Geothermal development in Kenya’s Rift Valley is expected to reap enormous energy benefits for the nation as a whole. Geothermal energy is widely seen as green and clean, a superior alternative to other forms of renewable energy that is sustainable and environmentally friendly with low carbon emissions.
However, new research by an international collaborative team that includes Kenyans shows that the impacts of this industry upon local communities (in this case, in the Ol Karia area of Nakuru County) are often negative. The research also provides evidence that geothermal expansion, which took off here in the 1970s, has led to many divisions and ongoing conflicts, including conflicts over equitable resource use. Other issues of concern include environmental degradation, the negative health impact on humans and animals, forced resettlement, increasing poverty, lack of access to benefits, including jobs, houses and profit-sharing, violation of human and land rights, and the absence of community representation in the geothermal companies (largely KenGen, the Kenya Electricity Generating Company).
The negative impacts of the geothermal industry on local communities are rarely, if ever, listed among its disadvantages. Issues of greatest concern to companies and funders have more to do things like high up-front costs, technical challenges, and high risks faced in the early stages of development. Too often, the negative impacts on humans, livestock and the environment seem to be regarded as collateral damage.
Many questions have been raised about the role of the state and international financial institutions in this scenario, which this story will go on to discuss. From my observations as an academic researcher who has studied imperial history, there is more than a whiff of colonial arrogance in the behaviour of major lenders, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank, which have both invested heavily in the geothermal industry at Ol Karia, the latter since the early 1980s. As I pointed out in person to EIB and EIB-Complaints Mechanism (EIB-CM) staff at an NGO workshop in Brussels earlier this year, decisions made in European and other foreign capitals can have life-long and devastating impacts on what funders call “project-affected persons” (PAPs), long after investors and other international players have left the scene. What the banks regard as “completed” is never over for PAPs on the receiving end. (These staffers did not look me in the eye, or respond.)
At the grassroots level in Ol Karia, accusations of nepotism, corruption and discrimination also abound. Some indigenous residents (such as the Turkana and the Samburu) accuse the majority Maasai of doubly marginalising them in the scramble for rights and benefits. Though Maasai representatives have made repeated formal complaints to the banks concerned, and some contentious issues have been addressed, people face serious ongoing challenges that leave them impoverished, frustrated and despairing. Our research showed that youth, women, non-literates, the poorest and elders (apart from those on village and other liaison committees, who tend to be relatively well-off and well-connected) have been hardest hit.
From my observations as an academic researcher who has studied imperial history, there is more than a whiff of colonial arrogance in the behaviour of major lenders, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank, which have both invested heavily in the geothermal industry at Ol Karia.
In East Africa as a whole, electricity demand is expected to quadruple by 2033, with geothermal, wind and hydropower seen as important means of meeting that demand. For Kenya, geothermal (which literally means “earth’s heat”) is now officially favoured over hydropower because of the climatic changes that hydropower is susceptible to.
By April 2020, Kenya had risen to seventh place in the list of top geothermal power producers, the only African country on the list. Kenya is Africa’s largest producer of geothermal energy. Geothermal power is flagged in Vision 2030, the Government of Kenya’s vision for the future, as a central plank in the development of the country. Kenya aims to produce 50 per cent of its energy from geothermal sources by 2025, and 100 per cent by 2050. Geothermal now accounts for 30 per cent of Kenya’s total installed power capacity of 2,700MW, with the remainder taken up by hydropower, wind, solar and thermal power. The benefits are not only for the national grid; other uses of geothermal energy include powering some Naivasha flower farms. A group of Nakuru farmers has also signed a deal with the parastatal GDC (Geothermal Development Company) that allows them to use geothermal energy in agriculture.
Threats to marginalised people and lands
The extractive industry, together with large-scale infrastructure projects of various kinds, have become increasingly invasive of the lands and other natural resources of indigenous and marginalised communities across Africa and other parts of the world. Lands once considered worthless have become sites of intense interest to states, investors and other players because of the rich resources they contain. Unsurprisingly, this has triggered acute contestation over natural and cultural resource rights.
Historical marginality often places indigenous and marginalised people at a distinct disadvantage when they try to articulate their concerns and fight their corner. Forced resettlement to make way for extractive industries has involved human rights abuses. Governments, industries and funders often fail to abide by the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), or to consult sufficiently with affected communities before geothermal projects start, or even to follow their own policies on indigenous peoples, which the World Bank has admitted failing to do at Ol Karia. The other foreign banks involved in funding this project agreed to follow World Bank policies rather than their own.
Although it didn’t matter for the purposes of this project, the EIB also decided that the Ol Karia Maasai did not meet its criteria for indigenous peoples and chose to classify them as “vulnerable” instead. This does not provide anything like the same level of protection, and has proved disastrous for this community.
