Early this month, the burial of the mother of a businessman who operates in the famous Nyamakima area in downtown Nairobi took place in south Kinangop. Businessmen who have a strong association with and loyalty to each other turned out in large numbers to financially and morally support their colleague. Many of the traders present – mostly millennials – deal in electronic and hardware goods. For many of them, travelling to Guangzhou in China to haul back 40-foot containers full of varied consignments to Kenya has become second nature.
After the burial, the businessmen drove in their four-wheel Prados and double-cabin pick-up Toyotas to Naivasha town to “shake down the dust” and have “one for the road to clear their eyesight” for the 100-kilometre journey back to Nairobi. Settling down to juicy and sizzling nyama choma (roasted goat meat), a favourite delicacy among many Kikuyu middle class men, the traders could not wait to bitterly excoriate and fume against President Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency and his second-term politics, and to process and reevaluate their collective Uthamaki (the notion that the Kikuyu are and should remain the ruling class) position as they contemplated the future of the Kikuyu nation.
Washing down the goats’ ribs with beer, brandy and whiskies, the traders said that if they could get hold of President Uhuru, they would give him a thorough whipping until they drew blood. “He has not only collapsed our businesses, they are now being taken over by the Chinese,” said a visibly angry trader. “Including the cereals and grains businesses, traditionally done by our mothers (the term mother here being used loosely), are gradually being taken over.”
During President Mwai Kibaki’s reign (2002–2012), when many of the traders expanded and grew their businesses, their trade enjoyed a great boom and flourished immensely. They made loads of money, built stone houses in their ancestral homes, bought tracts of land, invested in real estate, rode fancy and powerful SUVs, and generally lived large. Many of them could even afford the upkeep of a concubine.
What hurt most, said the mourners, was that they had staked their lot with Uhuru’s re-election, and had collected funds for his campaign, especially in 2017, in the hope of continuing to reap big time, just like they had done in Kibaki’s time. Between 2013 and 2017, they noticed that their lucrative businesses had slackened somewhat. But they rationalsed this by saying it was President Uhuru’s first time as president and it had taken longer than necessary for him to settle down.
During President Mwai Kibaki’s reign (2002–2012), when many of the traders expanded and grew their businesses, their trade enjoyed a great boom and flourished immensely. They made loads of money, built stone houses in their ancestral homes, bought tracts of land, invested in real estate, rode fancy and powerful SUVs, and generally lived large.
“Business was still thriving,” said Jason Mwangi, an importer of hardware tools, electronics equipment and strobe lights, “but mega corruption was beginning to get out of control and was affecting our trading.” As it was Uhuru’s second and last term – also viewed as his legacy term – the trader told me, the businessmen had hoped that the president would rein in runaway graft, institute measures to curb it and even order the arrest of the said looters.
“He had nothing to lose, he could afford to be firm and brook no nonsense,” reasoned the traders. So, in 2017, they had sealed the entire Nyamakima area to dance and dine and wine and revel in his victory. And now this…barely two years into his legacy term, the traders were gritting their teeth, their businesses were collapsing faster than they had taken the time to build them.
Peter Macharia, who deals in solar lights and panels and energy-saving light bulbs, told me that for the last couple of months he has just been paying his rent for his premises without any discernible income in hand. “Business is so bad. I’m just hanging in there…I don’t know what to do, we have really been screwed…Since President Uhuru’s re-election, he has been spinning the tale that it’s [William] Ruto to blame for all the corruption, hence the wobbly economy. Did we elect Uhuru as president or we elected Ruto?”
“If indeed all the theft in government has been perpetrated by Ruto, what has the president done about it?” said a visibly agitated trader. “Gutiri muici na mucuthereria.” There is no difference between a thief and his onlooker. “In fact, the onlooker in this case is even worse than the thief because he knowingly abetted the theft. Just when did President Uhuru realise that his deputy was apparently pilfering the state coffers?” the traders argued, “Because of President Uhuru’s gross incompetence and wanton carelessness, it was just a matter of time before they were exposed.”
“If you are a farmer who keeps animals and you employ a shepherd to care for the animals, but instead of doing that, he slaughters your very animals from time to time, would you continue keeping him, would you continue trusting him with your flock?” asked one trader. “For Ruto to presumably engage in all that state theft, the president must also have been part of it. How else do you explain the fact that you’re the president but you don’t know what’s happening in your backyard? And when you finally wake up from your slumber, you demolish people’s property in the guise of fighting corruption.”
The traders were thoroughly peeved about the president’s directive late last year to destroy certain properties to prove to Kenyans that he was indeed fighting state corruption. “Who was he fooling? That was an unnecessary distraction because as he was destroying the properties, he was clamping down on our consignment.
“If indeed all the theft in government has been perpetrated by Ruto, what has the president done about it?” said a visibly agitated trader. “Gutiri muici na mucuthereria.” There is no difference between a thief and his onlooker.
My goods were confiscated for six months,” said Macharia. “At the Embakasi government go-downs and by the time the president was pretending to come to our rescue, I’d given up on the goods – I couldn’t afford to pay the charges. I lost a lot of money.”
