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Dying for Justice: Who Killed Oscar Kingara and George Paul Oulu?

20 min read. Cases of extrajudicial killings by police and other state security agents are commonplace in Kenya, where such murders often do not lead to prosecution or justice for the victims. ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE revisits the case of two prominent human rights defenders who were killed in 2009 in broad daylight on a Nairobi street.

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Dying for Justice: Who Killed Oscar Kingara and George Paul Oulu?
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Whenever one drives along Ring Road in Kilimani, and glances across the hedge of the Kileleshwa Police Station, where several vehicles are parked inside the compound, one is likely to spot an abandoned white Mercedes Benz E200, registration number KAJ 179Z, with a missing rear windshield, The last time the Mercedes Benz moved before it was towed to the police station was when it was forcefully shoved by enraged University of Nairobi students into the entrance of Hall 2, one of their hostels located adjacent to State House Road. Pushing the Mercedes Benz onto the sloped university terrain wasn’t difficult. It had stood stationary on State House Road, its occupants shot dead.

It was Thursday 5 March 2009 at about 6 p.m when Oscar Kamau Kingara, the Executive Director of the Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic Kenya (OFFLACK), and George Paul Oulu, also known as GPO, his Communications and Advocacy Officer, were caught in evening Nairobi traffic on State House Road. One would expect to run into a little traffic at that hour and place. However, what the duo were unaware of, as narrated by a number of university students who witnessed what next transpired at close range, was that the gridlock was stage-managed.

‘‘A group of us were coming from lectures that evening,’’ Mathew (not his real name) told me. ‘‘Others were walking from the hostels towards town and the main library. The killers acted as if we were nonexistent. We saw everything.’’

A Mitsubishi Pajero drove out of a University of Nairobi gate, the one located right next to Hall 11 in front of one of the university’s clinics, pretending to be joining State House Road. It then stopped midway on the road once it had cut off the flow of traffic, its occupants staying put, as if unperturbed by the intentional inconvenience they were inflicting on the now slowly building up stream of vehicles coming down from the State House Girls School side. The Pajero rudely cutting off traffic was the first red flag for the students.

‘‘A group of us were coming from lectures that evening,’’ Mathew (not his real name) told me. ‘‘Others were walking from the hostels towards town and the main library. The killers acted as if we were nonexistent. We saw everything.’’

‘‘We saw the Pajero interrupting traffic, but didn’t think much of it,’’ said Andrew (not his real name) who was part of Mathew’s group from the lecture halls. ‘‘We imagined it was one of those big-car uncivil Nairobi drivers.’’

One of the vehicles the Pajero forced to stop was the Mercedes Benz. Kingara was its driver, Oulu the passenger. In under a generous estimate of three minutes of the students encountering the Pajero, the students heard a series of loud gunshots. By this time, they had walked into the Lower State House residential unit, which holds Halls 10, 11, 1 and 2. Knowing the frosty relationship between University of Nairobi students and the police, the gunshots instantly triggered anxiety among the students already settled inside their hostel rooms. They all started screaming from their windows, expecting the worst. Had the police shot one of their own?

Cutting the University of Nairobi’s main campus halls of residence right into two – Lower State House and Upper State House clusters of hostels – students from both sides of State House Road were now scrambling in their hundreds out of windows, confused and wanting to catch a piece of the action. Looking at the under 100 metre distance between the huge tree behind Hall 11 where the shooting took place and the little gate from where the Pajero had stalled, the students who had the best vantage point to witness everything were those looking out from the upper floors of Halls 11 and 9, the two male student hostels sandwiching the scene.

‘‘The gunshots were so loud, which made us suspect the shooting was happening within the university’s vicinity,’’ James (not his real name), a third year Bachelor of Arts Hall 9 resident told me. ‘‘It wasn’t difficult to locate the Mercedes Benz from my window on the second floor. It was the only vehicle with men hovering around it.’’

After the first gunshots, students with a quicker reflex directed their attention to the scene and caught sight of the two men dressed in similar suits finishing the job. Occupants of nearby vehicles didn’t dare step out, possibly paralysed by the display of impunity by the shooters who had the audacity to summarily execute the driver and his passenger in broad daylight right in the environs of the University of Nairobi, which is known for its protests.

‘‘After shooting the vehicle’s occupants,’’ James from Hall 9 went on, ‘‘the shooters in identical suits shot in the air before slowly strolling towards a minivan that was about three vehicles behind the Mercedes Benz. They got into it, and as it was turning around before driving away, my friends and I noticed its driver was wearing what resembled a police uniform. Our observation would later be corroborated by other students.’’

For a long time, whether having beers at Senses or standing in groups outside the library, the tens of student witnesses I have interviewed spoke about that Thursday evening in surgical detail, piecing together minute bits of information crowd sourced from whoever saw anything, eventually managing to reconstruct the scene.

‘‘We all saw different bits of whatever happened that evening,’’ a now thirty-something Mathew told me. ‘‘But when we pieced everything everyone saw together, which became the widely accepted narrative, our conclusion was that once the Pajero created a temporary traffic jam, the men in identical suits disembarked from the minivan with their guns. They then looked inside each of the vehicles ahead of the minivan, until they got to the Mercedes Benz. On identifying the two men as their targets, they summarily executed them.’’

‘‘I’ve been told by a Hall 9 student that the driver of the minivan was wearing a military fatigue jacket, the ones worn by the police. Did any witness you interacted with share the same view?’’ I asked Mathew.

‘‘I’ve heard the same thing before from third parties,’’ Mathew replied, ‘‘but I can’t confirm its veracity.’’

However, what the students didn’t need to reconstruct was what happened after Oulu and Kingara were shot.

‘‘Not too long after those in Halls 9 and Hall 11 watched the men in suits in action,’’ Mathew recollected, ‘‘those of us from the lecture halls ran to State House Road and surrounded the scene. We wanted to see who had been shot. That is when we heard another gunshot. As we dispersed temporarily, two men walked from the direction of the Pajero, wanting to access the Mercedes Benz, each holding a pistol. We watched them ransack the pockets of the two shot men before taking documents and a laptop from the back seat.’’

‘‘Can you identify the men if you saw them or their photos?’’ I asked Mathew.

‘‘I don’t want to answer that,’’ Mathew said. ‘‘I don’t like the idea of killers thinking I can recognise them.’’

According to Mathew, the men from the Pajero were in no hurry. Going by that evening’s series of events, the students arrived at an inescapable conclusion: the killers were policemen. No other logical conclusion could explain such a display of meticulous organisation and absolute impunity – the Pajero cutting off traffic, the men in suits shooting the Mercedes Benz occupants, and finally the men from the Pajero taking their time at the scene as if crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s.

It was when the two men were milling around the scene of the killing that the group of students tried to engage them in small talk.

‘‘Mbona humuwabebi?’’ a student asked as the men left the scene. Why aren’t you taking away the bodies?

‘‘Wengine watakujia,’’ one of the men casually replied, unruffled. Others will come to clear the scene up.