Forced resettlement to make way for extractive industries has involved human rights abuses. Governments, industries and funders often fail to abide by the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), or to consult sufficiently with affected communities before geothermal projects start…
The EIB has explained (in responses to me and Bankwatch) that it decided not to classify these Maasai as indigenous in 2009 (when it was making plans to fund the power plant Olkaria IV) because it believed that “tribal sentiments were still on the rise” after the post-election violence of 2008. It believed that such a classification might lead to more ethnic strife. This nonsensical interpretation demonstrates how little the EIB understands Kenyan politics, and the socio-political climate in which it operates. From observation and written evidence, its so-called “experts” on the ground are anything but. One, an official mediator between the Maasai and KenGen, even expressed shockingly derogatory remarks to me about the alleged “backwardness” of the Maasai, views which hardly make him suitable as a mediator. Maasai informants said they regarded the mediators as “KenGen’s spies”.
It is important to note that although the community is predominantly Maasai and Maa-speakers (people who speak the Maa language but who are not necessarily Maasai) who have lived here for centuries, it also includes members of other ethnic groups who have intermarried and inter-settled with the Maasai over many years. The community is, therefore, a microcosm of multicultural Kenya. Some Maasai rights activists tend to ignore this fact for obvious reasons: it does not fit their mono-ethnic narrative.
Recent history, some impacts
Geothermal exploration first began in this area of Naivasha Sub-County in 1956 with exploratory drilling. But it was not until the 1970s that geothermal development began to intensify. Olkaria I was the first power plant in Africa, commissioned in three phases starting in 1981. There are now five geothermal plants in the Greater OlKaria (sic) Geothermal Complex, with others planned or in development. (Other plants, either built or planned outside this Complex, follow the line of the Rift Valley.) Akiira One is not built yet, partly because the company behind it, Akiira Geothermal Ltd. (AGL), is mired in issues around alleged human rights abuse against squatters it forced off its land with the aid of police and county officials. European funders of AGL, including the EIB, are investigating. (I say more about these events below.)
Three of KenGen’s five plants have been built in Hell’s Gate National Park. These plants have devastated this once beautiful heritage site. Large areas of the park now look more like an industrial estate than a protected area: plants and wells constantly gush steam, the well-heads make deafening 24-hour noise, huge pipelines snake across the landscape, roads are choked with company and subcontractors’ lorries and machinery, water sources are polluted, and the air around the plants stinks of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide). After just a couple of weeks’ fieldwork, I fell ill with respiratory problems.
However, what I endured is nothing compared to what the people who have to live here permanently have to go through. A 44-year-old Samburu blacksmith told me: “I have done an experiment – I sent my children to Samburu, and when they came back they were very healthy. After a few weeks of staying here, their faces have changed, and skin rashes have started appearing on their bodies. They’re suffering a lot of coughing and common cold almost every day.” Locals blame geothermal for the rise in respiratory illness and miscarriages, among other things.
A number of formal complaints have been made to KenGen and the external funders’ complaints mechanisms: the World Bank Inspection Panel (WB-IP) and the EIB Complaints Mechanism (EIB-CM). Many of the complaints relate to the forced resettlement in 2014 of four Maasai villages to a new settlement called RAPland (RAP stands for Resettlement Action Plan), a remote area next to the Akiira One/AGL concession. This was done to make way for Olkaria IV. Some 1,000 people were moved to new two-bedroom houses in RAPland, each on a 0.41-hectare plot. But this move involved swapping an area of 4,200 acres for just 1,700 acres. Many people complain about the houses, which are not built in a traditional culturally-acceptable style, which cannot accommodate extended families, and which are more expensive to furnish and run.
Moreover, the new land is much less productive than the one they were forced to leave. It is full of steep gullies into which cattle regularly fall and injure themselves, or even die. The pasture is poor and soil erosion is rife. Worst of all, the area is fenced in, which is antithetical to free-roaming pastoralism. “They have put us in a fence like animals in a zoo,” said one informant. People are also very unhappy about the communal leasehold land title that KenGen has given them, and claim it is not what was promised. The document does not refer to RAPland but to a totally different geographical area.
Three of KenGen’s five plants have been built in Hell’s Gate National Park. These plants have devastated this once beautiful heritage site. Large areas of the park now look more like an industrial estate than a protected area…
Other complaints include those relating to the loss of cultural sites and livelihoods, the remoteness of RAPland, which is far from shopping centres and other urban services (KenGen has refused to allow a commercial centre to be built), lack of public transport, (which forces people to use very expensive private transport), KenGen’s failure to employ many Maasai, other than in insecure, low-paid, low-skilled jobs, corruption, nepotism and discrimination (which have fouled the process of awarding compensation to PAPs), and failure to fully implement a May 2016 Mediation Agreement between the community and KenGen. (Though Maasai representatives signed this, they are deeply unhappy about how it has unravelled. Some call the mediation process “a hidden wolf”.)
