In the sprawling congested tenements of Kiamaiko, just behind Jonsaga area in Huruma, Nyawira (not her real name) used to be the gossip of her flatmates for the longest time. She was married to a Chinese man who had come to the country as a road construction worker in the mid-2000.
“I used to sell edibles to the Chinese workers, who had begun constructing Thika Road and that’s how we met,” said Nyawira somewhat nostalgically, remembering those days that she daily interacted with the Chinese. “It was my first time to meet with the Chinese people – they spoke neither English nor Kiswahili and I didn’t speak their language Mandarin. But they needed to eat and I needed to sell food. It is the story of how human beings can overcome imagined obstacles in order to relate.”
By the time the Thika superhighway was nearing completion, Nyawira and her Chinese friend were an item. They had even moved together in Kiamaiko and today their 12-year-old son is a testament to that liaison.
But the romance did not last long. “A couple of years back, he told me he had to head back home for some urgent matter I have not seen him since,” explained Nyawira.
In Nyawira’s neighbourhood, there are two Chinese men who share a one-bedroomed house. “The two men are my water clients,” said Zangi, one of the water vendors that supply water in 20-litre jerricans to Kiamaiko’s residents. “These Chinese have adapted to the local situation, they are just like our people.”
At Eastlands Hotel on Ring Road Kilimani, a wholly Chinese-owned deluxe hotel for Chinese tourists who cannot afford to stay at the city’s high-end hotels, I met Wamaitha (not her real name), an ordinarily very talkative and outgoing person, but only when her Chinese husband is not around. A consummate businesswoman, she met her Chinese mate at a business convention. She is in her early 30s, and her tummy is already showing a noticeable bump – a telltale sign that soon she will be expecting a baby. “My husband is also a businessman, dealing in precious stones,” said Wamaitha, who is from Kerugoya in Kirinyaga County.
To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video (the couple says they don’t know who did it) that went viral. Ngunjiri said her wedding to a Chinese man really excited Kenyans for reasons she cannot quite fathom.
Nyawira’s and Wamaitha’s inter-racial relationship stories with the Chinese is the story of diversity of the Chinese people who come to Kenya: from the construction worker to the polished entrepreneur, the Chinese migrants in the country have been causing socio-cultural ripples with their unparalleled quick adaptability to the local environment. “In the next 50 years in Kenya, the Chinese people are going to integrate into the Kenyan society in ways that can only be unimaginable today,” said Christom Karimi, a Kenya-Chinese cultural expert, who speaks perfect Mandarin.
To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video that went viral.
Inter-racial families in Kenya have never been a big deal; they are prevalent, especially among white men and indigenous Kenyan women. The white folk in Kenya has been around for long, and their liberal Western culture, English language, Christian religion and general demeanour have made it easier for Kenyan girls to easily gel with them. Not so with the Chinese, whose Oriental culture, language and even religion and their “peculiar” culinary habits have been alien to Kenyans. Chinese people eat dogs, cats and even frogs. These cuisine recipes would test the taste buds of even the strongest Kenyans, who are otherwise known to enjoy international menus.
Early this year, at Diamond estate in South B, Nairobi, a German shepherd went missing. A notice was plastered on the main gate to the estate. After a couple of days, when the garbage collectors came to pick the trash, they found the dog’s head in one of the dustbins. A security meeting was called and the people confronted one of the Chinese estate residents. He owned up to rounding up the canine and agreed to pay a fine of Sh35,000.
Usually, when a local girl gets married to a white man in Kenya, she is whisked off to a posh suburban area: these girls believe they have crossed the Rubicon; it is a mark of upward mobility and privileged social status. Not so with the inter-racial Chinese marriages between Chinese men and Kenyan women; like Nyawira, many end up living in shanty towns.
Where it all began
In 2009, three Chinese companies were contracted by the Kenyan government to build the Nairobi-Thika superhighway. These companies imported Chinese migrant labour who did the actual road construction. The Chinese workers lived in makeshift tin shacks with makeshift mobile toilets in a compound that was sealed from the rest of the Kenyans. The biggest construction site was at the huge Globe Cinema roundabout, where the construction of the 50 km superhighway began. The roundabout is just 500 metres from Nairobi’s central business district (CBD).
The Chinese workers were under strict instructions from the companies’ general managers not to meander into the CBD. So the only meaningful interactions the Chinese workers had with Kenyans was during tea and lunch breaks. At tea break, they would be served African tea and mandazi (a doughnut-like delicacy). For lunch, they were served local cuisine. The food usually included, ugali, githeri, chapati and broth made of turtle beans and green grams. Many of the girls and women who sold food at the site were from Mathare Valley, a large informal settlement that borders the Thika superhighway – the language barrier notwithstanding.
Five years later, in 2012, when the $360-million road was opened by President Mwai Kibaki, the Chinese migrant labour had not only completed the road and overpass bridges, they had also invested in creating inroads and building bridges among the local female populace. Referred to as chinku – the ghetto slang name for the Chinese, the Chinese quickly learned the local lingua franca Sheng, the colloquial language spoken in shanty towns across Nairobi.
Today, the Chinese have not only married local girls and become assimilated into Kenyan life, they have also ventured into informal businesses, a preserve of Nairobi’s rank and file that lives in Eastlands, the poorer part of the city. The resilience of the Chinese came to light when they started trading at Gikomba Market, the largest second-hand clothes market in East and Central Africa. Gikomba Market, a stone’s throw away from Mathare Valley, is a bedlam of activities: you would have to be made of tough metal to conduct business there.
