registration and a new set of purely digital biometrics for every person in the country.

Gatabaki’s emphasis on a compulsory national round of digital registrations was controversial, to put it mildly, because many Kenyans – especially those supporting the CORD coalition that was kept from power – were still furious about the biometric debacle staged during the previous year’s national elections when the biometric voter identification kits supplied by the South African firm, Face Technologies, failed.

This initial presentation made no mention of a new digital ID card, but the following day the CEO of the state ICT Authority explained that the government was preparing to spend nearly $100 million on the new database and that the new ID cards would have a chip or magnetic strip that would allow police officers on patrol to confirm authenticity.


Gatabaki’s emphasis on a compulsory national round of digital registrations was controversial, to put it mildly, because many Kenyans – especially those supporting the CORD coalition that was kept from power – were still furious about the biometric debacle staged during the previous year’s national elections when the biometric voter identification kits supplied by the South African firm, Face Technologies, failed. The official enquiry into this debacle, accusations of corruption and other ongoing controversies over the enormous cost and licensing of the biometric kit dominated public debate until the end of 2015. In Kenya, biometric registration is the main arena of a bitter struggle over state power, and it was hardly surprising that the opposition leaders immediately responded to the move to register all afresh by claiming that it was a scheme to rig the next elections.

Political mistrust was not the only serious problem, however; over the previous decade, the procurement processes for the long-promised identity card had repeatedly collapsed into a mess of conflicting corruption allegations.

Indigenising capital

Gatabaki’s project aimed, chiefly, at replacing the unreliable and limited paper-based population register with a digital biometric database. The new biometric system would have established a single official identity for all adults in Kenya for the first time and it would have allowed real-time, remote biometric authentication. But it was also motivated by an effort to create a new kind of property by registering collateral in moveable assets, such as vehicles, farm animals and companies.

Meanwhile, the EDAPS consortium had been busy working to build the IPRS, linking together the main repositories of identification and citizenship status. EDAPS first built the IPRS connections between the National Registration Bureau’s ID card database and the Ministry for Immigration and Registration of Persons (MIRP) passport and aliens registries. In 2010 they began to incorporate new data from the birth and death registries managed by the Department of Civil Registration. The following year, 2011, they built automated two-way links between the IPRS and the databases maintained by the two newly established credit reference bureaus (CRBs).

This relationship allowed the CRBs to do real time confirmation of the identity of the new applicants for credit (using automated queries against the linked civil registration and ID card records). Much more importantly for the broader political economy in Kenya, and the fate of the NDRS, it also pushed blacklisting data into the IPRS itself. The listing of defaults inside the state’s IPRS – what the Credit Information Sharing Association of Kenya (CISKenya) described as negative information – provided a simple, effective and real time sorting and coercive tool for the new mobile credit providers looking for instant decision-making systems. This simple link had the effect of separating Safaricom, with its troves of data on millions of users’ spending behaviour, from the broader alliance of formal lenders who were looking to build database profiles that would differentiate customers based on sharing positive (payments) and negative (defaults) information.

Safaricom – the monopolistic telecommunications firm that has created the globally distinctive system of mobile money known as M-Pesa – was able to develop simple forms of virtual reputational collateral using its own automated assessment systems and its own identification and authentication processes. The state’s existing population register was sufficient for its needs, where the banks’ credit information sharing (CIS) processes – with their demanding templates of data and very high errors of identification – faced continuous failures and material resistance.

The failure of the new digital identification scheme was the result of a conflict between the formal banks and Safaricom. It was also a struggle between different types of credit markets. On the one hand, the banks wanted to build credit reporting systems and new government registration arrangements that would allow individuals and firms to formalise non-fixed assets, such as vehicles and livestock, which would then act as new forms of collateral for further borrowing. The advocates of these assets registers and of the banks’ universal credit reporting systems were opposed by Safaricom (in practice more than in public) and eventually by the leaders of the Kenyan state, who championed a simple and effective system for delivering unsecured, high-interest micro-loans that did not require collateral registers.

As Safaricom’s monopoly status became painfully obvious after 2010, the banks’ advocates increasingly argued – and with good reason – that the most serious weakness in the Kenyan economy lay in the difficulties that small businesses faced in securing credit.

The advocates of the biometric plan justified it by appealing to the need for certain and secure identification, for stronger national security (and policing) and better tax coverage and recovery, but what distinguished it from the already existing plans for population registration was the effort to build a new kind of asset register – a database describing real, not informational, collateral assets. The National Digital Registry System plan proposed a joined-up architecture of state databases that brought the management of private collateral into the core of the state’s business. Aimed at the interests that the established banks had in the development of reliable, accurate and complete credit histories, it was also a radical effort to address the informational void that surrounds property on the African continent.