On the positive side, KenGen has provided the new houses, and built facilities including a school, dispensary, community hall, roads, bridges and water points. They have, to some extent, acted upon the complaints. The Maasai did agree to the move, but our research shows that many people did not fully understand the long-term implications. Failure to communicate in the Maa language led to many people being excluded from the consultations (the World Bank has admitted this). Some folk have complained that they failed to get new houses despite being eligible. As a result, several poor widows, and indigenous people who are not Maasai, have been forced to squat with relatives in RAPland after being made homeless. One Samburu widow, 46, whose family has broken up as a result of the resettlement, said: “We are scattered like the faeces of a high-flying bird.”
In 2015, the EIB-CM and the WB-IP carried out a joint investigation into the complaints, Two reports, in 2015 and 2016, admitted that serious mistakes had been made, and some of the complainants’ allegations were founded. I counted eight incidences of admitted “non-compliance” with World Bank protocols in the 2015 report; there may be more.
Notably, the World Bank admitted failing to apply its policy on indigenous peoples (Operational Policy 4.10). This led to “significant shortcomings regarding consultation, the cultural compatibility of the resettlement, benefit sharing…The Panel believes applying the Policy might have avoided or mitigated some of the harms caused by the Project”.
Most importantly, by not classifying the Maasai as indigenous, the banks failed to draw up an Indigenous Peoples Plan, as they normally would, and to secure Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from the community – a prerequisite in funding projects of this kind. In a series of email exchanges with the EIB over many months, it could not tell me why it classified the Maasai in this way, nor explain the reasoning behind its definition of indigenous peoples, which (as I pointed out to them) contains criteria not used by the World Bank or any other international organisation. I got the impression it has no idea what indigeneity means, and relies on ill-informed staff who know nothing about indigenous peoples and their rights in international law. On telling them this, all the EIB could do was crossly accuse me of unethical academic practice, and of maligning one particular staffer. Not true. I was simply asking legitimate questions of a bank that purports to be transparent and accountable.
The EIB-CM and the WB-IP initiated a mediation process, starting in August 2015, with the aim of reaching agreement between KenGen and the complainants on remedial actions. KenGen pledged, among other things, to improve roads and water supplies, take action on soil erosion and gullies, transfer communal land titles for RAPland and another area called Cultural Centre (the site of a village that was razed to make way for Olkaria IV), build more houses, assist people in marketing their cultural wares, and re-examine the cases of people who claimed to have been unfairly treated in censuses that took place before the resettlement. KenGen is still carrying out some remedial work, such as road repairs and bridge building.
The project also involved other external funders. Our research (and that of other scholars such as Jeanette Schade) shows there is a risk in having multiple funders since lines of responsibility can become blurred. For example, the EIB told me that the French development agency AfD (Agence Française de Développement) was the lead agency responsible for due diligence and safeguarding at Ol Karia, therefore it was not responsible. Efforts to find out from the AfD how they had monitored due diligence, and to access their post-project assessment reports (if they even exist), came to nothing.
What else people told us
Most informants said the funders and companies had exploited existing divisions in the community, for example by siding with one group against another, and favouring individuals with special privileges. They complained that engagement mechanisms, such as liaison committees, created as part of the resettlement process to help PAPs engage with the companies, are deeply flawed (something the World Bank has recognised), and characterised by nepotism and bribery. Few people trust their elected community representatives, who tend to be male village elders who often shout women down. Neither do they trust the welfare society at RAPland, made up of selected “community trustees” to whom the land title was given.
Non-Maasai communities, including members of other indigenous groups, blame the Maasai for discriminating against them. One example is 54-year-old Fatuma Hitler, who claims she is discriminated against because she is a divorced Muslim Samburu; she believes this is why she wasn’t given a new house despite being a PAP. “But if I go to complain [to KenGen] I will be like a barking dog, because of this corruption.” In other words, she thinks she won’t get a hearing, and believes corruption – both within the geothermal companies and the local community – works against powerless women like her.
Eviction of the Lorropil villagers
Lorropil village, a tiny settlement commonly referred to by locals as Kambi Turkana because some of its residents were Turkana, used to lie just outside the RAPland perimeter fence on land owned by the geothermal company AGL that was excised from Kedong Ranch. After repeated threats of eviction, police swooped suddenly in the early hours of 3 November 2019, working in collusion with AGL to not only evict the villagers, but also burn the village down.