Not all the local women were as lucky as Nyawira and Wamaitha to be in steady relationships, Nyawira’s hubby later disappearance notwithstanding. There are many the tale of Chinese men who have sowed seeds wherever they worked and moved on, either back to China, or relocated to other working sites.
In Mathare 4B, Njeri was not as lucky: she was abandoned by her Chinese mate even after having two children with him. She was also serving food to the Chinese on Thika superhighway. Her two boys are now big – one is about 8 years old, while the other is 10.
Mathare Valley is a hellish place. Reminiscent of the favelas of Port Alegre and Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, life in the slum is short, nasty and brutish. Among the children hopping over the open flowing sewers and mounds of garbage strewn all over are Njeri’s children, who have continually drawn attention from fellow children, not so much because of their fairer skin complexion, but more fundamentally, because of the shape of their eyes.
Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese. When she was asked to explain the anomaly, she owned up to having an affair with a Chinese construction worker. The Gitaru–Wangige Road is currently under construction by the Chinese. Local folklore has it that when she was asked to identify the man, even after they were paraded for identification, she could not pick him. The joke going around is that all Chinese men look alike.
Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese.
This is the same joke-story that Purity told me in Mwihoko, Githurai. Purity was a food seller at the Githurai roundabout during the road construction. Over time she befriended a Chinese man. When he impregnated her, he disappeared. “Ï went looking for him, among his colleagues, I couldn’t find him. That was 10 years ago, because that is how old her daughter is,” she said.
The Chinese invasion
The Chinese have not only been marrying local girls, impregnating the ones they could, and engaging in retail business, they have also, surprisingly, been attending church – mostly evangelical churches – and have even started local branches of international churches. To most Kenyans, the Chinese people are not known to worship the Christian God, much less worship God at all. This view traces its origin to the Chinese history as a majority of Kenyans understand it: that China has always been a communist country that has no place for God or religious activities.
Emboldened by the warm reception of a Christianised population, where 80 per cent of the country, nominally or otherwise, belongs to the various Christian denominations, the Chinese migrants are starting evangelical type churches even in rural Kenya. At Gambogi, a trading centre on the Kakamega-Kisumu Road, the Chinese construction workers who are building the 60km road between the two towns have colonised the Gambogi PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) Church, situated just beside the road. Gambogi PAG Church, which has meetings in rented premises, has now added the name China to its church label to read China Gambogi PAG Church.
Today, there are three main Chinese churches in Nairobi, all run by pastors from abroad. The pastors, mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, are plying their trade in posh suburban areas in Nairobi. The Bread of Life Church, which is the better known of the Chinese churches, meets in a tall office block and caters mostly to employees of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), CGTN, the Chinese government broadcasting media house, and the business community.
Even though many of the migrant Chinese in Kenya are of evangelical persuasion, not all of them attend such churches. It is 4.00 pm at the Jehova Witness Kingdom Hall on Elgeyo Marakwet Road where the faithful meet every Sunday. A special service is going in Mandarin. Here, a group of Chinese Jehova Witness followers meet to fulfil their religious obligations. The meeting, incidentally, is not exclusively for the Chinese; there are Kenyans there, who by the virtue of attending these meetings, have learnt Mandarin.
The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani. Many of their social-economic activities are centred around this area. At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs. At Park 53 building on Ring Road, 90 per cent of the businesses, mostly restaurants, are owned by the Chinese. Because many of them do not speak the local lingua franca, English and Kiswahili, they tend to huddle together, hence live communally in the same area.
Amid all these Chinese activities in the country, their seemingly unchecked influx has apparently been causing disquiet among Kenyans, especially among small traders and the business community, who engage in the importation of merchandise. Kenyans tend not to be xenophobic, but the Chinese community is quietly and slowly eliciting xenophobic rhetoric among Kenyans.
The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani…At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs.
Several weeks ago, the MP for Starehe constituency, Charles Njagua, stoked xenophobic fears when he accused foreigners, who obviously included the Chinese, of monopolising all the businesses that “belong” to Kenyans. In his inciteful remarks, the MP said if the government did not take any “stern measures” against the foreigners, he would lead the people in ferreting out the foreigners out of the country. The MP has since recanted his statement, arguing that he was quoted out of context. But the point had already been made.
Traders on Gaberone Lane, the 100m backstreet alleyway behind Gaberone Road in downtown Nairobi supported and loudly voiced the xenophobic rhetoric against the Chinese. It is not difficult to see why. They all deal mainly in fabric and textiles materials, all imported from China. “Since the Chinese entered into this business, our businesses have gone down, they have been doing everything to undercut us by their price differentiation” said Ken Mutahi, who has been importing fabrics from China for the last 15 years.
“The Chinese have the unparalleled advantage of buying the materials directly from the factories, in their own country, while we buy from retailers. It has become increasingly impossible to compete with them, because all they need to do is lower their prices a little bit and they will still be within their profit margin,” complained Mutahi. He said that the traders were furious with the government for allowing the Chinese to “invade” their businesses. “Which government allows foreigners to overrun businesses meant for the locals?”
At Gikomba Market, anger has been building up against the Chinese traders, who have taken the second-hand clothes business by storm. “Chinese are now some of the biggest middle men, involved in selling thousands of bales of clothes,” said Elvis Kariuki, himself a trader at the market since the early 1990s. “We have been asking ourselves what kind of work permit these Chinese are on that allows them to engage in such businesses,” said Kariuki. Seemingly better organised and with a lot more capital than the local traders, the Chinese have been buying huge stocks of second-hand clothes mainly imported from the United Kingdom and filling all the warehouses in Gikomba.
