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Dam Scams: Lessons from Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana

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MARY SERUMAGA explains why it is important to maintain sovereignty in the management of natural resources and to carry out robust and representative feasibility and environmental impact studies on large dam projects, which tend to be shrouded in secrecy and which are often the vehicles for high-level corruption.

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Dam Scams: Lessons from Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana
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Murchison Falls will always be under threat from developers, if the trajectory of Stiegler’s Gorge Dam in Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania is anything to go by. Since it was explored in 1902 by Stiegler, the pressure to build a dam on River Rufiji has been massive and unrelenting. Both Stiegler’s Gorge and Murchison Falls on the Nile are World Heritage Sites, a designation proving insufficient to preserve them. Work on Stiegler’s Dam began in 2019, more than a century after it was first mooted.

Downstream from Stiegler’s Rock are the Rufiji plains, a farming area prone to seasonal flooding. The floods carry and distribute nutrients and are essential to the fertility of the soil and the survival of the algae in the wetlands. Another economic enterprise carried out there is fishing. The 150,000 dwellers of the area depend on the seasonal flooding for their livelihood, something a dam would change.

Twenty-seven environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of the potential effect of inundating the Rufiji Basin in the Selous Game Reserve had been carried out by 1980. Many warned of salination of the basin with adverse effects on downstream agriculture, prawn fishing and the Rufiji Basin’s ecology.

Like the proposed Stiegler’s Gorge project of the 1970s, Uganda’s dams produce power that exceeds consumption capacity. There is an argument for creating capacity – while only 28 per cent of Ugandans are connected to the grid, the Ministry for Energy says demand grows by 10 per cent every year. But this does not explain why alternative sources of power are not considered. The cost of installing capacity to generate power has to be paid out of revenues that would otherwise be used for other services. For example, expenditure on healthcare was $12 per head in 2016, short of the $17 as per the Health Sector Plan and the $28 needed to secure the National Minimum Healthcare Package.

Yet on 8 December 2019 the Secretary to the Treasury explained to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that following the commissioning of Isimba Dam in April 2019, which adds 183MW, the total installed capacity is now 1200MW while peak consumption is only 600MW. An extra 600MW will be added when Karuma Dam is commissioned in early 2020.

Uganda’s dams produce power that exceeds consumption capacity. There is an argument for creating capacity – while only 28 per cent of Ugandans are connected to the grid, the Ministry for Energy says demand grows by 10 per cent every year.

The Rufiji Basin Project, as reviewed by Kjell J. Havnevik in his book Tanzania: The Limits to Development from Above, provides an interesting insight into the politics of the decision-making process in building dams. The review shows that there were many opposing views. To manage the process, Tanzania appointed an implementing authority, the Rufiji Basin Development Authority (RUBADA), which was tasked with coordinating the consultants studying various aspects of the project, the donors funding the study and the parent ministry.

Tanzanian institutions, including the University of Dar es Salaam, were unable for various reasons to have a major input. Once seen by some donors (including a faction of NORAD) as an important source of expertise in identifying and assessing environmental impact issues, they became marginalised after failing to reach agreement among themselves about whose interests the EIAs should serve and how to prioritise them.

The World Bank let it be known that they were not likely to fund a project based on a single development goal i.e. power generation. Other aspects of the Rufiji Basin development then came under review: transformation from flood-fed farming to irrigation; fishing; and ecological needs. Coming as an afterthought, some lacked depth. Even though the net benefits of building the dam to control River Rufiji floods were found to be marginal by Norplan, the Hafslund Report (commissioned to integrate previous reports and incorporate environmental studies) gave the primary justification of the dam as enabling Tanzania to cover the costs of irrigation and flood control projects in the Rufiji Basin.

NORAD eventually came to the conclusion that Dar es Salaam University and their nemeses in other institutions would not be able to deliver and so most of the funds available for the assessment were spent on external consultants with local scholars carrying out minor assignments. Havnevik states that those opposed to the development tended not to be invited to participate. Although Dar es Salaam University professors were allowed to attend discussions between the Ministry of Water, RUBADA, NORAD and Hafslund to discuss the latter’s preliminary report, they were asked to leave when critical matters were on the agenda.

RUBADA itself was not entirely independent; NORAD insisted the assistant to the Secretary General be replaced as he was deemed not to have sufficient political backing and to have developed a negative attitude to the planning of the project.