As Safaricom’s monopoly status became painfully obvious after 2010, the banks’ advocates increasingly argued – and with good reason – that the most serious weakness in the Kenyan economy lay in the difficulties that small businesses faced in securing credit. Policy makers argued that thousands of these small firms possessed moveable assets – buildings, vehicles, equipment, products, animals – that could provide secure collateral for formal credit when provided with the right administrative and information processing tools. This was the idea behind the NDRS – a centralised data exchange that would make information from the discrete registries (for example, of companies and vehicles) available to lenders. At the same time, this kind of centralised data hub would offer non-bank lenders a quid pro quo for sharing information about their customers’ servicing of existing loans. This idea – that the NDRS would, finally, make it easy for financial institutions to appraise borrowers – was at the heart of the Gatabaki proposal. “A central repository of personal and corporate information will facilitate banks in their credit appraisal,” as the Central Bank governor explained in endorsing the project in October 2014, “This should not only ease access to credit but also reduce costs of credit, given the lower search costs.”

In fact, of course, that integration never happened. Instead, the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), in alliance with Safaricom, developed its own separate scoring mechanism that drew on data from Safaricom’s transaction database specifically to identify borrowers who did not meet the initial basic criteria that were derived from Safaricom airtime purchases. The resulting scorecard worked only too well and – combined with the basic identification and simple blacklisting supported by the IPRS – it meant that CBA and Safaricom could issue M-Shwari loans without any need to look up or report data to the credit bureaus; the credit information templates of credit sharing were too cumbersome and too slow and would have ruined the rapid decision-making that is one of the attractions of Safaricom’s mobile lending.

From the outset, the CBA, like many of the other non-bank credit providers in Kenya, used credit information sharing only as a last resort in the effort to recover outstanding loans. After 120 days of non-payment, the bank reported delinquent M-Shwari debtors to the credit bureaus. These records, almost all of them negative reports, rapidly inflated the population covered by the CRBs from 1 million people in 2014 to 4 million the following year. This expansion was the exact opposite of the reputational collateral that the bankers had long used to justify credit sharing; it measured, instead, the dramatically augmented pool of those denied formal credit at any cost.

By the time that Gatabaki announced the NDRS project in April 2014, the effort to create a technological platform to foster reputational collateral for ordinary Kenyans had effectively failed. Over the following year, the balance of informational power shifted decisively towards Safaricom and CBA. Few people made the argument publicly, but the telecom giant had clearly come to exercise monopoly control over the heights of the Kenyan economy. Their interest in micro-loans – while profitable and useful to borrowers – did little to make formal credit available to individuals or companies. The CIS system was working only as a blacklist available to Safaricom on the IPRS platform and, far from working as a solution to the problem of asymmetrical information for other lenders, it simply encouraged local banks to deny ordinary Kenyans credit.

The Safaricom monopoly

Gatabaki’s scheme faced resistance from within the state, not least because the World Bank’s Kenya Transparency Communications Infrastructure Project (KTCIP) had been pouring money into the renewal of the old IPRS. As the NDRS was being debated, the Bank was busy upgrading the IPRS, supporting digitisation of the existing land and company registries, strengthening the administration of the fifty newly devolved county centres of government, and connecting all of the divisions of the state to an accounting database. The KTCIP overhaul reduced some of the pressure for repair of the existing state information systems, but it does not account for the collapse of Gatabaki’s scheme, which would in fact have been bolstered by the same processes. The real reason lay in the ascendancy of the highly simplified information systems controlled by Safaricom, the explosive growth of M-Shwari mobile loans offered by the CBA and the decline of the political influence of the other established banks.

During the year that the NDRS was being debated, Safaricom converted its M-Pesa monopoly over pre-paid customers and financial transactions into the wildly successful M-Shwari microcredit product. In the process, it transformed the Commercial Bank of Africa – substantially owned by the Kenyatta family – from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world…

Two financial relationships were key to this influence. The first was the joint ownership of Safaricom between the British telecorp Vodafone and the Kenyan state, which gave the state a double-dipping interest in the company’s enormous profits: first as shareholder and second as tax collector. By 2017 the state was earning Sh60 billion in tax and licence fees, and an additional Sh12 billion in dividends – a total that meant a tenth of the revenues raised by the state came from a single firm.