“Expatriates who come to the country should be bringing in [new] knowledge and skills that maybe scarce or non-existent – why does the government allow the Chinese to come and take our jobs?” posed Kariuki. The trader said many of the Gikomba Market traders who have never known or done any other work, other than selling second-hand clothes, are very bitter with both the government and the Chinese traders.
The Chinese have not only infiltrated the second-hand clothes market, they are also involved in importing – from their own country – merchandise that was the sole preserve of the small traders. In downtown Nairobi, Chinese traders are running shops and renting stores which they stock with stuff imported from China. These items include cheap feature mobile phone handsets, their spare parts and hi-fi equipment such as hoofers.
“Some of the Chinese traders doing business in Kenya have been contracted by local companies back at home,” said a Kenyan trader who has been in the business of importing the same stuff. “The Chinese traders then become the conduits for creating new markets for the products manufactured back in China.”
The Chinese traders, on the other hand, have a different view of themselves. Some of the Chinese traders I spoke to said that they were not taking away anybody’s job or business – all they were doing was engaging in market competition. “We just happen to be aggressive and versatile,” some of one Chinese trader.
Forty-year-old Alex Cao (pronounced Chao), originally from Tianjin, came to Kenya seven years ago. He said he found his niche in real estate development. “It is never a smooth sail,” said Cao. “Dexterity is the name of the game if you have to survive the market onslaught.”
Richard Ling, 30, hails from Guangzhou and has been in Kenya for only three years. A trader, he hawks merchandise, including mobile phone gadgets, chargers, power banks, and torches, from his small rented stall at Kamukunji market building in downtown Nairobi.
Sixty-year-old Ling Fang came to Kenya 20 years ago. His wife joined him 10 year later. They found success in selling and stocking drapery and other upholstery materials, which they import in bulk from their country. From their shop on Biashara Street, they have engaged in both retail and wholesale business.
The dexterity of the Chinese in Kenya has seen them diversify in all manner of businesses. At the Eastmart supermarket on Tom Mboya Street, one of the upcoming suppliers of confectioneries is a Chinese man who makes doughnuts, shortcakes and cupcakes. “Every morning by 8.00 am, the Chinese man will deliver his goods without fail,” said the supermarket attendant who is in charge of the bread and cakes section. “His prices are between Sh10 and Sh20 cheaper and his cakes are slightly bigger, so they move faster.”
At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.
“The Chinese who are always looking for favourable places to do business have recently been migrating to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian economy is growing at a steady pace, the government has reduced much of the red tape associated with starting businesses for foreigners and their tax regime is not as punishing,” Karimi said.
At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.
By 2017, China had become Kenya largest trading partner. In 2017, it built a new railway line, at the cost of $3.18 billion, the most expensive infrastructure expenditure in Kenya since independence.
Two years ago, perhaps in an effort to endear themselves to Kenyans, a Chinese philanthropic group started a feeding programme in eight informal primary schools in Mathare 4A. The biggest of these schools, Chang Rong – which translates as Mathare Light Centre – is the biggest, with 400 pupils. Collins Abongo, a teacher at the school, told me the Chinese also sponsor a football tournament among the eight schools.
A Dictator’s Guide: How Museveni Wins Elections and Reproduces Power in Uganda
Caricatures aside, how do President Yoweri Museveni and the National Revolutionary Movement state reproduce power? It’s been 31 years.
Recent weeks have seen increased global media attention to Uganda following the incidents surrounding the arrest of popular musician and legislator, Bobi Wine; emblematic events that have marked the shrinking democratic space in Uganda and the growing popular struggles for political change in the country.
The spotlight is also informed by wider trends across the continent over the past few years—particularly the unanticipated fall of veteran autocrats Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Yaya Jammeh in Gambia, and most recently Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—which led to speculation about whether Yoweri Museveni, in power in Uganda since 1986, might be the next to exit this shrinking club of Africa’s strongmen.
Yet the Museveni state, and the immense presidential power that is its defining characteristic, has received far less attention, thus obscuring some of the issues at hand. Comprehending its dynamics requires paying attention to at-least three turning points in the National Resistance Movement’s history, which resulted in a gradual weeding-out of Museveni’s contemporaries and potential opponents from the NRM, then the mobilisation of military conflict to shore up regime legitimacy, and the policing of urban spaces to contain the increasingly frequent signals of potential revolution. Together, these dynamics crystallised presidential power in Uganda, run down key state institutions, and set the stage for the recent tensions and likely many more to come.
From the late 1990s, there has been a gradual weeding out the old guard in the NRM, which through an informal “succession queue,” had posed an internal challenge to the continuity of Museveni’s rule. It all started amidst the heated debates in the late 1990s over the reform of the then decaying Movement system; debates that pitted a younger club of reformists against an older group. The resultant split led to the exit of many critical voices from the NRM’s ranks, and began to bolster Museveni’s grip on power in a manner that was unprecedented. It also opened the lid on official corruption and the abuse of public offices.
Over the years, the purge also got rid of many political and military elites—the so-called “historicals”—many of whom shared Museveni’s sense of entitlement to political office rooted in their contribution to the 1980-1985 liberation war, and some of whom probably had an eye on his seat.