The multi-purpose development goals for the Rufiji Basin had been ignored, Havnevik tells us, in 1972 when Norconsult prepared a single-purpose preliminary project for the hydropower station. That being so, the technical specifications of the physical dam took precedence over environmental, community and other concerns. The higher above sea level the point of flow regulation, and the lower the unit cost of power generated led Norconsult to recommend that the dam be located at Stiegler’s Gorge. At the time there was no market for the 620MW to be generated at Rufiji and so the project recommended that power-consuming industries be built.

The Murchison Falls project

In the case of Murchison Falls, there is no multi-disciplinary coordinating committee or any known committee representing all stakeholders. The Ugandan government abdicated its responsibility towards the environment, the communities downstream and upstream, as well as the greater population when it announced that the issue would be decided by a feasibility study by potential foreign investors.

The terms of the Norconsult/Bonang Murchison Falls feasibility study have not been made public. If, like Norconsult’s Rufiji Basin study, as described by Havnevik, it is a single-purpose study commissioned to test the technical and financial feasibility of the structure without considering multi-purpose development goals, such as agriculture and fishing, environmental, tourism and heritage matters, it will not have addressed the issues most important to the tens of thousands who have signed petitions since the controversy began.

Another risk is that data required for a feasibility study that includes a comprehensive EIA may simply not be available within the time frame, which is also unknown. Uganda does not lack the expertise to carry out an EIA – Makerere University teaches conservation studies and tourism. Their voice has not been heard in the current controversy. The National Environmental Protection Agency is similarly silent.

The Ugandan government abdicated its responsibility towards the environment, the communities downstream and upstream, as well as the greater population when it announced that the issue would be decided by a feasibility study by potential foreign investors.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority and various travel operator associations are fighting their corner, mainly by awareness raising. Murchison Falls is Uganda’s most visited of the country’s twelve national parks – 32 per cent of visitors see the Falls. Earnings from tourism are 23 per cent of exports (more than doubling between 2008 and 2015, from $540 million in 2008 to $1,366 million (Ushs.3,549.3 billion) in 2014/2015. The direct contribution of tourism to GDP in 2017 was Ushs.2,699.1 billion (2.9 per cent of GDP) while the total contribution, including wider effects from investment, the supply chain and induced income impacts, was Ushs.6,888.5 billion in 2017 (7.3 per cent of GDP), up from Ushs.6, 171.5 billion in 2016 (Budget Framework Paper 2017).

Conservation and environmental issues

The complexity involved in carrying out industrial developments without disturbing the ecosystem requires extraordinary expertise. Dr Eve Abe, a noted ethnologist working in the UK as a wildlife management consultant, had not been consulted or asked to join a coordinating committee by the time of writing. Dr Abe spent years residing in Queen Elizabeth National Park studying elephants where the elephant population had fallen from 4,000 to 150 (see My Elephants and My People by Eve Lawino Abe, 2008). Across the continent the elephant population stood at 415,000 in 2016, having fallen by 111,000 in the previous period. In the 1930s Africa’s elephant population was ten million.

In her ground-breaking doctoral thesis (Cambridge, 1994) Dr Abe identified a parallel between the destruction of the human family unit and its habitat in her native Acoli. The destruction of elephants and their habitats has happened all over Africa, but is particularly acute in northern Uganda.

It was Dr Abe who first posited a causal relationship between this type of destruction and globally increasing instances of human-elephant conflict (HEC). HEC has been a problem in Uganda. Previously it was thought HEC was driven solely by encroachment on feeding and foraging territory. However, in Queen Elizabeth National Park, the population had fallen yet food for the elephants was abundant. (Incidentally, Stiegler was killed in an HEC incident in 1907 during a hydropower feasibility study.)

Dr Abe observed that elephants live in family groups and maintain stable relationships for most of their seventy years. Elephants mourn and bury their dead. Poaching in 1980s Uganda (often mass killings using grenades) and other encroachments destroyed those units and displaced the animals, leading to displacement and dysfunction among individuals.

Dr Abe’s work informed later research into the effects of trauma on elephant culture and elephants, which now includes M.R.I. scans of elephant brains, which was first done in 2008. Those scans have in fact revealed physical changes in the brains of traumatised animals and new conservation interventions take into account animal trauma caused by humans.