After the men in the Pajero left, the students realised that Oulu was still breathing. Unlike Kingara, whose death best illustrates the term summary execution (he was shot at least three times in the head, possibly in quick succession, and his body remained in an almost upright position in the driver’s seat) Oulu had used his left hand to block a bullet, which went through his wrist and through his head. Seeing that the university sanatorium was less than 100 metres from the scene, daring students removed Oulu’s body from the vehicle, but before they could move beyond 20 metres, they noticed he had stopped breathing.

Just before nightfall, a few senior students managed to positively identify Oulu. He had been a celebrated Vice Chairman of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU). On leading a protest in 2004 against tuition fee increment, he had received a 1,000-day or three academic year suspension. He came back to the university in 2007 to complete his degree course in Mathematics and Economics. He hadn’t graduated by the time he was shot in March 2009.

The students’ original police-and-robbers theory was disproved. One of the victims was, in fact one, of their own, as was initially feared when they first heard gunshots. Knowing the University of Nairobi students’ modus operandi, State House Road was immediately shut at the first sign of protest. News had to get to the president, who lived barely 500 metres away.

It was under these circumstances that the students shoved the Mercedes Benz into Hall 2. Thereafter, Kingara’s bled-out body was hidden under a staircase. Wanting to forcefully retrieve the body, anti-riot police engaged in an overnight battle with students. In the process, a first-year student, Edwin Gesairo, was shot dead.

‘‘I am the one who hid Kingara’s body,’’ a former student told me. ‘‘We were going for an all-out war.’’

But, some still ask, were the students even half right in their prima facie police-and-hardcore-wanted-criminals hypothesis? Who were Kingara and Oulu, and what had they been doing that might have led to their violent and bloody death?

***

The answer came in agenda item three during the May 2009 11th session of the United Nations Human Rights council in Geneva. In an addendum to his presentation, Prof. Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, confirmed that Oulu and Kingara were among members of civil society with whom he had met during his February 2009 visit to Kenya to investigate rampant extrajudicial killings by death squads within the security system and the police. In affirming the student’s suspicion that the killing of Oulu and Kingara was premeditated assassination, Alston stated:

‘‘Moreover, we urge your Excellency’s Government to expeditiously carry out an independent investigation into the killing of Oscar Kamau Kingara and George Paul Oulu. While we do not in any way prejudge the question of the responsibility for this assassination, it is inevitable under the circumstances that suspicion should fall upon the Kenya Police.’’

However, if one were to argue that the police per se weren’t involved in the assassination or shouldn’t be the primary target of investigations, as alluded to by the Special Rapporteur’s statement, then the outlined mandate within which Prof. Alston was basing his request carried a more comprehensive scope of what was meant by his suspicion of the state’s complicity. He was asking for an investigation into:

‘‘Deaths due to the attacks or killings by security forces of the State, or by paramilitary groups, death squads, or other private forces cooperating with or tolerated by the State; death threats and fear of imminent extrajudicial executions by State officials.’’

There was no doubt that Kingara and Oulu had made enemies in high places. But did they, eighty-four days before their slaying, sign their own death warrants?

On New Year’s Day 2009, the Oscar Foundation wrote a letter to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, calling for investigations into suspected state-sponsored extrajudicial killings targeting alleged members of Mungiki – the predominantly Kikuyu cultural and sometimes spiritual grouping, which from time to time ventured into the political sphere, and which was in other instances accused of criminality. Mungiki was accused of enforcing a parallel taxation regime in the public transport sector in Nairobi and Central Kenya, and of running a shakedown racket in informal settlements in Nairobi, where it demanded payment in exchange for protection of businesses.

‘‘I am the one who hid Kingara’s body,’’ a former student told me. ‘‘We were going for an all-out war.’’

Fashioned as Mau Mau reincarnate, Mungiki swept through Central Kenya in an unprecedented manner, a form of peasant uprising against the moneyed and ruling Kikuyu elite, which at the time controlled the levers of state power. The group was condemned as being some sort of loose-cannon ragtag militia prone to extortionist tendencies, a ready gun for hire for politicians, sometimes including suspected state actors. It was therefore a messy, complicated affair, where it now appeared its leadership and membership – who knew too much and became unruly according to the powers that be – had become a liability to the political and security establishments. The extrajudicial killings of Mungiki members came after its members were suspected to have been deeply involved in revenge attacks during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, hence resulting in extrajudicial and enforced disappearances of some within its ranks. It was therefore anyone’s guess as to who had authorised the mopping up of Mungiki.

On New Year’s Day 2009, the Oscar Foundation wrote a letter to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, calling for investigations into suspected state-sponsored extrajudicial killings targeting alleged members of Mungiki…

The Oscar Foundation’s audacious request to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC was for warrants to be immediately issued against the President of the Republic of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, the Minister of Interior, Prof. George Saitoti and his outspoken predecessor John Michuki, and the Commissioner of Police, Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali, alongside his subordinates who were allegedly directly linked to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in Kenya.

The timing of the letter couldn’t have been worse. In January 2009, the Kenyan political establishment was jittery. There were rumours of probable indictments of prominent Kenyans by the ICC, with elements within Mungiki being perceived as likely corroborators in sections of the prosecution’s evidence, which could be used against leading political players implicated in the violence following the 2007/2008 post-election violence – violence where over 1,200 lives were lost and over half a million citizens got displaced in under two weeks. The Oscar Foundation request to ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, asking him to direct his investigative torch towards Kenya, seemed like an affront to the political establishment.

This letter was followed by Kingara’s and Oulu’s presentation of evidence on extrajudicial killings in February 2009 to the UN’s Prof. Philip Alston in a public event at the United Nations Office in Gigiri, Nairobi. Feathers were surely ruffled.

***

The Oscar Foundation wasn’t a huge organisation. Run from a small but tastefully furnished rented office in China Centre on Nairobi’s Ngong Road, the organisation’s operations were pretty specific – to document cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and to offer free legal aid to families of victims of the same. The partitioned office had two sections, the first one filled with thousands of files neatly arranged in a series of wall-to-wall cabinets surrounding an open plan office for paralegals. The second partition was where Oulu and Kingara operated. It was a lean, mean team causing the state considerable discomfort.

However, the dark cloud hanging over the Oscar Foundation was that it was a cover for Mungiki. On the morning of 5 March 2009, the day Oulu and Kingara were killed, the Government of Kenya’s spokesman, Dr. Alfred Mutua, issued a scathing attack on the organisation, repeating allegations that it was a conduit through which Mungiki received foreign aid and laundered money. In a move which would later come back to haunt the state, Dr. Mutua issued a not-so-veiled threat against the organisation, promising that the state would act firmly on Mungiki and its sympathisers. Less than 12 hours later, Oulu and Kingara were dead.

***

Within civil society, there were murmurs that a plausible trigger for the assassination of Oulu and Kingara was the abrasive nature of their approach to activism. For instance, on the day of their shooting, the duo had paralysed public transport on major routes in Nairobi. They worked with matatu touts and drivers who went on a go-slow in solidarity with the families of those within their ranks who had been killed on suspicion of being members of Mungiki. It wasn’t the first time the Oscar Foundation had coordinated such a protest.