By 2005 the purge was at its peak; that year the constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits—passed after a bribe to every legislator—saw almost all insiders that were opposed to it, summarily dismissed. As many of them joined the ranks of the opposition, Museveni’s inner circle was left with mainly sycophants whose loyalty was more hinged on patronage than anything else. Questioning the president or harboring presidential ambitions within the NRM had become tantamount to a crime.
By 2011 the process was almost complete, with the dismissal of Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, whose growing popularity among rural farmers was interpreted as a nascent presidential bid, resulting in his firing.
One man remained standing, Museveni’s long-time friend Amama Mbabazi. His friendship with Museveni had long fueled rumors that he would succeed “the big man” at some point. In 2015, however, his attempt to run against Museveni in the ruling party primaries also earned him an expulsion from both the secretary general position of the ruling party as well as the prime ministerial office.
The departure of Mbabazi marked the end of any pretensions to a succession plan within the NRM. He was unpopular, with a record tainted by corruption scandals and complicity in Museveni’s authoritarianism, but his status as a “president-in-waiting” had given the NRM at least the semblance of an institution that could survive beyond Museveni’s tenure, which his firing effectively ended.
What is left now is perhaps only the “Muhoozi project,” a supposed plan by Museveni to have his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba succeed him. Lately it has been given credence by the son’s rapid rise to commanding positions in elite sections of the Ugandan military. But with an increasingly insecure Museveni heavily reliant on familial relationships and patronage networks, even the Muhoozi project appears very unlikely. What is clear, though, is that the over time, the presidency has essentially become Museveni’s property.
Fundamental to Museveni’s personalisation of power also has been the role of military conflict, both local and regional. First was the rebellion by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, which over its two-decade span enabled a continuation of the military ethos of the NRM. The war’s dynamics were indeed complex, and rooted in a longer history that predated even the NRM government, but undoubtedly it provided a ready excuse for the various shades of authoritarianism that came to define Museveni’s rule.
With war ongoing in the north, any challenge to Museveni’s rule was easily constructed as a threat to the peace already secured in the rest of the country, providing an absurd logic for clamping down on political opposition. More importantly, the emergency state born of it, frequently provided a justification for the president to side-step democratic institutions and processes, while at the same time rationalising the government’s disproportionate expenditure on the military. It also fed into Museveni’s self-perception as a “freedom fighter,” buttressed the personality cult around him, and empowered him to further undermine any checks on his power.
By the late 2000s the LRA war was coming to an end—but another war had taken over its function just in time. From the early 2000s, Uganda’s participation in a regional security project in the context of the War on Terror, particularly in the Somalian conflict, rehabilitated the regime’s international image and provided cover for the narrowing political space at home, as well as facilitating a further entrenchment of Museveni’s rule.
As post-9/11 Western foreign policy began to prioritise stability over political reform, Museveni increasingly postured as the regional peacemaker, endearing himself to donors while further sweeping the calls for democratic change at home under the carpet—and earning big from it.
It is easy to overlook the impact of these military engagements, but the point is that together they accentuated the role of the military in Ugandan politics and further entrenched Museveni’s power to degrees that perhaps even the NRM’s own roots in a guerrilla movement could never have reached.
The expulsion of powerful elites from the ruling circles and the politicisation of military conflict had just started to cement Musevenism, when a new threat emerged on the horizon. It involved not the usual antagonists—gun-toting rebels or ruling party elites—but ordinary protesters. And they were challenging the NRM on an unfamiliar battleground—not in the jungles, but on the streets: the 2011 “Walk-to-Work” protests, rejecting the rising fuel and food prices, were unprecedented.
But there is another reason the protests constituted a new threat. For long the NRM had mastered the art of winning elections. The majority constituencies were rural, and allegedly strongholds of the regime. The electoral commission itself was largely answerable to Museveni. With rural constituencies in one hand and the electoral body in the other, the NRM could safely ignore the minority opposition-dominated urban constituencies. Electoral defeat thus never constituted a threat to the NRM, at least at parliamentary and presidential levels.
But now the protesters had turned the tables, and were challenging the regime immediately after one of its landslide victories. The streets could not be rigged. In a moment, they had shifted the locus of Ugandan politics from the rural to the urban, and from institutional to informal spaces. And they were picking lessons from a strange source: North Africa. There, where Museveni’s old friend Gaddafi, among others, was facing a sudden exit under pressure from similar struggles. Things could quickly get out of hand. A strategic response was urgent.
The regime went into overdrive. The 2011 protests were snuffed out, and from then, the policing of urban spaces became central to the logic and working of the Museveni state. Draconian laws on public assembly and free speech came into effect, enacted by a rubber-stamp parliament that was already firmly in Museveni’s hands. Police partnered with criminal gangs, notably the Boda Boda 2010, to curb what was called “public disorder”—really the official name for peaceful protest. As police’s mandate expanded to include the pursuit of regime critics, its budget ballooned, and its chief, General Kale Kayihura, became the most powerful person after Museveni—before his recent dismissal.
For a while, the regime seemed triumphant. Organising and protest became virtually impossible, as urban areas came under 24/7 surveillance. Moreover, key state institutions—the parliament, electoral commission, judiciary, military and now the police—were all in the service of the NRM, and all voices of dissent had been effectively silenced. In time, the constitution would be amended again, by the NRM-dominated house, this time to remove the presidential age limit—the last obstacle to Museveni’s life presidency—followed by a new tax on social media, to curb “gossip.” Museveni was now truly invincible. Or so it seemed.