A day later, police went after the evictees and teargassed them, burning their remaining belongings. I have seen photographic evidence of all this.
Activists, lawyers and human rights defenders were alerted, and complaints made to AGL and its funders, which include the EIB. Though AGL claims it “consulted” the villagers beforehand, the villagers refute this. There was no attempt by AGL to treat them as PAPs, or to follow due process over the eviction and resettlement of squatters; several of AGL’s funders, including the EIB, have clear policies on this, which AGL did not abide by. The company accused its critics, which included me, of being “malicious liars”. It attempted to counter the allegations and buy good publicity by using local reporters to write stories favourable to AGL, which contained factual errors and painted the evictees as fraudsters and “fake squatters”. I complained to the national newspaper editors concerned about shoddy journalism; they did not respond.
The evictees (who included a number of children) ended up squatting in RAPland, where they were forced to live out in the open until a local pastor opened his church to them. Adding insult to injury, the Kenya Red Cross, alerted by villagers and their supporters, made an initial assessment a few days after the eviction, but then disappeared, failing to deliver humanitarian aid or follow up in any way. I mailed their directors, accusing them of failing to abide by the Red Cross mandate. This had an immediate effect: they swung into action. The repercussions of this eviction are ongoing; European funders of AGL are still investigating what happened.
Bankwatch report on the EIB
In a new report, “Can the EIB become the ‘EU Development Bank’? A Critical View on EIB Operations Outside Europe”, the NGOs Bankwatch and Counter Balance jointly examine EIB-funded projects in Kenya (and elsewhere) that include Olkaria IV and the Nairobi-Mombasa Road. It asks whether the EIB, which plans to “step up its development role”, is up to the task. The answer, by and large, is no. Some of the report’s key points that are relevant to this case study include:
- The EIB “ultimately exacerbates inequalities rather than alleviates them”;
- It makes “empty promises on human rights” and must introduce a “proper human rights due diligence system”;
- Human rights abuses are “largely unknown” and often addressed only after they occur;
- There is a large gap between EIB policies and implementation on the ground;
- Its existing social standards on human rights, environmental and social principles must be replaced; they fail to prevent such things as forced eviction, or protect the most vulnerable stakeholders;
- It has a long way to go on transparency, and lags behind the transparency and disclosure practices of other multilateral financial institutions.
The report calls the RAPland resettlement case a “scandal”. It supports my claim that the EIB uses incorrect criteria in its definition of indigenous peoples, and calls on the Bank to review this. Its case study on Ol Karia supports our research conclusions, and states: “The non-recognition of Maasai as indigenous peoples as well as several other breaches resulted in serious negative impacts on the resettled communities, which have not been fully addressed.”
In its response to Bankwatch, the EIB claims that the report contains inaccuracies, and that the Bank is “constantly improving and further developing its approach to essential issues such as human rights, environmental and social impacts…”.
And so it goes on…
As I finish writing this story, RAPland elders have sent more complaints to the funders that reiterate much of what they raised before. They are particularly upset about the failure to fully address the issue of livelihoods lost as a result of resettlement (which funders had pledged to do), and the dodgy RAPland land title.
The elders were responding to the World Bank’s “final” report of June 2020 on the progress of mediation. It maintains that “all the agreed livelihood activities have been completed”. It blames a “clerical error” on the fact that the title refers to the wrong piece of land; the Bank says it supports the PAPs’ request to convert it to freehold.
RAPland elders have sent more complaints to the funders that reiterate much of what they raised before. They are particularly upset about the failure to fully address the issue of livelihoods lost as a result of resettlement (which funders had pledged to do), and the dodgy RAPland land title.
It is clear from the report that the IEB, which insists that the Management Action Plan (MAP) for RAPland is “completed”, sees this as the end of its obligations to the PAPs; now it’s up to KenGen to resolve outstanding issues that are broader than the Bank’s MAP. But for the community (and the former Lorropil villagers, who have submitted a separate complaint to the EIB-CM), this isn’t over by a long way. To sum up community sentiments: “We feel that the banks value their business more than our lives and wellbeing,” said the RAPland resident and human rights activist Daniel Ntanana Ole Shaa.
Furthermore, plans are now underway for a new 140MW KenGen plant, Olkaria VI, on the site of the village of Olomayiana Kubwa, which lies near the four villages whose residents were moved to RAPland. This public-private partnership project will involve another forced resettlement. From reports received, there is no evidence that the company, funders and other groups involved are following due process, abiding by protocols and fully consulting the PAPs.
Have no lessons been learned? A distinct sense of déjà vu hangs over the steaming, stinking plants of Hell’s Gate.
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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