‘‘Kingara owned this huge roadshow truck on which he displayed life-size images of the president and a number of cabinet ministers, all of whom the accompanying texts were effectively calling murderers,’’ a civil society executive who wished to remain unnamed told me in Nairobi. ‘‘That was extremely audacious.’’

Was the Oscar Foundation a cover for Mungiki, or was it that since the majority of its clients (families and friends of those suspected of having been summarily executed by the state) were members of Mungiki, therefore the organisation and those it served were conflated into one? This will remain a matter of conjecture, since the Kenyan state has never released evidence to prove the claim. That the state declined a formal offer by the United States Ambassador to Kenya to have the FBI join in on the investigations into the assassination of Oulu and Kingara – among other pointers towards possible complicity – continues to fuel the theory that very highly placed elements within government had something to do with the killing of the two human rights activists.

To date, the assassination of Oulu and Kingara remains unresolved.

***

The killing of Oulu and Kingara shook the Kenyan human rights fraternity to the core. It was no longer a question of human rights defenders receiving empty threats; death by execution was officially on the cards.

‘‘The most profound case I have ever encountered in the defence of human rights defenders has to be the assassination of Kingara and Oulu,’’ Sam Mohochi, a lawyer and human rights defender who at the time of the killings was the Executive Director of the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), told me. ‘‘I made a deliberate attempt to escalate the matter legally, but one of the families kindly requested that we shouldn’t.’’

IMLU had been one of the few lone voices in the wilderness speaking against extrajudicial killings, which were backed by its numerous autopsy reports. In what may appear to be as a stroke of genius, IMLU combined medicine and the law, somehow playing the role of Kenya’s non-existent coroner at a time when doing such wasn’t mainstreamed.

The killing of Oulu and Kingara shook the Kenyan human rights fraternity to the core. It was no longer a question of human rights defenders receiving empty threats; death by execution was officially on the cards.

As Executive Director, Mohochi found himself having to stick his head out several times. He recalls that in December 2008, on the sidelines of the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, he met Prof. Philip Alston and his assistant Sarah – now a professor in New York – who told him that finally, the Kenyan government had agreed for the Special Rapporteur to pay Kenya an official visit. Prof. Alston was therefore asking for support. When Mohochi got back to Kenya, he started readying things.

‘‘I told them they can do their preparations,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘and that on our end, we would provide them with suggestions on which organisations they should consult, and plan for which victim groups they would meet. The fact that Alston was having meetings at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights or using church facilities whenever he went outside Nairobi, were all very deliberate choices from our end, much as we weren’t part of his mission. The only thing I did was to invite Alston’s interlocutors, including Kingara.’’

According to Mohochi, he hadn’t agreed with Kingara, especially on the claim by the Oscar Foundation that over 8,000 individuals were victims of either enforced disappearances or extrajudicial killings by the police, since the only evidence backing up that claim were names and photos, and there was no way of ascertaining whether those were over 8,000 unique names and images. In a word, the data wasn’t solidly verifiable.

‘‘I didn’t agree with Kingara’s modus operandi for arriving at those very high figures,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘That notwithstanding, I invited him to speak to Prof. Alston because in this struggle, all contributions are valid.’’

During Prof. Alston’s first closed-door meeting with the Kenyan civil society at Hotel Intercontinental, Oulu and Kingara arrived early to erect three Oscar Foundation drop-top banners. No one else had brought any publicity or similar material. When Prof. Alston walked into the room, he asked Mohochi what the banners were.

‘‘I called Oulu and asked him to kindly put the banners away,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘At that moment, we noticed the presence of two suspicious characters in the room. When asked who they were by Muthoni Wanyeki of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, they couldn’t explain themselves properly. I told them I was the one who had sent out the invitations, meaning I hadn’t sent them any, and asked them to kindly leave.’’

In subsequent days, Oulu and Kingara had the opportunity to present their evidence on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances to Prof Alston. The next time Mohochi saw them was at the United Nations Office in Nairobi on the day Prof. Alston released his damning report, which labelled Attorney General Amos Wako as the embodiment of impunity and which demanded the resignation of Commissioner of Police Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali. In Prof. Alston’s eyes, it appeared, extrajudicial killings in Kenya needed urgent mitigation.

Even to Mohochi, who had played a leading role during Prof. Alston’s visit, the final report was shocking.

‘‘I hadn’t had a look at the report,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘I was part of the crowd just like everyone else. If you consider Alston’s career as a rapporteur, he had never gone that far. That report was quite undiplomatic, partly because there had been attempts of state interference on his investigations in places like Bungoma.’’

A fortnight after the report came out, Oulu and Kingara were assassinated.

Did Alston’s report contribute to their deaths, or were there more complicated reasons behind their killing?

***

During the subsequent sitting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2009 in Geneva, barely two months after the assassination of Oulu and Kingara, the Government of Kenya sent two high-powered delegations to Switzerland. One was led by the Minister of Interior, Prof. George Saitoti, while the second was led by the Minister of Lands, Senior Counsel James Orengo. There were certainly jitters in Nairobi.

Attending a discussion at which Prof. Alston, Mohochi and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR)’s chairperson, Florence Simbiri-Jaoko, were panelists, Mutea Iringo, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Interior, asked to be provided with specifics on the threats faced by human rights defenders so that the government could intervene. It was farcical, given that not too long before, Oulu and Kingara had been killed in death squad style. Mohochi decided to play along, giving two death threats against him as an example.

‘‘I couldn’t risk giving details about anyone else’s death threats,’’ Mohochi said, ‘‘and so I volunteered my own two death threats, going as far as giving the Occurrence Book (OB) Number under which I reported them at Parklands Police Station. To date, neither Mr. Iringo nor Parklands Police have ever contacted me about the same.’’

***

It was under these tension-filled circumstances that organisations such as Mohochi’s IMLU, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group, among others, upped the ante in the protection of human rights defenders. They had already operationalised the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD) back in 2007 – a clear sign that threats to activists didn’t start with the killing of Oulu and Kingara – which was hosted at different times by either IMLU, KHRC or RPP. It wasn’t until 2012 that NCHRD established a fully functional secretariat from where it solidified its programmes and countrywide protection networks, with Mohochi as founding chairman of its board of trustees.

‘‘We were already protecting human rights defenders starting from as early as 2001,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘not just as IMLU but as a broader coalition of actors. We were meeting at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, and had a budget for this. It’s not that we woke up in 2007. That’s only when we formalised the NCHRD to proactively put in place further mitigation measures for human rights defenders to do their work without fear of recrimination. Defenders were always alive to the sorts of risks their work attracted.’’

‘‘It was in the early 90s when we started having conversations about who defends the defenders,’’ Salome Nduta, a protection officer at NCHRD, told me at their near-clandestine Nairobi nerve center. ‘‘Before a functioning protection network was in place, activists had to be each other’s keepers, in the literal sense.’’

To date, the NCHRD has taken up hundreds of protection cases from across Kenya while doing what every responsive organisation in its shoes would ordinarily do – to continue disrupting itself and adopting fresh strategies as new threats emerge. From the word go, the difficult question has been – and not only for the NCHRD: How does one ascertain what comprehensive protection entails? With time, the scope of what it means to offer protection has kept expanding, as new, more complicated cases have landed at the NCHRD.