But the dreams of “walk-to-work”—the nightmare for the Museveni state—had never really disappeared, and behind the tightly-patrolled streets always lay the simmering quest for change. That is how we arrived at the present moment, with a popstar representing the widespread aspiration for better government, and a seemingly all-powerful president suddenly struggling for legitimacy. Whatever direction the current popular struggles ultimately take, what is certain is that they are learning well from history, and are a harbinger of many more to come.
The Enduring Blind Spots of America’s Africa Policy
America should move way from making the military the face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.
While Donald Trump’s administration completely neglected America-Africa relations, the blind spots bedeviling America’s Africa policy preceded his 2016 election. Correcting the systemic flaws of the past 30 years will require a complete rethink after the controversial President’s departure.
To remedy America’s Africa policy, President Joseph Biden’s administration should pivot away from counterterrorism to supporting democratic governance as a principal rather than as mere convenience, and cooperate with China on climate change, peace, and security on the continent.
America’s Africa policy
America’s post-Cold War Africa policy has had three distinct and discernible phases. The first phase was an expansionist outlook undergirded by humanitarian intervention. The second was nonintervention, a stance triggered by the experience of the first phase. The third is the use of “smart” military interventions using military allies.
The turning point for the first phase was in 1989 when a victorious America pursued an expansive foreign policy approach predicated on humanitarian intervention. Somalia became the first African test case of this policy when, in 1992, America sent almost 30,000 troops to support Operation Restore Hope’s humanitarian mission which took place against the background of the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991.
On 3-4 October 1993, during the Battle of Mogadishu, 18 US servicemen were killed in a fight with warlords who controlled Mogadishu then, and the bodies of the marines dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The media coverage increased pressure on the politicians and six months later America withdrew from Somalia — a case of the New World Order meeting the harsh reality of civil conflict.
The chastening experience resulted in America scaling back its involvement in internal conflicts in far-flung places. The result was the emergence of the second phase — non-engagement when Rwanda’s Genocide erupted in 1994 and almost a million people died in 100 days revealed the limitations of over-correcting the Somalia experience. This “non-interference” phase lasted until the twin Nairobi and Dar es Salaam US embassy bombings by Al Qaeda in 1998.
This gave way to the third phase with the realisation that the new threat to America was no longer primarily from state actors, but from transnational non-state actors using failing states as safe havens. The 2002 National Security Strategy states: “the events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states . . . can pose as a great danger to our national interests as strong states.”
Counterterrorism training and equipping of African militaries is the central plank of this new security policy. As a result, counterterrorism funding has skyrocketed as has America’s military footprint in Africa. As a result, Africa has become the theatre in which the Global forever War on Terror is fought.
The counterterrorism traps
The reflexive reaction to the events of September 11 2001 spawned an interlocking web of covert and overt military and non-military operations. These efforts, initially deemed necessary and temporary, have since morphed into a self-sustaining system complete with agencies, institutions and a specialised lingo that pervades every realm of America’s engagement with Africa.
The United States Africa Command (Africom) is the vehicle of America’s engagement with the continent. Counterterrorism blurred the line between security, development, and humanitarian assistance with a host of implications including unrelenting militarisation which America’s policy establishment embraced uncritically as the sine qua non of America’s diplomacy, their obvious flaws notwithstanding. The securitisation of problems became self-fulfilling and self-sustaining.
The embrace of counterterrorism could not have come at a worse time for Africa’s efforts at democratization. In many African countries, political and military elites have now developed a predictable rule-based compact governing accession to power via elections rather than the coups of the past.
“Smart” African leaders exploited the securitised approach in two main ways: closing the political space and criminalising dissent as “terrorism” and as a source of free money. In Ethiopia, Yonatan Tesfaye, a former spokesman of the Semayawi (Blue) Party, was detained in December 2015 on charges under Article 4 of Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation ((EATP), arguably one of the the country’s most severe pieces of legislation. But Ethiopia has received millions of dollars from the United States.
The Department of Defense hardly says anything in public but gives out plenty of money without asking questions about human rights and good governance. Being a counterterrorism hub has become insurance policy against any form of criticism regardless of state malfeasance.
Egypt is one such hub. According to the Congressional Research Service, for the 2021 financial year, the Trump Administration has requested a total of US$1.4 billion in bilateral assistance for Egypt, which Congress approved in 2018 and 2019. Nearly all US funding for Egypt comes from the Foreign Military Finance (FMF) account and is in turn used to purchase military equipment of US origin, spare parts, training, and maintenance from US firms.
Another country that is a counterterrorism hub in the Horn of Africa is Ethiopia. For the few months they were in charge, the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU) brought order and stability to the country. Although they were linked to only a few of Mogadishu’s local courts, on 24 December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to contain the rise of Al Shabaab’s political and military influence.
The ouster of the ICU by Ethiopia aggravated the deep historical enmity between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab — initially the youth wing of the ICU — subsequently exploited through a mix of Somali nationalism, Islamist ideology, and Western anti-imperialism. Al Shabaab presented themselves as the vanguard against Ethiopia and other external aggressors, providing the group with an opportunity to translate their rhetoric into action.
Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia could not have taken place without America’s blessing. The intervention took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, met with the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The intervention generated a vicious self-sustaining loop. Ethiopians are in Somalia because of Al Shabaab, and Al Shabaab says they will continue fighting as long as foreign troops are inside Somalia.
