Donald Trump barged into the political arena, and within a relatively short period of time, reconfigured the American political landscape. He won the 2016 election by a razor-thin margin in key electoral states and lost the 2020 election by only a slightly larger razor-thin margin. The election quantified the hypothesis that President Trump’s iconoclastic performance as head of state did little to alter the polarised perceptions dominating American politics.
Capturing the many voters disenchanted with both the Republican and the Democratic parties was the secret sauce powering Trump’s success. But instead of moving towards the middle once in power, Trump’s style of governance reinforced the gap. Both elections appear to have left the nation’s democratic equilibrium poised on a precarious fulcrum.
Security analyst John Robb was the first to analyse Donald Trump’s 2016 run at the presidency as an insurgency. Trump entered the primaries as an outsider and proceeded to dispense with the usual rules and protocols. His initial focus on the nation’s entrenched financial interests was coupled with his lack of clear positions on issues that would potentially divide his growing constituency. The assault on the mainstream media, which formed the second prong of his strategy, insulated him from the stream of criticism directed at his person and candidacy.
Self-funding his campaign further buffered the growing movement from the Republican Party establishment. Trump’s insurrection carried him into the White House, and he proceeded to trash the conventional sensibilities of the two-party system and the political campaign industry process.
Where many of us saw the Obama presidency as the end of a cycle dating back to the civil rights movement, as it turned out, it set in motion a new dialectic.
Blue Church versus Red Religion
At the turn of the millennium, Bill Clinton was at the forefront of academic analysts and policy pundits who used the Davos Economic Forum to promulgate the idea that the world’s financial architecture needed a structural makeover to address the challenges of the new century. Nothing happened. Structural inequality continued to facilitate elite control of the news media and political narratives. The West continued to invest in China, assuming that economic liberalisation will lead to political democratisation. The Forever War festered, draining financial resources that should have been reinvested at home.
The Obama presidency was not an anomaly in regard to these trends, and the Tea Party emerged as a direct response. Funded by the Koch Brothers’ political cartel, the Tea Party mobilised a large body of formerly politically inert citizens, including voters who had not responded to the activism of the religious right that contributed to the electoral success of the two Bush presidents.
Where many of us saw the Obama presidency as the end of a cycle dating back to the civil rights movement, as it turned out, it set in motion a new dialectic.
At its peak, public support for the movement was over 25 per cent of the electorate, with many more sympathetic towards its goals. The Tea Party and its congressional caucus became a party within a party. Although it could not enact its agenda on the national scale, the Tea Party drove many moderate Republicans out of public office. Due to the diversity of internal interests, its settled on a strategy that focused blame on big government, spearheaded by Grover Norquist’s radical anti-tax movement that had served as the driver of Newt Gringrich’s Contract with America during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
The Tea Party platform enjoyed the support of second-tier politicians like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Ron Paul and other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination won by Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump gained favour with the movement through his anti-Obama antics, but otherwise was not seen as an active player. Four years later, pro-Tea Party candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Lindsay Graham denigrated Donald Trump when he entered the race, only to change their colours when Trump’s scorched earth campaign reduced them to spectators.
Trump launched his candidacy by excoriating big donors, including political action committees empowered by the Citizens United legislation passed through the Koch brothers’ political machine. He derided his opponents for flocking to secret fundraising retreats hosted by the Koch Brothers’ cartel. The libertarian financiers opposed Trump in the beginning, but this divide was eventually bridged by his selection of Mike Pence for his running mate, a creation of the Koch political machine.
Assumptions about Trump’s poor prospects failed to factor in the larger forces contributing to Americans’ growing uncertainty and fear of the future. The domestic opportunity costs of Bush Junior’s foreign wars were exacerbated by the post-regime change failures of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. The financial profligacy accompanying these interventions, Wall Street’s sub-prime mortgage pyramid scheme, and the state’s acquiescence to the lopsided relationship with China helped prepare the ground for the coming insurgency.
The state’s response to the post-9/11 terrorism threat created the biggest concentrations of financial resources since World War II, including the new Department for Homeland Security. The war chest became a magnet for bipartisan insider interests. Obama’s failure to reckon with the public’s disenchantment added to the accumulating problems accompanying the erosion of working class conditions in the nation’s heartland.