During the year that the NDRS was being debated, Safaricom converted its M-Pesa monopoly over pre-paid customers and financial transactions into the wildly successful M-Shwari microcredit product. In the process, it transformed the Commercial Bank of Africa – substantially owned by the Kenyatta family – from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world, offering credit and banking facilities to the majority of adult Kenyans – most of whom were very poor. During 2016, 35 million Kenyans used mobile banking to conduct 1.5 billion transactions for a combined value of Sh3.5 trillion. The number of wretchedly but newly employed field agents servicing this finance industry rose by 10 per cent to 165,000 individuals in the same year. And Safaricom exercises a textbook monopoly over the field, controlling 65 per cent of the SIM card subscriptions and 84 per cent of the mobile banking transactions.

By the end of 2016, M-Shwari was an even purer monopoly of the mobile credit market than its M-Pesa parent. It was being used by 16 million customers to take out 64 million small loans with a total value of $1.4 billion. One in five Kenyans were borrowing from M-Swari in a normal month. A highly simplified, stripped-down informational architecture that exploited the very limited capabilities of the Simcard Toolkit and the IPRS (the opposite of the integrated, interoperable and real-time biometric system proposed for the NDRS) was key to the explosive successs of the Safaricom-CBA product.

In contrast with the NDRS, the M-Shwari loans imposed no new identification process on borrowers. For loans of less than sh2500, M-Shwari relied only on the original M-Pesa paperwork – sight of the national ID and a completed application form – that each customer is supposed to have submitted to load the M-Pesa menu and the IPRS blacklist. This frictionless simplicity – turning ignorance and convenience into effective instruments of profit – is now internationally called the “tier-based Know-Your-Customer” procedure. It is intrinsically the opposite of the “clean, complete, correct and secure” registration process that Gatabaki envisaged for the NDRS. It is important to note that it is an instrument of monopoly power because Safaricom can control its risk exposure by relying on the data it owns about users’ purchases of airtime and their relationships with other users. That information – and possible histories of impersonation and PIN-swopping – is not available to the firms’ competitors. It is only in the final decision of blacklisting borrowers that Safaricom reports unpaid M-Shwari debts to the CRBs, effectively blocking those borrowers from future credit and their competitors’ access to future customers. In the short, in the three-year life of M-Shwari, the number of Kenyans – most without any prior connection with the formal banking system – added to the blacklist shared between the CIS and the IPRS has reached three million people (a tenth of the adult population). And nearly 400,000 of those blacklisted have been denied access to future credit for failing to settle debts of less than sh200.

In the years since the demise of the NDRS, Safaricom’s relationship with the Kenyan state has only grown more intimate. The company was an immediate beneficiary of the 14 per cent cap on interest which the Kenyan Central Bank imposed on formal lenders in September 2016 – not least because CBA successfully defended the argument that the 7.5 per cent monthly fee on M-Shwari was an administrative charge and not interest. (The effective interest rate offered on M-Shwari loans approaches 140 per cent over a year of borrowing, but this rate – ten times the legal limit imposed on the formal banks – was still much lower than the returns demanded by informal money lenders.) Safaricom has taken on many of the trophy projects pursued by the Kenyan state since, including a national CCTV surveillance network in 2016, and an e-citizenship project that takes up many of the goals of online convenience that motivated the NDRS.

That the Kenyan state has been strengthened by the rise of Safaricom is probably most evident in the doubling of the population of formal taxpayers in this same period. Yet, it is also clear that this relationship has defeated the NDRS’s goals for addressing the weaknesses of formal credit provision for ordinary Kenyans, especially for firms and for individuals looking to invest relatively large amounts in productive investments. In place of the revolutionary, panoptic over-reach of Gatabaki’s National Digital Registry System, Kenyans have the simplicity and efficiency of M-Shwari. In comparison with the goals of full credit reporting and asset registries, this looks very much like the old pattern of skeletal registration and brutal administration that Africans have long had to endure.


Keith Breckenridge was also published in The Journal of African Studies on the same: “Breckenridge. K. (2019), The failure of the ‘single source of truth about Kenyans’: The NDRS, collateral mysteries and the Safaricom monopoly: Journal of African Studies, Vol. 78 Issue 1,  pp 91-111”. It can be accessed here

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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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Breaking the Chains of Indifference

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.



Breaking the Chains of Indifference
Photo by Musnany on Unsplash.
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They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.

This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”

Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.

Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.

Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.

Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.

The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no  retribution against the military for their actions.

During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.

Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.

Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.

Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.

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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