America has rewarded Ethiopia handsomely for its role as the Horn of Africa’s policeman. In both Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s case, on the score of human rights and good governance, the net losers are the citizens.
In keeping with the War on Terror being for forever, and despite departing Somalia in 1993, America outsourced a massive chunk of the fight against Al Shabaab to Ethiopia primarily, and later, to AMISOM. America is still engaged in Somalia where it has approximately 800 troops, including special forces that help train Somalia’s army to fight against Al Shabaab.
America carried out its first drone strike in Somalia in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Under the Trump administration, however, the US has dramatically increased the frequency of drone attacks and loosened the oversight required to approve strike targets in Somalia. In March 2017, President Trump secretly designated parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”, meaning that the high-level inter-agency vetting of proposed strikes and the need to demonstrate with near certainty that civilians would not be injured or killed no longer applied. Last year, the US acknowledged conducting 63 airstrikes in the country, and in late August last year, the US admitted that it had carried out 46 strikes in 2020.
A lack of transparency regarding civilian casualties and the absence of empirical evidence that the strikes lead to a reduction in terrorism in Somalia suggest that expanding to Kenya would be ill-advised. The US has only acknowledged having caused civilian casualties in Somalia three times. Between 2016 and 2019, AFRICOM failed to conduct a single interview with civilian witnesses of its airstrikes in Somalia.
Despite this level of engagement, defeating Al Shabaab remains a remote possibility.
Containing the Chinese takeover
The Trump Administration did not have an Africa policy. The closest approximation of a policy during Trump’s tenure was stated in a speech delivered by John Bolton at a Conservative think tank decrying China’s nefarious activities in Africa. Even with a policy, where the counterterrorism framework views Africa as a problem to be solved by military means, the containing China policy views African countries as lacking the agency to act in their own interests. The problem with this argument is that it is patronising; Africans cannot decide what is right for them.
Over the last decades, while America was busy creating the interlocking counterterrorism infrastructure in Africa, China was building large-scale infrastructure across the continent. Where America sees Africa as a problem to be solved, China sees Africa as an opportunity to be seized.
Almost two years into the Trump administration, there were no US ambassadors deployed in 20 of Africa’s 54 countries even while America was maintaining a network of 29 military bases. By comparison China, has 50 embassies spread across Africa.
For three consecutive years America’s administration has proposed deep and disproportionate cuts to diplomacy and development while China has doubled its foreign affairs budget since 2011. In 2018, China increased its funding for diplomacy by nearly 16 per cent and its funding for foreign aid by almost 7 per cent.
As a show of how engagement with Africa is low on the list of US priorities, Trump appointed a luxury handbag designer as America’s ambassador to South Africa on 14 November 2018. Kenya’s ambassador is a political appointee who, when he is not sparring with Kenyans on Twitter, is supporting a discredited coal mining project.
The US anti-China arguments emphasize that China does not believe in human rights and good governance, and that China’s funding of large infrastructure projects is essentially debt-trap diplomacy. The anti-China rhetoric coming from American officials is not driven by altruism but by the realisation that they have fallen behind China in Africa.
By the middle of this century Africa’s population is expected to double to roughly two billion. Nigeria will become the second most populous country globally by 2100, behind only India. The 24-country African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) entered into force on 30 May 2019. AfCFTA will ultimately bring together all 55 member states of the African Union covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people — including a growing middle class — and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$3.4 trillion.
While Chinese infrastructure projects grab the headlines, China has moved into diversifying its engagement with Africa. The country has increased its investments in Africa by more than 520 per cent over the last 15 years, surpassing the US as the largest trading partner for Africa in 2009 and becoming the top exporter to 19 out of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the legacy Chinese investments have come at a steep environmental price and with an unsustainable debt. Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway is bleeding money and is economically unviable.
A fresh start
Supporting democratic governance and learning to cooperate with China are two areas that will make America part of Africa’s future rather than its past.
America should pivot way from making the military the most visible face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.
Despite the elegy about its retreat in Africa, democracy enjoys tremendous support. According to an Afro barometer poll, almost 70 per cent of Africans say democracy is their preferred form of government. Large majorities also reject alternative authoritarian regimes such as presidential dictatorships, military rule, and one-party governments. Democracy, while still fledgling, remains a positive trend; since 2015, there have been 34 peaceful transfers of power.
However, such positive metrics go hand in hand with a worrying inclination by presidents to change constitutions to extend their terms in office. Since 2015, leaders of 13 countries have evaded or overseen the weakening of term limit restrictions that had been in place. Democracy might be less sexy, but ignoring it is perilous. There are no apps or switches to flip to arrest this slide. It requires hard work that America is well equipped to support but has chosen not to in a range of countries in recent years There is a difference between interfering in the internal affairs of a country and complete abdication or (in some cases) supporting leaders who engage in activities that are inimical to deepening democracy.
The damage wrought by the Trump presidency and neo-liberal counterterrorism policies will take time to undo, but symbolic efforts can go a long way to bridging the gap.
America must also contend with China being an indispensable player in Africa and learn to cooperate rather than compete in order to achieve optimal outcomes.
China has 2,458 military and police personnel serving in eight missions around the globe, far more than the combined contribution of personnel by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia, the US, France and Britain. China had more than 2,400 Chinese troops take part in seven UN peacekeeping missions across the continent — most notably in Mali and South Sudan. Of the 14 current UN peacekeeping missions, seven are in Africa, consuming two-thirds of the budget.