There is an additional risk that increased human activity and road-building in preparation for oil exploration in Murchison Falls National Park and the planned hydroelectric dam on the Falls will make the animals vulnerable to poaching. A cache of smuggled ivory seized by the Revenue Authority in January represented an estimated 325 elephants.

A third risk is human-to-animal transmission of parasites, an area that has been studied by the multiple award-winning wildlife veterinarian (Uganda’s first), Dr Gladys Kalema Zikusoka. She is best known for a pioneering translocation of gorillas to save them from poaching. She is also a winner of the prestigious Whitley Prize. Her approach to healthy co-existence is to invest in promoting and maintaining healthy human populations. By marketing the Arabica coffee grown by the surrounding community, she and her organisation, Conservation Through Public Health, help boost the income of the community, enabling them to gain access to healthcare and other services.

Dr Abe observed that elephants live in family groups and maintain stable relationships for most of their seventy years. Elephants mourn and bury their dead. Poaching in 1980s Uganda…and other encroachments destroyed those units and displaced the animals, leading to displacement and dysfunction among individuals.

There is a real danger that independent experts on conservation and fields outside power generation may have been excluded from the Murchison Falls feasibility study. Because the consortium led by Bonang Energy, Norconsult and JSC Institute Hydro project has offered its services for free, the extent to which the Government of Uganda can influence the scope of the terms of reference is debatable. Even if the government were to commission the study, the lead firm lacks the expertise, its experience being in road-building and maintenance and housing construction. The experience of Ernest Moloi, the proprietor of Bonang Energy who also owns Moseme Road Construction (PTY), appears to be limited to minor road construction and maintenance and property development. According to Forbes Africa, it was to seek openings in these two areas that he first came to Uganda.

Uganda is institutionally vulnerable to corruption

The broader governance issues were made clear in 2011 when Norconsult was sanctioned for corruptly obtaining the Dar es Salaam Water and Sanitation (Dawasa) project in Tanzania. The Integrity Vice President of the World Bank, Leonard McCarthy, stated then: “What we are trying to do here is examine the key intersections between corruption risk, organized crime and money laundering on the one hand and the institutional vulnerability in developing countries on the other. This work will be a critical input to the governance and anti-corruption work that the World Bank is focusing on in the post-crisis world.”

Does the current Ugandan administration have the will and the capacity to insulate the decision-making process from corruption and organised crime? Nobody will deny that in 2019 the risk of corruption and money laundering is high in Uganda. An indicator of the level of institutional failure is the fact that investors (both local and foreign) only seem to be assured of success after gaining access to the head of state. In the past few weeks the State House Anti-Corruption Unit has announced a crackdown on brokers who charge fees to arrange meetings with the president. Moloi has had face time with the President Museveni.

Given their past involvement in corruption in weak control environments in Tanzania and NW Province South Africa, there is no basis to expect an impartial report from Messrs Norconsult and Bonang Energy. To invite them to undertake work that threatens the ecosystem of Murchison Falls is indicative of the impunity with which the NRM government now operates.

In a statement calling for the protection of the Falls, the Africa Institute for Energy Governance says: “The company could be a front for corrupt officials who have caused loss of taxpayers’ money, have caused untold suffering to Ugandans and have degraded the environment.” Bonang has pulled down its website and currently has no online presence but earlier sightings revealed that it has no track record in hydropower construction or engineering.

Because the consortium led by Bonang Energy, Norconsult and JSC Institute Hydro project has offered its services for free, the extent to which the Government of Uganda can influence the scope of the terms of reference is debatable.

Moseme Road Construction was cited by North West Provincial Government of South Africa for being improperly awarded a contract and was ordered off the site in 2011. A 2016 gazette notice shows Moseme Properties and one Ernest Moloi were defendants to a suit filed by their creditors, Standard Chartered Bank for non-payment of a loan.

Three employees of Norconsult were prosecuted by Økokrim, the Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime on charges of bribery in connection with the $6.7 million Dar es Salaam Water Supply and Sanitation Project (Dawasa). Irregular payments of $146,000 were found to have been made in connection with Dawasa.

Norconsult Tanzania Limited was convicted and pulled out of Tanzania after an audit revealed $332 million in irregular payments – they reversed that decision almost immediately. According to Corpwatch (25 March 2008), the subsidiary was established in Tanzania in 1998 but never registered with the companies registrar, Brela. Still, the World Bank and Norway awarded them six road projects worth over $100 billion. They were all terminated by Tanroads in 2008.