The broad strokes with which protection has been painted include offering legal, medical and psychosocial support, and in extreme cases, relocation. The practicalities of these range from bailing out activists during protests, to offering them advocates for those charged in courts of law, paying their medical bills and offering counselling, all meant to cushion human rights defenders, especially those in the frontlines at the grassroots.

‘‘Since our inception, protection has evolved,’’ Salome told me. ‘‘Now we have situations where an activist gets killed, and the idea of protection means you may now have to intervene and support their families for a time in whatever way possible, since a lot of times the deceased happens to be the sole breadwinner.’’

These sorts of interventions can be difficult, since organisations such as the NCHRD almost always have budgetary constraints. The idea that anyone can knock on their doors anytime and seek assistance has similarly created the impression that the organisation is swimming in wads of cash, something Salome tells me is far from the truth. Interestingly, the largest chunk of their budget goes into offering legal support.

‘‘I cannot quantify the amount of money we’ve spent on paying for bail and bond so far,’’ Salome says. ‘‘A lot of times our legal kitty runs dry sooner than expected. The arrest and harassment of activists doesn’t stop, while the ongoing cases take forever. This means ours is a continuous, long game of legal support.’’

According to Mohochi, the evolution of the concept of protection cannot happen without local context.

‘‘I have always maintained that we can’t blindly copy Westernised ideas of protection without factoring in our circumstances,’’ he says. ‘‘Something like temporary relocation. You can imagine how many people one might need to relocate, but then after they come back what next? I therefore believe in a proactive approach to protection, where we built a nationwide grassroots network of defenders who continuously assess their risk levels and act to mitigate threats before things escalate. We encourage them not to take suicidal risks.’’

Yet no matter how fool-proof protection programmes got, and despite the numerous cautionary measures human rights defenders employed at a personal level, there were no guarantees that more soldiers of justice wouldn’t lose their lives in the line of duty.

***

On 27 June 2016, Kenya woke up to a strongly trending social media hashtag #FindLawyerWilly. Willy Kimani, an advocate working for International Justice Mission (IJM), had gone missing four days earlier. Missing alongside Willie were his client, Josephat Mwenda – a bodaboda rider and victim of a supposed accidental shot in the arm by Senior Sergeant Fredrick Leliman – and Joseph Muiruri, their taxi driver. They had last been seen thirty odd kilometers from Nairobi, at the Mavoko Law Courts where Mwenda had sued Senior Sergeant Leliman.

‘‘There was a sense that IJM didn’t want to make a lot of noise publicly about the matter,’’ a lawyer who was involved in the early stages of the investigation, but who sought anonymity, told me. ‘‘They believed the police would speed up investigations, possibly because they had received assurances from senior state officials, or out of high-level interventions by the U.S. embassy, seeing that IJM is an American charity.’’

Yet no matter how fool-proof protection programmes got, and despite the numerous cautionary measures human rights defenders employed at a personal level, there were no guarantees that more soldiers of justice wouldn’t lose their lives in the line of duty.

Soon, the Law Society of Kenya, of which Willy was a member, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, representing Willy’s employer, hundreds of taxi drivers and bodaboda riders standing in for Mwenda and Muiruri, were all up in arms, unrelenting in their demand for justice. The state quickly complied and moved to investigate.

Four days later, Willy’s, Mwenda’s and Muiruri’s dead bodies were discovered in Ol-Donyo Sabuk River. All were stuffed in the kind of gunny sacks usually used to package agricultural produce. The autopsy revealed that the trio had been clobbered on their heads by a blunt object before being strangled. The killers had hit Willy the hardest; his skull had the severest fracture. Mwenda appeared to have been physically tortured the most, as if someone sought a confession from him. Muiruri, the taxi driver, seemed to have been collateral damage, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The game-changer in the Willy, Mwenda and Muiruri case arose from a most unlikely quarter. Peter Ngugi Kamau, a police informant whom preliminary investigations had placed inside the murder syndicate, unleashed a 21-page confession, detailing how the three men were abducted after leaving Mavoko Law Courts before being driven away in the vehicle of Senior Sergeant Leliman, the man accused of shooting Mwenda. Leliman was in charge of the Syokimau AP Camp, which is where he held the abductees in a cell. According to the confession, Willy, Mwenda and Muiruri were later driven to an open field where they were killed one after the other before their bodies were disposed. Other suspects in the murders were Sergeant Leonard Maina Mwangi, Corporal Stephen Chebulet and Constable Silvia Wanjiku Wanjohi. Their dramatic trial is still ongoing.

Questions have been asked as to why the police moved swiftly in the matter. Was it the Americans, or was it because the decision to kill was made by junior officers, or both? Does the level at which a decision to kill is made affect the nature and speed of investigations? For now, hope abounds that justice will be served.

‘‘My sense was that the police officers who committed the murders considered Willy a disposable small fish,’’ the lawyer told me, ‘‘thinking that they could kill him and his colleagues and that no one would raise a finger. They were mistaken. Lawyers and other human rights defenders saw the deaths as a wake-up call.’’

The next big hashtag campaign a couple of years later resulted in serious contestation. On 10 February 2019, #FindCarolineMwatha was the big fuss online. A founding member of the Dandora Social Justice Centre, Caroline Mwatha had disappeared four days earlier. Described by Wangui Kimari of the Mathare Social Justice Centre as one of the kindest and most likable individuals she had ever met, Mwatha and her colleagues had received a series of death threats for their work documenting extrajudicial killings in Dandora, considered one of Nairobi’s hotspots.

‘‘They shared with me the threats they had received,’’ Wangui told me, ‘‘after which I wrote emails to a number of organisations seeking support. Seeing that it was December 2018 and organisations were preparing to break for the holidays, there is a real possibility that some of those pleas went unheeded, or those concerned planned to act in the New Year. We evacuated a few individuals, with the majority retreating to their home villages.’’

A hardcore grassroots organiser, Mwatha was part of a ground-up human rights movement, where instead of waiting to write and release reports in air-conditioned offices, they operated at the very front lines, shielding disadvantaged communities from rampant police brutality. In her Dandora locale, Mwatha and her colleagues were investigating a number of extrajudicial killings, especially of young men killed in cold blood on the pretext of fighting crime. It was because of this work that trigger-happy policemen were slowing down.

‘‘It isn’t uncommon for well-known killer cops to issue public death threats to those working at social justice centres,’’ Wangui told me. ‘‘In Mathare, some of our colleagues can’t go to places such as Mlango Kubwa because the reigning killer cops in those areas have given them direct warnings. It isn’t child’s play.’’

After the hashtag trended for a few days, on February 11, activists met and decided to hold a protest the following day to put pressure on the state to either produce Mwatha, or give a progress report on their investigations, if any. The protest never materialised. That morning, news broke that Mwatha’s body was found at the City Mortuary. According to subsequent investigations, the police alleged that Mwatha had been brought to the facility after dying from bleeding at a clinic in Dandora, where she was procuring an abortion.

Through a series of media leaks, the police alleged that from their analysis of her phone records, Mwatha was having an extramarital affair which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, hence the abortion. In what was alleged to be Mwatha’s last communication with the man believed to be her secret lover – once again leaked to the press – the messages revealed a woman in distress.