This allowed Trump’s campaign to portray the Democrats as the party of war while elevating Hillary Clinton to a symbol of the military-industrial complex’s self-interest. Under Steve Bannon’s direction, the Trump campaign effectively used propaganda to create an alternative narrative that bypassed the opposition’s criticism, while portraying them as supporters of policies responsible for America’s decline at home and abroad.
Trump’s campaign prioritised media-based tactics over the scripted playbook; in any case, mobilisation took precedence over the game of debating the movement’s political platform. The media blitzkrieg, refreshed with footage from Trump’s rock star performances at his rallies, condensed all of these elements into the Make America Great Again (MAGA) Kool-Aid. Hillary Clinton appeared to be winning most of the battles. But when the fog lifted, the same country that elected Barrack Obama to two terms had elected Donald Trump. No one knew how to best cope with the insurgency once he was in office.
The systems analyst, Jonathan Hall, portrayed the Trump insurgency on the campaign trail as highly effective desert guerrillas bent on turning everything into a desert. He described how the Trump campaign’s guerilla methods succeeded in creating confusion and disorder within the opposition camp. The insurgents were able to make the enemy over and under-react to activity that appeared to be ambiguous or misleading to an enemy aligned with the mainstream narrative.
In his 2017 Situational Assessment, Hall stated that the Trump insurgency was based on a new model of collective intelligence committed to disrupting the system on four fronts: the communications and media infrastructure; the economy of globalisation; the deep state; and the new culture war. He cast the latter as the battleground where the new Red Religion, which has emerged as the new counterculture, enjoys a strong advantage over the Blue Church, which has over the decades subverted many of the values of the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In the process, the Blue Church evolved into the same military-industrial and congressional political machine President Dwight Eisenhower had termed as the greatest threat to American democracy in 1958.
Trump actually crafted a line of attack similar to that to the original Blue Religion (my term) interpretation of American exceptionalism. It was relatively moderate but more focused compared to the political rhetoric of the Baby Boomers’ uprising. Unlike the moon-shot confidence of mid-century America driving the collective intelligence of the Blue Religion that emerged during that era, the Baby Boomers who responded to Trump’s message were reacting from a very different place.
Even before his election, analyses of the trauma many Americans were experiencing unpacked the deep-seated psychological factors contributing to the belief that the nation was primed for the entrance of a male hero, a champion who could bring order back to a chaotic world. These arguments demonstrate the human proclivity to “identify with the aggressor” during times of heightened uncertainty. This accounts for the movement’s more extreme contradictions, like the fact that the states most dependent on federal largesse provided the most passionate fans of the “drain the swamp” meme.
In his 2017 Situational Assessment, Hall stated that the Trump insurgency was based on a new model of collective intelligence committed to disrupting the system on four fronts: the communications and media infrastructure; the economy of globalisation; the deep state; and the new culture war.
During recent decades, the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, and other neo-Nazi organisations have transformed themselves from post-Reconstruction defenders of the white race to a rabidly anti-government network. Between 2008 and 2015, the Patriot Movement, a loose network of armed conspiracy theorists, had expanded from 149 groups to 874 in 2015, an increase of nearly 500 per cent.
Trump defied common sense by refusing to distance himself from the emboldened forces on the nation’s lunatic fringe. His dalliance with the KKK’s David Duke during the campaign and his failure to condemn the Charlottesville neo-Nazi marchers confirmed the outsized influence of Barrack Obama in the new head of state’s mind. His implicit acceptance of white supremacists became a show-stopper that worked to negate the import of the substantive policy initiatives he raised for potential Blue Religion converts.
The president’s excessive narcissism further complicated efforts to implement his MAGA mission.
Trump’s White House conundrum
Modern insurgencies are built by crafting a new narrative appealing to homeland religious and cultural values, and by exploiting their asymmetric advantages, like Trump’s use of Twitter to communicate directly with his supporters. They often require the rise of a charismatic leader to set them in motion.
Trump’s connection with his base attracted in turn the support of commentators like Fox TV star Tucker Carlson who, like Trump, originally grew his audience by attacking the corporate elite seen to control Washington. Carlson and other alt-right commentators walked the thin line of attacking the stereotyped Democratic Party enemy while avoiding direct criticism of the president’s failure to take on the economic elite and his controversial flirtations with dictators and traditional enemies abroad.
They seemed to be caught in an alt-right tractor beam that undermined their legitimacy among many in the wider audience when they did underscore important points. This worked well when it came to feeding the base, but it also deprived the Trump policy machine of the trusted feedback normal governments need to stay on course.