A parallel investigation by Tanzanian authorities found that Norconsult had not filed tax returns nor paid taxes between 2002 and 2007. It was believed these irregularities could only have been made possible by bribery using the equivalent of $68,257 (Swedish Krona 650,000) expenditure not supported by the required documentation (Corpwatch).

While the local MD was asked to step down, the firm stood by three Norwegian employees. They were eventually charged in Sweden along with Norconsult. However, the firm was acquitted and one employee had his conviction overturned by the Supreme Court. Two were convicted and one was jailed. The decision was partly based on technical grounds concerning the length of time it took to prosecute the case and the fact that the World Bank had already imposed sanctions (Implementing the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention Phase 4 Report).

The politics of dam financing

The Murchison Falls Project is likely to be further complicated by options for financing. Most likely the financing will be sourced externally. Borrowing from China could jeopardise Uganda’s ownership of the national park and surrounding areas.

There are other possibilities. In 2017 Ghana exchanged 5 per cent of the country’s bauxite deposits for $10 billion worth of railway, roads and bridge development. The Ayensu, Densu and Birim Rivers have their source in the Atewa Forest Reserve and provide drinking water for five million people. A hundred wildlife species face extinction.

In the past, the viability of hydroelectric dams has been guaranteed by building industries that consume most of the power. Ghana’s Akasombo Dam on the Volta River also required a large, regular primary consumer of the power it was to generate. It was decided an aluminium plant would be built alongside the dam. The Volta River Basin was rich in bauxite, the raw material, as are many African rivers. Aluminium processing is the most power-consuming industrial process (International Rivers).

Ghana had 80 per cent of the funds (earned from the cocoa boom) and needed to borrow the balance as well as to finance the power-consuming industry. Negotiations opened in the White House when President Nkrumah requested President Eisenhower to introduce him to the well-known aluminium entrepreneur Henry Kaiser.

The most important lesson to be drawn from the Akasombo experience is the geopolitical one. The relationship was threatened by Nkrumah’s apparent leaning towards the U.S.S.R. in the UN General Assembly. At one point he was warned by Kaiser that if he sought financial assistance from the Soviet Union for any other projects, the Akasombo deal would be off.

Similar circumstances had bedevilled Egypt’s Aswan Dam. After the relationship between Egypt and the United States soured, President Nasser financed the Aswan Dam with money from the U.S.S.R. Although Nkrumah was an irritant to the American administration and their withdrawal from Akasombo was discussed many times, they eventually funded the project fearing further Russian encroachment on their sphere of influence.

The most important lesson to be drawn from the Akasombo experience is the geopolitical one. The relationship was threatened by Nkrumah’s apparent leaning towards the U.S.S.R. in the UN General Assembly. At one point he was warned by Kaiser that if he sought financial assistance from the Soviet Union for any other projects, the Akasombo deal would be off.

The contract was awarded to Volta Aluminium Company (Valco), a joint venture between the Ghanaian government and Kaiser Aluminium & Chemical Corporation; the latter had a 90 per cent shareholding. Valco was guaranteed 70 per cent of the power generated. According to International Rivers, most of Africa’s aluminium smelters consume most of the hydroelectricity generated and pay the lowest tariffs. It will be interesting to see if similar guarantees of supply at fixed low tariffs are offered to investors in the Murchison Falls Project feasibility report.

Akasombo offers other lessons in the importance of maintaining sovereignty in the management of natural resources and carrying out strong representative feasibility studies. Valco was meant to mine aluminium close to the dam, smelt it in Ghana and export the finished product. It turned out that Valco exported raw bauxite for the first five years. In the 21st century, they resisted attempts to increase the tariffs set in the 1950s and were paying less than Ghanaian domestic consumers.

Valco eventually sold its interest without clearing over $140 million it owed in taxes, claiming tax exemption. Meanwhile, Akasombo has recently suffered from falling water levels, which has forced up the domestic unit cost of the power (which has to be supplemented by fuel-driven generators), an outcome predicted by a minority voice in the 1950s.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

Politics

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.

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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.

The purge

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.

Exporting peace?

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.

Policing protest

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.

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

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Politics

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.

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The Enduring Blind Spots of America's Africa Policy
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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.

Drone attacks 

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.

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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.

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Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts
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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.

Number of Suppliers Allocated BPAAlthough 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.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

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.

Family LinksMrs 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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