Climate change and conflict resolution provide opportunities for cooperation. Disproportionate reliance on rain-fed agriculture and low adaptation to the adverse impact of climate change make Africa vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, the consequences of which will transcend Africa. Through a combination of research, development, technological transfer and multilateral investment, America and China could stave off the impact of climate change in Africa.
Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts
Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee.
Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee, an investigation by Africa Uncensored and The Elephant has uncovered.
One of the companies was also awarded a mysterious Ksh 4.3 billion agreement to supply 8 million bottles of hand sanitizer, according to the government’s procurement system.
The contracts were awarded in 2015 as authorities moved to contain the threat from the Ebola outbreak that was ravaging West Africa and threatening to spread across the continent as well as from flooding related to the El-Nino weather phenomenon.
The investigation found that between 2014 and 2016, the Ministry of Health handed out hundreds of questionable non-compete tenders related to impending disasters, with a total value of KSh176 billion including three no-bid contracts to two firms, Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, linked to Mrs Nyamai, whose committee oversaw the ministry’s funding – a clear conflict of interest.
Although authorities have since scrutinized some of the suspicious contracts and misappropriated health funds, the investigation revealed a handful of contracts that were not made public, nor questioned by the health committee.
Mrs Nyamai declined to comment for the story.
Nyamai has been accused by fellow members of parliament of thwarting an investigation of a separate alleged fraud. In 2016, a leaked internal audit report accused the Ministry of Health — colloquially referred to for its location at Afya House — of misappropriating funds in excess of nearly $60 million during the 2015/2016 financial year. Media stories described unauthorized suppliers, fraudulent transactions, and duplicate payments, citing the leaked document.
Members of the National Assembly’s Health Committee threatened to investigate by bringing the suppliers in for questioning, and then accused Nyamai, the committee chairperson, of blocking their probe. Members of the committee signed a petition calling for the removal of Nyamai and her deputy, but the petition reportedly went missing. Nyamai now heads the National Assembly’s Committee on Lands.
Transactions for companies owned by Mrs Nyamai’s relatives were among 25,727 leaked procurement records reviewed by reporters from Africa Uncensored, Finance Uncovered, The Elephant, and OCCRP. The data includes transactions by eight government agencies between August 2014 and January 2018, and reveals both questionable contracts as well as problems that continue to plague the government’s accounting tool, IFMIS.
The Integrated Financial Management Information System was adopted to improve efficiency and accountability. Instead, it has been used to fast-track corruption.
Hand sanitizer was an important tool in fighting transmission of Ebola, according to a WHO health expert. In one transaction, the Ministry of Health paid Sh5.4 million for “the supply of Ebola reagents for hand sanitizer” to a company owned by a niece of the MP who chaired the parliamentary health committee. However, it’s unclear what Ebola reagents, which are meant for Ebola testing, have to do with hand sanitizer. Kenya’s Ministry of Health made 84 other transactions to various vendors during this period, earmarked specifically for Ebola-related spending. These included:
- Public awareness campaigns and adverts paid to print, radio and tv media platforms, totalling at least KSh122 million.
- Printed materials totalling at least KSh214 million for Ebola prevention and information posters, contact tracing forms, technical guideline and point-of-entry forms, brochures and decision charts, etc. Most of the payments were made to six obscure companies.
- Ebola-related pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical supplies, including hand sanitizer
- Ebola-related conferences, catering, and travel expenses
- At least KSh15 millions paid to a single vendor for isolation beds
Hacking the System
Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, appear to have no history of dealing in hygiene or medical supplies. Yet they were awarded three blanket purchase agreements, which are usually reserved for trusted vendors who provide recurring supplies such as newspapers and tea, or services such as office cleaning.
“A blanket agreement is something which should be exceptional, in my view,” says former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko.
But the leaked data show more than 2,000 such agreements, marked as approved by the heads of procurement in various ministries. About KSh176 billion (about $1.7 billion) was committed under such contracts over 42 months.
“Any other method of procurement, there must be competition. And in this one there is no competition,” explained a procurement officer, who spoke generally about blanket purchase agreements on background. “You have avoided sourcing.”
The Ministry of Health did not respond to detailed questions, while Mrs Nyamai declined to comment on the contracts in question.
Procurement experts say blanket purchase agreements are used in Kenya to short-circuit the competitive process. A ministry’s head of procurement can request authority from the National Treasury to create blanket agreements for certain vendors. Those companies can then be asked by procurement employees to deliver supplies and services without competing for a tender.
Once in the system, these single-source contracts are prone to corruption, as orders and payments can simply be made without the detailed documentation required under standard procurements. With limited time and resources, government auditors say they struggle especially with reconciling purchases made under blanket agreements.
The agreements were almost always followed by standard purchase orders that indicated the same vendor and the same amount which is unusual and raises fears of duplication. Some of these transactions were generated days or weeks after the blanket agreements, many with missing or mismatched explanations. It’s unclear whether any of these actually constituted duplicate payments.
For example, the leaked data show two transactions for Ameken Minewest for Sh6.9 million each — a blanket purchase order for El Nino mitigation supplies and a standard order for the supply of chlorine tablets eight days later. Tira Southshore also had two transactions of Sh12 million each — a blanket purchase for the “supply of lab reagents for cholera,” and six days later a standard order for the supply of chlorine powder.
Auditors say both the amounts and the timing of such payments are suspicious because blanket agreements should be paid in installments.