This was never going to be a normal government, but unlike the success of his disruptive methods on the campaign trail, Trump was not able to turn his populism into a clear advantage on the policy front. Gifted a growing economy by Barack Obama, the new captain steered the ship of the state straight into the heavy headwinds mainly of his own creation. Foreign policy offered the most promising area for gaining traction, but success proved elusive. Trump’s flirtations with Kim il Jong and Vladimir Putin distracted from his efforts to reconstruct trade relations with China.
The military advisors that Trump appointed during the transition provided the main constraint. One blogger described what happened:
Trump was hauled into a Pentagon basement “tank” and indoctrinated by the glittering four-star generals he admired since he was a kid. The session was part of the ongoing education of a president who arrived at the White House with no experience in the military or government and brought with him advisers deeply skeptical of what they labeled the “globalist” worldview. Trump was sold the establishment policies he originally despised. No alternative view was presented to him.
The author described the operation as “historically, the US military’s first successful counterinsurgency campaign”. The battle with the deep state ended in stalemate. Tearing up treaties proved to be easier than cutting new deals. The insurgency’s failure to overturn Obamacare provided an early marker of its limits.
Navigating the transition from rebellion to governing is the litmus test of successful insurgencies. The Trump regime struggled with this problem, starting with the backtracking when he named his key appointments. His transition team, for example, included the kind of corporate insiders he had assaulted during his campaign, including a Treasury Secretary recruited from Goldman Sachs. The eclectic crew Trump assembled opened up internal rifts in his White House.
Soon the president was fighting his own team. Staff walked the plank, others were keelhauled in public, and after months of ridicule, the Attorney General was dumped unceremoniously. Trump’s quest for unconditional loyalty led him to fall back on family and close friends like Rudy Giuliani, and to use events like the clash in Charlottesville to fire up the base. His first Chief of Staff, General Jim Mattis, was eased out after opposing Steve Bannon, who shortly afterwards was shown the door when he clashed with son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The churn became a consistent pattern.
Trump’s allies in the media remained in insurrection mode in the presence of the growing number of setbacks and self-inflicted blunders. Commentators who excelled in turning obscure stories and isolated incidents into larger narratives sidestepped fact-driven analysis of complex issues, and avoided constructive criticism of the Trump government in general.
Blue Church media critics fought back by retreating into the role of the moral resistance who evaluated many of Trump’s policies as an extension of his unsavoury persona. Congressional Democrats contributed to the quagmire by equating Russian maskirovka with collusion, then launching their doomed-to-fail impeachment gambit. Although the mid-term elections provided the Democrats with a much-needed respite, they were not able to leverage their momentum into a more effective counterinsurgency strategy.
Soon the president was fighting his own team. Staff walked the plank, others were keelhauled in public, and after months of ridicule, the Attorney General was dumped unceremoniously.
The outcome was four years of trench warfare. Both sides slogged it out, making small inroads only to relinquish their gains on one front by overplaying their hand on another. Instead of using his China policy to unite the nation behind his government’s most critical initiative, Trump continued to antagonise potential allies on the other side of the aisle. Progressive activists reciprocated by carelessly using the Defund the Police slogan to brand their push for reforms while cities were burning.
Then the pandemic came. Trench warfare morphed from metaphor into real-life strategy as cities and states locked down to defend against the corona virus. Would the civilian Donald Trump have adopted the same anti-science position the Presidential Trump championed? As it turned out, what could have been seized as the final opportunity to transform his insurgency into a war against a common enemy ended up being the battleground for its last stand in the White House.
Joseph Biden’s narrow victory has set the stage for another four years of the Obama-Trump dialectical status quo. The Republicans lost the White House but made gains in most other areas, including the state legislatures that will be in charge of the next phase of redistricting. As many commentators have pointed out, there is also the matter of the 73 million Americans who voted for Trump.
The new government, including many figures from former President Obama’s administration, is taking shape at a time when widespread allegations of electoral fraud have exposed the desperation of the insurgency’s Trumped-up narratives. If the Democrats post-2016 strategy reflected serious errors of judgment and the lack of a coherent strategy, Trump’s post-electoral Twitter offensive and the legal response backing it has been a comedy of errors, highlighting the kind of double-speak semantics Republican spin doctors have resorted to since the Reagan era.