The traders noted that for the longest time the Kikuyu electorate had excused President Uhuru’s drinking habits. “We said it didn’t matter…what mattered was his performance and the fact that he was one of us. We were dead wrong.” they said. “Ruto is focused and steady because he is always sober,” observed the traders. “He also has his faults but because he is a teetotaller he is disciplined, hardworking and organised. This talk that it’s Ruto who had depleted the state’s cash is hogwash…Let Uhuru fight Ruto if he must, but let him not tell us the economy has tanked because Ruto collapsed it.”
Giving up on “The Family”
Among the Kikuyu, the Kenyatta family has always remained a taboo subject: the family is treated like royalty, immune from criticism. Not anymore. The traders said many Kikuyus are waking up to the realisation that the Kenyatta family was only interested in advancing the larger family’s interests and expanding its business empire. “The family has been using the Kikuyu people as a stepping stone to enrich itself to the detriment of the community. It doesn’t care whether our children are starving or not, whether they go to school or not, whether they have jobs or not…all they’re interested in is ensuring this plantation serves their purpose.”
Yet, “the plantation” is now showing signs of dying: the Kikuyu electorate is dazed, disillusioned, and restless. “We’ll never vote again” has become an increasingly repeated mantra among the electorate. Or “We are going to vote for Ruto because he is available and generous.”
The “Kikuyu plantation” is also withering because its people – especially the young – are planning to run away from the country to far-off lands to escape the crippling economic conditions.
Dennis Kimani, aka Denno, a Bachelor of Commerce graduate from the University of Nairobi, has thrown in the towel as far as job hunting is concerned. Even though he is from a fairly stable middle class family, his family connections have refused to come through. “I’ve given up,” said Denno when we recently met. “I cannot take it anymore.”
He has been looking to migrate to Qatar in the hope of getting a job – any job “because at 28, the clock is ticking away…na riua ritietagirira muthamaki.” The sun does not wait even for a king. “I am not growing younger.”
Among the Kikuyu, the Kenyatta family has always remained a taboo subject: the family is treated like royalty, immune from criticism. Not anymore.
Denno told me an unfortunate story: “When I was in primary school, my closest friend was Clifford Omondi. We lived in the same estate, went to the same school and shared many things. We were happy. One night my father came home late at night. We were all asleep but he woke us [children] up to eat the nyama choma he had brought. But he hadn’t woken us to eat the meat – he had woken us to tell me about my friend Omondi. ‘Listen my son, I want you to cease your friendship with that boy…those people are not good, they are not cultured, they have odious beliefs, they like destroying people’s property so they have no respect for anything. If by chance they were left to lead this country, they would run our country down completely…Have you heard what I’ve told you?’”
Denno never spoke to his friend again, but what his father told him many years back haunts him to date. He wonders why since President Uhuru’s presidency in 2013 the country has been gripped by massive state corruption, and by 2018, after two controversial presidential elections, things have apparently spiraled out of control. Even his more reticent father on matters politics is looking troubled. “What I have been itching to ask my father is why the country’s economy is in shambles and yet we have a Kikuyu for president.”
After coming back from United Arab Emirates (UAE), where she had lived for 10 years, Florence Wambui came back home to Nairobi for good to start a business that she had always dreamed of starting: running a shoe company. In Dubai, she had worked for five years as a manager in a big shoe boutique. “I had the know-how, the experience and some money I’d saved to start the business. But the Kenya I’d left behind in July 2008 wasn’t the Kenya I returned to in January 2018 just after President Uhuru had been sworn-in for his second term,” said a less than inspired Wambui.
In just less than a year, she was already thinking of relocating to Canada. “I could not see my future here…everything seemed to be in a tumble down.”
But as luck would have it, people like Dennis began approaching her for advice on the procedures for migrating to the Middle East, a region she had come know very well after a 10-year stint there. “I halted my own migration to Canada to run a bureau for Middle East-bound Kenyans, many of them Kikuyus, who seem to be literally escaping from their country.”
Steve Karanja, 27, an IT technician, is in the same predicament as Denno. Unable to find a steady job, he has reconciled with the fact that the only way for him to find work is if he leaves this country. With a contact in the United Kingdom, Steve has been working to save some cash for the expensive visa processing as he also thinks of how to beef up his meagre bank accounts. “Brexit Britain is better than a troubled country called Kenya,” Steve said to me. “Anytime.”
Lost children of Mau Mau
But nothing prepared for me the impending Uthamaki meltdown like a video clip that was sent to me several weeks ago. It is of a Kikuyu millennial man who claims to have a messianic message for a tribe that apparently has lost its way. It is a cry of anguish, and of introspection. The message is a call to the tribe’s long gone forefathers to come to its rescue and intercede on behalf of a community captured by the capriciousness of fate, and by a single powerful family that has enslaved the community for the last half a century.