Was someone concocting a predetermined narrative with the calculated media leaks?

‘‘We have never believed the abortion theory,’’ one of Mwatha’s colleagues who has since withdrawn from human rights work told me. ‘‘She was a powerhouse in Dandora and silencing her has had a chilling effect on everyone here. We have been asking ourselves, if they could kill Caroline, then who can’t they kill?’’

The autopsy, which was witnessed by leading members of civil society, revealed that Mwatha bled to death courtesy of a raptured uterus. However, the looming question the pathologist left for investigators was: Did Mwatha procure the botched abortion voluntarily, or was it done to her against her will – for her to bleed to death and for the abortion narrative to be used as a cover-up for murder? In the world of activism, it is common for perpetrators to employ such seemingly picture-perfect techniques in eliminating a target. It has been hard to convince Mwatha’s colleagues of the abortion theory. To them, it remains an assassination.

For now, human rights defenders keep watching their backs, hoping they won’t become a hashtag. A few others whose names couldn’t trend fell through the fissures of social media, slipping away quietly.

A criminal human rights reporting project by Africa Uncensored (AU) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Politics

The Real Story Behind the Dams Scam

7 min read. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to cancel the tender for the construction of the Kimwarer dam but to allow for the Arror dam project to proceed at half the original cost has been viewed as a commendable action in the fight against graft. However, ALESSANDRO DA ROLD and LORENZO BAGNOLI suggest that there could more than meets the eye in what is known as the “dams scam”.

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The Real Story Behind the Dams Scam
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Since the 1970s, Kenya has been considered by convicted Italian criminals as a safe haven – a place to hide from justice. A recent tide has, however, occurred and now some of these criminals have been extradited after spending years enjoying the “good vibes” of the Kenyan sea shores, especially in their stronghold Malindi. It seems to be the end of an era marked by impunity as Kenyan authorities have started pursuing alleged felonies committed by Italians living in Kenya. The authorities are not just going after individuals, but companies as well.

On the 29th of July this year, the Milimani Chief Magistrate’s court in Nairobi allowed Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Noordin Haji, to issue an arrest warrant for the Italian citizen Paolo Porcelli, the CEO of CMC (Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti) from Ravenna. Porcelli is charged with abuse of office, bid-rigging and misuse of public funds and could face jail time if he returns to Kenya. With him on the list of the indicted there is also the Italian joint venture between the Italian companies Itinera (Gavio Group) and CMC.

Porcelli declined to appear in court twice. “Porcelli is a fugitive. Despite being given the opportunity, he hasn’t presented himself in court for a second time,” DPP Special Prosecutor Taib Ali Taib told the court. “The Italians think they can break the law and get away with it contemptuously. They believe nothing will come out of it.  Don’t allow it, your honour”.

Porcelli’s lawyers have a different opinion on his judicial status in Kenya: they explained that the indictment has charges only against the Kenyan top officials involved in the case. “It is not clear, and it is not explained [by the investigators] why Mr Porcelli and the joint venture CMC-Itinera could be indicted for the only charges they have, namely cashing in the deposit on the construction as it was agreed upon the contracts.”

The arrest warrant issued to the Italian manager is the latest development in a long saga reported in the international media as the “dams scam”. This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya (CMC declines any involvement, claiming its innocence); the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.

The CMC’s long nightmare

CMC is a giant company in the field of construction globally. Wherever there is an important tender, the company is among the bidders. However, the glorious history of the company didn’t guarantee CMC’s success – construction is a competitive sector around the world. Sometimes to be awarded a tender, managers have to cross the line between lobbying and corruption.

In 2014, CMC signed a consultancy contract with Primo Greganti, a businessman and former politician who was arrested for alleged corruption: he would have helped some companies to be granted tenders for the construction of the site of Expo Milan 2015, the world food exhibition hosted in the Italian city.  The trial ended in a plea: in the Italian judiciary system, it means there is no verdict on the culpability of the defendant.

This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya; the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.

The company was effectively granted a six million euro tender for the recovery of the land of the so called “plate”, the foundation for the exhibition facilities. At the end of the work, the final cost skyrocketed to 30 million euros because of differences caused by unexpected changes in the project. These extra costs were heavily criticised by the Expo 2015 board members because there were no grounds for justifying them. But because time for the construction at the site was running out, nobody within the board could reject the CMC’s requests. CMC was also awarded the tender for the construction of one of the French pavilions at the exhibition.

In May 2018, the company issued a press release on its financial situation. Under “total turnover” it reads: “Decreased from €289.0 million to €258.2 million. In particular, construction revenue decreased from €278.0 million to €236.7 million, due to a €23.0 million reduction overseas and an €18.3 million reduction in Italy. A significant increase is expected from certain projects achieving full production stage and from the start of the new project secured in recent quarters.”

In another press release issued in November last year, the company stated: “The Board unanimously concurred that, in a market context that was already structurally problematic, for reasons that arose spontaneously without any predictability, linked to non-receipts of orders and/or the state of progress of work, the Company is facing a moment of cash-flow tension.”

The main “non-receipts of order” at that time was Anas, the Italian company partially controlled by the state and in charge of maintaining and managing Italian highways. With the Kenya dams tender, it seemed that the cash flow problem might be solved. Kenya and Nepal were at that point considered as possible anchors that could recover the company’s accounts. One of the primary goals of the managers, therefore, was to immediately cash in on the advances made on work yet to be carried out. And this is when new problems arose.

The masterminds targeted by the investigation

CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta. Both projects were expected to provide water to the population of the Rift Valley. According to the 2017 annual budget of CMC, Kenya was among the list of countries that contributed to expand the productivity of the company. Two years later, the situation is totally different.

In Italy, the authors of this article have since March been investigating the Kenyan dams case for La Verità, a right wing newspaper. The newspaper discovered a contract signed in 2013 between CMC and Stansha Limited, the company associated with the Lamu West MP, Stanley Muthama who was arrested on 28th June for tax evasion. It is a consultancy contract granting Muthama a fixed fee of 3 per cent in case CMC signs a contract with local development authorities in Kenya.

CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

In that case, it was the Itare dam, another project to supply water in the Rift Valley, which apparently is not included in the current investigation. The investigation went silent until 22nd July when 28 other people were arrested on a different charge: international corruption. Among them was the Italian CEO, Paolo Porcelli, and Kenya’s Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich. The Italian prosecutor Lucia Lotti is handling the case in Rome, with the option to file a new investigation in Italy as well.

As is everything in Kenya now, this case could be framed as the battle between Uhuru and his number 2 in the 2022 election campaign, William Ruto. It has been suggested that Ruto could be using the Italian company for political support. Ruto’s daughter, June Chepchirchir, holds a senior position as the second counselor at the Kenyan embassy in Rome, Italy.

A key moment in diplomatic relations

The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was abducted on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County. But since then there has been no substantial information on her situation, apart from the trial of Gababa Wariu and Moses Lwari Chende, who confessed to aiding Romano’s abduction. But the investigation so far has not resulted in finding her.