“It could well be a duplicate, using the same information, to get through the process. Because you make a blanket [agreement], then the intention is to do duplicates, so that it can pass through the cash payee phase several times without delivering more,” said Ouko upon reviewing some of the transactions for Tira Southshore. This weakness makes the IFMIS system prone to abuse, he added.
In addition, a KSh4 billion contract for hand sanitizer between the Health Ministry’s Preventive and Promotive Health Department and Tira Southshore was approved as a blanket purchase agreement in April 2015. The following month, a standard purchase order was generated for the same amount but without a description of services — this transaction is marked in the system as incomplete. A third transaction — this one for 0 shillings — was generated 10 days later by the same procurement employee, using the original order description: “please supply hand sanitizers 5oomls as per contract Moh/dpphs/dsru/008/14-15-MTC/17/14-15(min.no.6).
Reporters were unable to confirm whether KSh4 billion was paid by the ministry. The leaked data doesn’t include payment disbursement details, and the MOH has not responded to requests for information.
“I can assure you there’s no 4 billion, not even 1 billion. Not even 10 million that I have ever done, that has ever gone through Tira’s account, through that bank account,” said the co-owner of the company, Abigael Mukeli. She insisted that Tira Southshore never had a contract to deliver hand sanitizer, but declined to answer specific questions. It is unclear how a company without a contract would appear as a vendor in IFMIS, alongside contract details.
It is possible that payments could end up in bank accounts other than the ones associated with the supplier. That is because IFMIS also allowed for the creation of duplicate suppliers, according to a 2016 audit of the procurement system. That audit found almost 50 cases of duplication of the same vendor.
“Presence of active duplicate supplier master records increases the possibility of potential duplicate payments, misuse of bank account information, [and] reconciliation issues,” the auditors warned.
They also found such blatant security vulnerabilities as ghost and duplicate login IDs, deactivated requirements for password resets, and remote access for some procurement employees.
IFMIS was promoted as a solution for a faster procurement process and more transparent management of public funds. But the way the system was installed and used in Kenya compromised its extolled safeguards, according to auditors.
“There is a human element in the system,” said Ouko. “So if the human element is also not working as expected then the system cannot be perfect.”
The former head of the internal audit unit at the health ministry, Bernard Muchere, confirmed in an interview that IFMIS can be manipulated.
Masking the Setup
Ms Mukeli, the co-owner of Tira Southshore and Ameken Minewest, is the niece of Mrs Nyamai, according to local sources and social media investigation, although she denied the relationship to reporters. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Mukeli works at Kenya Medical Supplies Agency, a medical logistics agency under the Ministry of Health, now embroiled in a COVID procurement scandal.
Ms Mukeli’s mother, who is the MP’s elder sister, co-owns Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., which shares a post office box with Tira Southshore and Mematira Holdings Limited, which was opened in 2018, is co-owned by Mrs Nyamai’s husband and daughter, and is currently the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest. Documents also show that a company called Icpher Consultants was originally registered to the MP, who was listed as the beneficial owner.
Co-owner of Tira Southshore Holdings Limited, Abigael Mukeli, described the company to reporters as a health consulting firm. However Tira Southshore also holds an active exploration license for the industrial mining in a 27-square-kilometer area in Kitui County, including in the restricted South Kitui National Reserve. According to government records, the application for mining limestone in Mutomo sub-county — Nyamai’s hometown — was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018.
Mukeli is also a minority owner of Ameken Minewest Company Limited, which also holds an active mining license in Mutomo sub-county of Kitui, in an area covering 135.5 square kilometers. Government records show that the application for the mining of limestone, magnesite, and manganese was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018. Two weeks after the license was granted, Mematira Holdings Limited was incorporated, with Nyamai’s husband and daughter as directors. Today, Mematira Holdings is the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest, which is now in the process of obtaining another mining license in Kitui County.
According to public documents, Ameken also dabbles in road works and the transport of liquefied petroleum gas. And it’s been named by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in a fuel fraud scheme.
Yet another company, Wet Blue Proprietors Logistics Ltd., shares a phone number with Tira Southshore and another post office box with Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., according to a Kenya National Highway Authority list of pre-qualified vendors.
Mrs Nyamai and her husband co-own Wet Blue. The consulting company was opened in 2010, the same year that the lawmaker completed her PhD work in HIV/AIDS education in Denmark.
Wet Blue was licenced in 2014 as a dam contractor and supplier of water, sewerage, irrigation and electromechanical works. It’s also listed by KENHA as a vetted consultant for HIV/AIDS mitigation services, together with Icpher Consultants.
It is unclear why these companies are qualified to deliver all these services simultaneously.
“Shell companies receiving contracts in the public sector in Kenya have enabled corruption, fraud and tax evasion in the country. They are literally special purpose vehicles to conduct ‘heists’ and with no track record to deliver the public goods, works or services procured,” said Sheila Masinde, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya.
Both MOH and Ms Mukeli refused to confirm whether the ordered supplies were delivered.
Mrs Nyamai also co-owns Ameken Petroleum Limited together with Alfred Agoi Masadia and Allan Sila Kithome.
Mr Agoi is an ANC Party MP for Sabatia Constituency in Vihiga County, and was on the same Health Committee as Mrs Nyamai, a Jubilee Party legislator. Mr Sila is a philanthropist who is campaigning for the Kitui County senate seat in the 2022 election.
Juliet Atellah at The Elephant and Finance Uncovered in the UK contributed reporting.
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