“Let’s come and reason together people of my tribe,” reads the young man from a long well-crafted missive read from a mobile phone. It is an impassioned plea:
Nyumba, ndirari gathafari ndiratumetwo ni mwene nyaga na arajeria kundu kuria mwitaga ukirini, ndiracemania na ngomi, maithe maitu, ngomi citu acio makomire tene na ruo runene na ti akenu…eeeh ti akenu. Kiria maruagera ni munaga gikihuthirwo uru ni aria matekeruire. Kuma riria Kenya yagiire wiyathi, gutire mu Mau Mau uri wagunika, bururi uyu, kana ciana ciao igeteithekera kuo. Athini aria athini bio bururi uyu ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria matari migunda ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao, aria mururaga umuthenya magicaria wira ni ciana cia Mau Mau. Aria maturaga magicaria title deed cia tubloti twao ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria maturaga manegenaga ni kahuwa na macani na iria no Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria maturaga mururaga na maratathi magicaria wira bururi-ini uyu, no ciana cia Mau Mau. Airetu aria makomagwo nao ni itonga nigetha mandikwo wira ni ciana cia Mau Mau…Ni nyumba imwe tu ya twenjeiri irima riri eria yehokirwo ni maithe maitu, igicoka ikimagaruruka na riu no indu nyumba iyo iracokaniriria, nigetha iture ya thaga ciana cia Mau Mau na ciana cia cio…icio kimi… Andu aitu hingokai maitho…kirumi kia Mau Mau una riu ki mwoyo…kirumi kia Mau Mau una riu ki mwoyo…
My people, I was away at a little safari that I’d been sent to by our God (of the mountains), and he took me to a place you call ukirini where I met our ancestors, our forefathers that that are long dead, who died with a lot of pain, and they are not happy…yes, they not happy. They are unsettled because what they fought for is being misused by those who did not fight for it. Since Kenya attained independence, no Mau Mau has ever benefitted in this country, not even their children. The poorest of the poorest in this country are the Mau Mau and their children. Those who do not have land, those who loiter every day looking for job opportunities, are the children of Mau Mau. Those that have been chasing title deeds for their little plot of lands, are Mau Mau and their children. The people who have perpetually complained of their coffee, tea and milk productions are Mau Mau and their children. Those people who have been moving from one corner in this country to another with testimonials, in search of work, are the children of Mau Mau. Those innocent lasses who are prostituted by the rich [Kikuyu men] for job favours are the daughters of Mau Mau…It is just one family that has dug this abyss for us, a family that had been trusted by our forefathers, but which turned against them. Since then, that family has just been accumulating abundant riches, all in the name of continuing to enslave and oppress the descendants of the descendants of Mau Mau…You all know the family I am talking about…(The narrator does not mention the name of the said family, but leaves his listeners with absolutely no doubt which family he is referring to: the Kenyatta family).
The narrator closes his call to action to the Kikuyu people by imploring: “Our people, open your eyes to [the true realities of your lives]…the curse of the Mau Mau is still alive…the curse of the Mau Mau still lives.”
This is an excerpt of a much longer soliloquy in which the narrator reminds the Kikuyu people: “Gikuyu kiugaga thire utarihwo no worogi…haria bururi weigereire na kirumi…Kenya yagurirwo na thakame ni maithe maitu magekua meendeire ni getha matucariria wiyathi…wiyathi uyu weteaga na ngati…” The Kikuyu people say the only debt one cannot pay is that of witchcraft…this country has set itself on a cursed path…Kenya was liberated by our forefathers who willingly died so that we, their descendants, could enjoy the freedom that they so gallantly fought for…freedom which the home guards and collaborators seized, and which they continue to mock us with.
A couple of weeks ago, I was taking a reality check in the central business district (some Nairobians now call it the central bad district) and by pure coincidence I walked next to the statue of the freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi situated on the junction of Kimathi Street and Mama Ngina Street. This was before the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) ring-fenced the statue’s area for renovations.
It was late in the evening and dusk was setting in. As I approached the statue, I could hear the noises of a man grovelling in acute pain. On closer look, I saw a young man, possibly no more than 30 years old, cuddled in a foetal position besides the statue, beseeching Dedan Kimathi, son of Wachiuri, to intercede on behalf of the crying Kikuyu people and liberate them from the yoke of modern day slavery and oppression.
The Kikuyu people say the only debt one cannot pay is that of witchcraft…this country has set itself on a cursed path…
“Why are we suffering so and yet you fought very bravely against the white man so we could have jobs and enjoy life,” pleaded the man. Shaking like a mulberry tree in dry winter, the man wailed about how nobody cares about the downtrodden sons of the peasant and poor Kikuyu families. “For how long will the children of the house of Mumbi continue to suffer so,” implored the man. “Tell us.”
The man then engaged Kimathi. “When will we ever be liberated from the shackles of poverty and enjoy the fruits of the promised land which you and our forefathers promised us?”
As I stood there watching the man writhe in pure pain and pleasure – the pleasure of communing with his ancestors – I realised that the Uthamaki Kingdom was staring at a meltdown: The people are crying, the people are confused, the people are cornered, yet their Muthamaki seems unbothered.
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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