In Italy the absence of updates on Silvia Romano’s health conditions are considered very alarming. At the same time, there is a new ongoing effort in Italy to have Romano released. The Kenyan head of public prosecutions, Noordin Haji, and Italian prosecutors in Rome are discussing a common strategy on the issue. If no positive results are achieved, the predictable outcome could be the cooling down of business and diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in the initial stages.

The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was kidnapped on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County.

While Italy is grappling with the dams scandal and the search for Silvia Romano, France is trying to find a foothold in East Africa by signing new contracts with the Kenyan government. Rivalry in bilateral relationships in Africa is always a hot issue within the European Union (EU) member states, who have been unable to come up with a single comprehensive strategy for how EU member states should deal with African governments.

A possible read on the dams case is that William Ruto was the guarantor for the Italians and he can’t assure them anymore because he is currently dealing with bigger challenges related to his re-election campaign, which has been marred by corruption scandals implicating individuals from his political camp.

 

Editorial note:

For additional information on the Arrow and Kimwarer Dams saga see links below.

Contract Agreement between KVDA and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture for Kimwarer Dam
A contract agreement (KVDA/RPF/39/2014-15) between Kerio Valley Development Authority and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture made on 5th April 2017 for works on the Kimwarer Multipurpose Dam Development Project on River Kimwarer.

Contract Agreement between KVDA and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture for Arror Dam
A contract agreement (KVDA/RPF/36/2014-15) between Kerio Valley Development Authority and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture made on 5th April 2017 for works on the Arror Multipurpose Dam Development Project on River Arror.

A consultancy agreement between C.M.C. di Ravenna South Africa Branch and Stansha Limited (a company registered in Kenya) for the general purposes to provide consultancy services for the Itare Dam and Ruiru II Dam project under Athi Water Service Board.

DPP’s press statement on investigations concerning KVDA and Rift Valley Water Services Board
Following complaints to the Government of Kenya has been exposed to the loss of billions of shillings arising out of manipulation of the tendering process of several dam projects including the Arrow dam, Kimwarer dam, Itare dam, Embobut multi-purpose dam, Lower Turkwell irrigation scheme et.al the DPP’s office constituted a team of prosecutors to ensure the investigations of the aforementioned projects were carried out.

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Politics

Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe

8 min read. Admired by Pan-Africanists for his anti-imperialist rhetoric but loathed at home for his authoritarian tendencies, Robert Mugabe was a man full of contradictions. TINASHE L. CHIMEDZA reflects on the controversial life of Zimbabwe’s longest-serving leader.

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Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe
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Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader for nearly four decades. died on the 6th of September 2019 in a hospital in Singapore. Mugabe’s death, like his life, has generated animated debate, the very first irony being that after nearly four decades in office he died in a foreign hospital. Some have praised Mugabe for being a “liberation icon”, and a “great Pan-Africanist”. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki called him “a fellow combatant”. Others have charged Mugabe with being a “tyrant” who collapsed his country and fanned “genocidal” ethnic divisions.

However, in order to fully understand this complex character, we have to put Mugabe into a broader historical purview. Mugabe was educated by Jesuit Catholics. Initially trained as a teacher, he would remain deeply religious his entire life. It was in the maelstrom of liberation contests that Mugabe’s oratory skills came to the fore and he became the target of the vicious Rhodesian state that threw him and other nationalists, into detention.

Mugabe used his time in jail to get qualifications in law and economics. With his release from the Rhodesian jail, after almost eleven years, he headed straight to the liberation war front by escaping the country and crossing into Mozambique. There he became the voice on Radio Zimbabwe, and fronted media engagements. His star was shining as he became the forceful voice leading liberation delegations first at the failed Geneva Conference of 1976 and then at the Lancaster House settlement in 1979 in London.

When Mugabe was prime minister and then president, there were geopolitical factors that worked against the success of Zimbabwe. South of the Limpopo, apartheid South Africa destabilised the whole region. Importantly, the Rhodesian political economy was constructed for a few white settlers and the black majority government that Mugabe led had inherited an economy that was stable but very parochial.

The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience. Young men labelled “dissidents” were tortured, murdered in cold blood, and buried in mass graves. The violence was so macabre it brought nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to near tears. He escaped to London and wrote The Story of My Life (1984). This was only settled in Mugabe’s favour when they signed the Unity Agreement of 1987.

That sordid part of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history provided a script into the 1990s and 2000s. But what most political biographers of Zimbabwe leave out is that the Rhodesian settler-state inherited by the nationalist movement was a war machinery built to defend white settler interests. Ken Flower, who was the first director of the vicious Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), wrote about the “exploits” of the white-security state apparatus in a book titled Serving Secretly. The 1980 Lancaster House Constitution at Zimbabwe’s independence left this state-security apparatus unreformed and years later Mugabe would boast that “he had degrees in violence” and that the “gun was mightier than the pen”.

The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience.

The ruling political class dealt with opponents ruthlessly and Mugabe’s rise and demise as leader was tightly linked to the military. Professor Jonathan Moyo argued that Mugabe was the victim of Zimbabwe’s “militarists”’. It was a military declaration in 1975 called the Mgagao Declaration that put Mugabe at the apex of the liberation movement in Mozambique. It was the military that kept him in power and that took him out of power via the putsch of November 2017. He was replaced with a man chosen by the military – Emerson Mnangagwa aka the crocodile, a name bequeathed to him because of his ruthlessness.

Scattered ideological orientations

Mugabe blundered from one political ideology to another but at the core of the project was power retention at any cost. In the 1970s Mugabe preached socialism and dabbled in some incoherent half-understood Marxist-Leninism. But when young guerillas attempted to build a Marxist political movement, they were thwarted and thrown into prison.

One young military commander from then, Wilfred Mhanda, wrote about the experience in his memoir Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter (20011 – Weaver Press). In the early 1980s, Mugabe articulated variant forms of socialism and Marxism but only to court allies, given the global geopolitical contests of the Cold War era. The ZANU-PF manifestos of the 1980s discussed socialism in theory but there was no attempt to build a socialist economy and by the end of the 1980s any pretence to building socialism was abandoned – the road to socialism was closed off. In another memoir, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle (2006), Fay Chung would state that Mugabe was a devoted Roman Catholic and it’s possible that this closed off any concrete inclination towards Marxism or Maoism.

In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements. The crisis of falling incomes, unemployment, inflation, adventure into the DRC war and the increased debt levels knocked the economy down. This was made more acute by the seizure of white-owned farms, which led to the collapse of the agriculture sector.

Mugabe then veered into a radical indigenisation programme. To keep all these threads from exploding, he entrenched a political system of shredding the Constitution and making himself an imperial, almost feudal-aristocratic president. Zimbabweans mass migrated into the region and a passport, to escape anywhere, became a prized possession in a country that has become what Dambudzo Marechera called “The House of Hunger”.

The 2017 coup and the militarists

When Zimbabwe’s generals staged a coup in 2017, they pointed out that ZANU-PF was corrupt and needed to be rescued from itself. The whirlwind that consumed Mugabe was in the seeds that he had sown. When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged in 1999, he had allowed the chief of defence forces to say “the presidency was a straightjacket” and in 2008 he had allowed the military to take over the running of the election under the Joint Operations Command (JOC) – a relic of the Rhodesian military state.