In one Pennsylvania case where Trump’s team tried to stop ballot counting, the lawyers were forced to admit, contrary to false claims that no Republican observers were present, that a “nonzero number of Republican observers” were allowed to witness the ballot counting. Another federal judge described the campaign’s legal arguments as “inadmissible hearsay within hearsay”. One legal expert cited in the same report observed that “the lawsuits are so groundless that the lawyers are more likely to be sanctioned for pursuing them than to succeed in court”.
Trump’s unpredictable and flawed leadership compromised the insurgency’s capacity to parlay its incumbency into a popular vote majority. The endgame is emblematic of how the insurgency degenerated into an exercise in disruption that has subjected American democracy to its most severe stress test in decades. But the current state of polarity should not obscure the complex dynamics driving American society.
In a 2017 article, I viewed the Trump insurgency as a useful development. No matter what we may think of Trump the person, he has succeeded in modifying the topography of the political landscape while identifying many of the issues that will continue to be contested during the next phase of globalisation. More importantly, the insurgency has brought into the open the socio-economic dynamics, tactics, and political actors driving the Red Religion.
In the meantime, one survey found that Republican mistrust of the electoral system zoomed from 35 per cent to 75 per cent following the election. This spike, despite this election being the most transparent and invigilated election in the nation’s history, shows that what people say is often distinct from what they really think and how they behave.
Ingenuous responses to the polls is another consequence of the insurgency. Although these numbers will likely prove to be transient, they are providing the platform for the next stage of Donald Trump’s political career. This raises two questions: what proportion of the 73 million Trump voters are hard core insurgents committed to the long haul; and how will Biden’s government influence those who are not?
The Trump government used its control of the White House and the Senate to cement the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, but this is balanced by the demographics favouring progressive forces over the coming decades. The COVID-19 pandemic and the government relief packages it triggered are placing the long-standing defund-the-state anti-tax movement in its real world context. States that cut budgets in line with the Norquist agenda are suffering the effects of crippled education systems and public services. One Koch brother died, and his survivor has reportedly expressed misgivings about their machine’s socially polarising politics.
These developments are, however, complicated by Trump’s role as an agent of radicalisation.
From insurgency to jihad?
Traditional insurgencies are all-or-nothing struggles in which only one side can prevail in the end. Modern jihads, in contrast, are a more networked variation on guerilla warfare that tend to increase their asymmetric advantages when they do not occupy the terrain hosting the populations involved in the contest.
For the past year I have been following a large pro-Trump Twitter group curated by several security analysts. Post-election posts have ranged from legal and geopolitical arguments to nutcase Release the Kraken conspiracy theories. Many tweets in support of Trump since the election continue to elicit five-figure approvals, and sometimes more in the case of prominent Republican supporters. But the likes and retweets for posts calling for extreme responses decline to between three and low four figures, and support for those calling for Boogaloo-style violence rarely total more than two digits.
Donald Trump is not going away. But the defection of some of his key allies in the corridors of power and the distancing of some of his most important media influencers will make it difficult to for him to sustain the political euphoria he fed on. Such defections often signal an insurgency’s decline.
The new culture war will grind on, identity politics are likely here to stay, and the Blue Church may be living on borrowed time. The long-overdue removal of civil war statuary, the Confederate flag ban, and the large multiracial protests against police impunity are examples of Blue Religion maneouvers outflanking the Red Religion’s embrace of indefensible positions.
Donald Trump is not going away. But the defection of some of his key allies in the corridors of power and the distancing of some of his most important media influencers will make it difficult to for him to sustain the political euphoria he fed on. Such defections often signal an insurgency’s decline.
These factors favour the Trump insurgency’s shift into jihadi mode. Donald Trump appeared to bristle under the protocols that came with being head of state. A revengeful Trump released from these constraints could prove to be a hard to control free agent. Just as most of the victims of Islamist extremism are Muslim, this augurs poorly for the Republican Party. Trump has already targeted several Republican state governors, and the party elders are concerned that the carnage will compromise Republican prospects in the next mid-term elections.
The prospects for Trump’s second act in the political arena now appear less than sanguine, especially should the Democratic mount an effective counterinsurgency strategy. There is no shortage of ambitious camp followers hoping to assume the former president’s mantle. Then there is the karmic price to be paid for his antics in public office. Anything could happen, but the same tide that floated his boat is now going out.
Without Donald Trump, the next phase of the insurgency is likely to involve reversion to the low-intensity conflict that was there before his rise, or, to use the more conventional term, a return to politics as usual.
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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