The political nose that Mugabe had used to strangle the opposition and to brutalise civil society into subjugation was now turned on his neck. Professor Jonathan Moyo, now in exile, has argued that Mugabe was a mere “spokesperson” of the military system that harbours, in his words, the “repugnant ideology” that the “gun commands politics”. To claim that Mugabe, after almost half a century at the helm of the nationalist movement, was a mere “mouth” of the military is the grandest of revisionism.

In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements.

But Mugabe also went beyond violence as a means of political rule. Using his oratory skills, he presented himself as a Pan-African liberation fighter, and often riled against imperialism and stirred the ideological support of nationalist movements. In Zimbabwe, the political system became dominated by what Professor Ranger called “patriotic history”. In a way the system of political rule was a complex combination of authoritarianism, ideological narrative and patronage networks. Jonathan Fisher and Nic Cheeseman have pointed out more clearly that “authoritarian regimes rely on ideas, not just guns”:

“The more resilient of Africa’s authoritarian regimes, for example, have bought support from powerful local elites, soldiers, particular ethnic groups or political influencers through building them into extensive patronage structures where state resources are cascaded down chains of patron-client links. In so doing, they may assemble a large, and often diverse, group of communities who rely on the regime’s survival for their prosperity.” (Mail and Guardian, 6 November 2019)

In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history. Mugabe compared the nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to “a snake whose head must be crushed”.

In the 1990s, when his former comrade Edgar Tekere opposed the “one-party state”, he was thrown out of the party and his supporters were accusing of “courting death”. Years after that the famed guerilla leader, Rex Nhongo, Zimbabwe’s first army general, died in a suspicious fire. Rex Nhongo was suspected of first supporting Simba Makoni and then his wife Joyce Mujuru to challenge Mugabe. A few years later, Emerson Mnangagwa was kicked out as Mugabe played one political faction against the other in Machiavellian style. Nearly all of Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders were charged of “subversion”. (Morgan Tsvangirai has written about his trials and tribulations is his memoir At the Deep End.)

When Mugabe was president, the opulence of his and his family’s lifestyle was on display at their home called “The Blue Roof”. Nepotism and cronyism were rife. Those networked with the Mugabes worked their way into economy. In Mazowe, just outside Harare, poor farmers who had been allocated land were kicked out and some were only saved by High Court orders. Nephews, nieces, uncles, children and the president’s immediate family amassed vast amounts of wealth. Mining claims, multiple farms, fuel cartels and contracts with the government is how this wealth was amassed. One of Mugabe’s nephews boasted “if you want to be rich join ZANU PF”. Public enterprises were looted with reckless abandon. Before being deposed, the Mugabes were going to build a Robert Mugabe University to the tune of US$1billion. Even in death Mugabe will be buried in a mausoleum possibility costing millions.

Of Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Nyerere and Nelson Mandela 

Robert Mugabe left no condensed publication of his thoughts, which means his intellectual footprint is only found in speeches and scattered interviews. For a president whose education varied from law, economics and education, this is rather disappointing.

In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history.

It was at continental and global forums that Mugabe attracted the affinity of Black Africa, and where he mesmerised the Global Pan-African movements and other social and political forces. He went to United Nations General Assembly meetings religiously. There he made scathing comments about racism, demanded equality at the UN Security Council, railed against economic exploitation of Africa and raised his voice to throw spears at imperialism. An articulate black president from a small former African colony who repossessed land, who was placed under sanctions, and who made stinging statements against inequitable global power relations is what the Pan-Africanist movement was lacking and some sections praised Mugabe for this.

Compared to the other towering intellectuals, theorists and revolutionaries of Pan-Africanism, Robert Mugabe’s legacy withers. Kwame Nkrumah was a thinker and an intellectual who penned treatises that dealt with the African condition. Mwalimu Nyerere was a nation-state builder who forged the disparate social groups of Tanzania into a cohesive stable polity and who retired into a modest life. Nelson Mandela pulled the strands of a nation traumatised by the violence of apartheid into a “Rainbow Nation”. Having had a “long walk to freedom”, Nelson Mandela subjected the country to constitutional democracy. Thomas Sankara forged an everlasting revolutionary legacy. He placed women at the centre of politics and development, tackled illiteracy, and invested in health. The young captain lived a modest life, shunned decadent opulence and boldly set into motion the belief that the “future can be invented”.

Broad strokes of history

They say history is written in broad strokes. Mugabe’s anti-colonial credentials will shine; he stayed in prison for over a decade, the radical land repossession will also burn bright but this will be blighted by the brutality, the ruthlessness, the corruption and the repugnant politics of polarity authored by Mugabe. Of Mugabe’s politics, the Pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem had this to say:

“Zimbabwe and President Mugabe are a situation we cannot in all good conscience continue to pussyfoot about anymore. It is indefensible that one man, no matter his contribution to the country, should be holding the people to ransom…Mugabe is no longer the part of the problem of Zimbabwe: he is now the problem (Speaking Truth to Power: Selected Pan-African Postcards, 2010)

Mugabe built a surveillance state of Stalinist proportions that was littered with impunity, arrogance of power, extrajudicial killings, a rapacious propaganda system, and a personality cult that exacted worship and fear from the man and woman on the street. The long motorcade, ambulance in tow, imported cavalcade of cars, gun-toting soldiers, loud police sirens, police motorbikes, traffic cleared from the road and armoured cars that ferried Mugabe have died down. The putsch of 2017 ushered in the country’s militarists who remain in control of a vicious perpetuum mobile ­­– a kleptocratic military class that has melted away any respect for the constitutional edicts of the country.

We from Zimbabwe will remember Mugabe for a dream that could have been possible but instead was collapsed into what Professor Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu called “grotesque nationalism”.

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Politics

Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law

8 min read. A law to allow the seizure of white-owned land could have a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences could be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors in South Africa.

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Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law
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Some time has passed since South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s highly controversial announcement of a new land reform law that would allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. Accused by some of racism, and by others of populism, the president is trying to address the pressing requests of the vast majority of blacks who still feel oppressed after white minority rule ended in 1994. According to a recently released parliamentary media statement, this bold move should fix “the historical wrongs caused by arbitrary dispossession of land, and in so doing ensure equitable access to land and further empower the majority of South Africans to be productive participants in ownership, food security, and agricultural reform programmes.”

Apparently, in a country where the white minority account for just over 9 per cent of the population but which owns over 70 per cent of the land, such a law seems to be a fair way to balance the scales of social justice. However, on the other side of the barricade, there are thousands of white Afrikaners descended from Europeans who colonised South Africa who claim that they worked hard to obtain that land. These people are human beings as well, and many of them are only paying the price of a segregation regime imposed by their fathers and grandfathers.

This bitter battle between these two sides is rooted in apartheid, a terrible word that does more than just bring back bad memories. It is an ugly concept that speaks to us of racial segregation, and inhumane treatment. And even if now the faces (and colours) of the protagonists may have swapped, the dehumanising cruelty behind it has probably not.

The controversial amendment to section 25 of the Constitution

To date, the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s leading political party since the end of apartheid, has redistributed land following a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In a nutshell, the government buys white-owned farms and then redistributes them to black farmers. The idea was to return at least 30 per cent of the land that was expropriated from black farmers to their legitimate owners by 2014. However, today less than 10 per cent of commercial farmland has been redistributed. Exponents of the South African Homeless People’s Association claim that the “willing seller, willing buyer” model only widened the social divide, bringing more poverty to the masses.

The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.

This law was supported by a small radical party led by Julius Malema, the newly-created Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). However, not all the white owners got their land by means of coercion during the previous century. Many claim they legitimately bought it through the hard work of their ancestors and defined this law as grossly immoral and inhumane. Some threatened to wage war to defend their farms, bringing back the sad memories of the recent land expropriation policies enforced in Zimbabwe. Some other “softer” reforms have been proposed, such as paying “just and equitable” compensation that is well below market price to landowners, or banning foreigners from buying agricultural lands.

Racism: the legacy of a century of apartheid in South Africa

Unlike other countries where racism is a tremendous plague that crawls hidden in the very fabric of society, in South Africa racism and discrimination against blacks were explicit laws. During the last century, European colonialists simply institutionalised them as part of the nation’s legal infrastructure. Similar to the racial laws that forced Jews to lose their jobs just because of their heritage, during apartheid in South Africa, a series of laws were put in place to enforce white dominance. It was the Parliament itself that decided that black people had to be inferior human beings and had, therefore, limited access to rights.

In 1913, the South African’s colonialist administration passed the Natives Land Act, a law which stripped nearly all black people of their right to own land. Although 72 per cent of the population consisted of black people, this law limited land ownership among blacks to a mere 8 per cent of the country. White South Africans literally gave land to themselves, a capital offence that created a terrible precedent as many black people were forcefully evicted from their farms.

The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.

Other laws, such as the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 and the Group Areas Development Act of 1955, further reinforced these policies of segregation. Blacks were forced into unproductive land and underdeveloped regions, which excluded them from amenities such as parks, schools, and hospitals that only whites could access. Blacks could not obtain formal training for skilled jobs, which denied them the right to study, and barred them from equal employment and development opportunities. Together with many other racial laws, apartheid drove the black community into poverty, prevented them from expressing their opinions freely, and stripped them of their properties.

When the apartheid formally saw its end in 1994, many who suffered from these disparities imposed by this regime rejoiced, hoping for reforms that would bring back some justice in their lives. However, as often happens in politics, many of these promises of equity and equality quickly turned into empty words and vain declarations. The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget. Racial inequalities persist in many sectors, including in the mining and industrial sectors, which constitute the backbone of the nation’s economy. The majority of the most profitable companies remain controlled and managed by whites, and the whole labour market still suffers from substantial polarisation.

Growing inequalities

The snowball effect of nearly 400 years of colonialism left the black community in dire poverty, ripe with nearly-illiterate individuals who had no chances to become competitive in the upcoming century of globalisation. According to the World Bank, 25 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. In 2017, the unemployment rate was still high and growing at 27 per cent, with many people lacking tangible prospects for a better life. Race still has a tremendous impact on an individual’s chances of finding a job, as well as on the wages received once employed. A bitter divide between white Afrikaners and black people has kept growing and has become the core of all social or political debate in this tormented country.

Despite the country’s huge potential for growth, the economy kept stagnating during the nine years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. Characterised by rampant corruption and continuous scandals, Zuma’s administration came under pressure as the masses started asking for policies that would address unemployment, disparities, and poverty.

The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget.

Eventually, after an extremely unpopular cabinet reshuffle, Zuma was forced to resign and was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2018. The new president cracked down on corruption and kicked out many inept ministers while Zuma was indicted for money laundering and racketeering. However, the damage that Zuma inflicted to the party’s credibility was so severe that it had to rely on radical parties such as the EFF to gain some traction.

The ANC lost so many voters in the 2016 local elections that the 2019 ones may be in jeopardy. Some argue that Ramaphosa is simply pushing the Land Expropriation Act as a populist ploy aimed at recovering a significant portion of the voters’ trust. The nation’s poor, in fact, make up the majority of the electorate, and addressing their plight will certainly provide him with the political stability his government needs so much.

The human, social, and economic consequences

ANC’s and EFF’s new land reform tastes like nothing but a bloody policy of revenge inspired by populism and driven by a desperate need to win the elections. But blood always calls for blood, and may easily throw South Africa into a new civil war, no matter how justified this law may seem. The French Revolution, the recent Zimbabwe land expropriation laws, and even the Communist Revolution all teach us a fundamental lesson – that legislation that allows a state to violate property rights only creates new privileged elites rather than equalising the social fabric.

A law to allow the seizure of land has a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences can be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors as well, and neighbouring Zimbabwe is a prime example. Just like Venezuela, another country where land was redistributed from the rich to the poor, today Zimbabwe needs to import nearly all the food it needs rather than producing most of it, as it did 20 years ago.

Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture unless they have access to the latest methods and technologies. Yet, once again, has the government thought and planned a strategy to provide these future landowners with the necessary means to survive in such a harshly competitive environment? Worst case scenario: this may lead to large-scale deforestation by owners who will start selling their wood cheaply to foreign companies – a process that has already devastated Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

However, we may have a very different scenario – one where land is handed down to a smaller amount of black people who will quickly become rich at the expenses of others. A new handful of privileged individuals who will simply substitute former white owners with other newer sons and daughters of uncontrolled capitalism. Their faces may change, but the inequality will bring the country to its knees in the same exact way. Whether their skin tone is darker won’t make them any better than their colonialist predecessors, nor will make the whole act of seizing land be more just or justifiable by any means.

On top of all that, a scenario of harsh social tensions and violent clashes is a bomb that is about to explode. Following some cases of brutal and murderous attacks of white farmer that got the attention of the media, some Afrikaners called out for international aid, claiming there was a “white genocide” going on. And while smart people may easily understand that the numbers are no way as high as to justify the choice of this vastly exaggerated terminology, this alarmist rhetoric is bound to have serious global consequences.

Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture…

In an era where the rise of neo-fascism, fake news, gross misinformation, and distorted nationalisms represent a serious threat to all societies, this may be a spark that would ignite an uncontrollable chain reaction. Black people around the world are often unjustly identified as enemies by organisations and parties who willfully manipulate information. Knowing there’s a country where a murderous government justifies their violent persecution will only fuel a hate that is certainly more detrimental than beneficial to the black cause.

Conclusion

History cannot be corrected by doing the wrong thing, and the ANC’s policy means nothing but repeating the same mistake over and over again. South Africans deserve having the right to cultivate their lands once again, they deserve to live in a fair country, they deserve peace. It is totally understandable that poverty must be fought with all means, and that the current situation is all but just or fair.

But enforcing the rights of black people with violence won’t restore the justice and equality this country so desperately needs. It will only open a gaping wound across the nation that will widen the divide even more. It may reach the point of breaking any bridge built so far between all those human beings whose sole difference is the colour of their skin and the heredity of their ancestors.

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