Pandora Papers: Leak Exposes the Hidden Fortunes of World Leaders and Criminals10 min read.
As revelations of offshore abuses by elites continue to pour out, there is a growing realization around the world that there is “one set of rules for them, and another set of rules for everybody else”.
On April 29, 2009, the tenants of a strip of shops and offices on Maddox Street in London’s exclusive Mayfair neighborhood woke up with a new landlord: an 11-year-old boy.
This news should have been surprising. Not only was Heydar Aliyev not yet in his teens, but he also happened to be the son of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev. And yet, he had managed to become the owner of 33.5 million pounds (US$ 48.9 million) of prime commercial real estate in the heart of London.
But the tenants on Maddox Street had no chance to be surprised — because they had no way of knowing who really bought their building. And, until today, neither did the rest of the world.
On paper, the owner of the property was a company, Mallnick Holdings S.A., set up in the British Virgin Islands. The fact that it had been acquired by an associate of President Aliyev and then handed over to his young son was hidden, thanks to the Caribbean territory’s strict corporate secrecy.
The deal is just one example of the miraculous secrecy enabled by offshore finance: a thriving, global industry of formation agents, bankers, lawyers, and accountants that helps hundreds of billions of dollars worth of the proceeds of corruption, crime, tax avoidance and shady deals move undetected around the world every year.
Now, a massive leak of data pulls back the veil of secrecy on the offshore finance industry like never before. Known as the Pandora Papers, it is the broadest-yet leak of confidential financial documents, comprising nearly 12 million files from 14 companies that provide offshore services.
Coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), over 600 journalists from around the world, including more than 75 from OCCRP’s network, spent two years sifting through nearly three terabytes of documents.
The result is an unprecedented look inside the world’s shadow economy. Coming more than five years after the Panama Papers, which exposed law firm Mossack Fonseca, the latest leak ends forever the idea that abuses of the offshore system are the work of a few bad apples. Instead, the files expose a vast and often interconnected system that is feeding crises and discontent across the world.
It’s “the dark side of globalization,” Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland: Why Thieves And Crooks Now Rule The World And How To Take It Back, told OCCRP.
For decades, major banks, law firms and accountants have worked hand in hand with the world’s biggest corporations to build a system that allows for seamless global commerce and the minimization of tax, Bullough said. As time has gone by, kleptocrats and criminals have increasingly used this system for their own ends.
“It just so happens that the same things that big corporations want — minimal scrutiny, minimal taxes, best protection for contracts and so on — are also the same things the kleptocrats want,” he said.
But while corporate tax minimization might hurt the budgets of developed countries, the worst damage is in the Global South. For a fee, offshore providers are able to create sophisticated global structures that can be used by politicians, officials and businessmen in some of the world’s poorest countries to siphon staggering amounts of money abroad. As the Pandora Papers show, service providers often prove all too willing to take on such clients.
“It’s like unleashing a tiger on an island full of flightless birds,” Bullough said. “It’s obviously going to be a disaster.”
The files illustrate the truly global nature of the offshore business. It’s a hidden world in which a reported secret mistress of Russian President Vladimir Putin can get a luxury apartment in Monaco via an offshore shell company, and where the King of Jordan is able to secretly snap up real estate in London and Malibu. Again and again, the files show the ease with which money can be quietly moved around the world — including by politicians and others in positions of public trust.
From missing taxes to stolen artworks and smuggled antiquities, the Pandora Papers lays bare exactly how the offshore industry hides the fortunes of the world’s rich and infamous alike. In many cases, it has also facilitated the transfer of vast wealth from poor and developing countries to tax havens and wealthy enclaves in cities like London, where fashionable central areas have been gobbled up by politicians, officials, and their relatives. Trillions of dollars, mostly from the earnings of large corporations are believed to be stashed in offshore tax havens. Each year, tax avoidance alone is estimated to cost the world’s poorest countries $200 billion a year — far in excess of what they receive in development assistance.
The entire system is so hard to unpack in part because jurisdictions that offer corporate secrecy, such as the United Arab Emirates, are able to attract so much money, said Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director at Global Financial Integrity, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit.
“These offshore jurisdictions act as financial centres for their region, businesses migrate there. The UAE allows for commercial disputes to be settled through English common law, they provide anonymous companies, protections for businesses,” Kumar said.
“It’s safe and convenient for business. But that is also safe and convenient for criminal actors.”
“Bringing Mischief to Mortals Silently”
The service providers whose data make up the leak are spread across the world and have decades of experience discreetly servicing high profile clients.
The largest tranche of files, just over 3.75 million in total, comes from Trident Trust Group, a firm that has operated since the late 1970s in offshore havens including the British Virgin Islands, the Seychelles, and Panama, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Pandora Papers shows Trident’s customers have included powerful people such as Bahrain’s former prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, as well as Khadem al-Qubaisi, a former aide to Abu Dhabi’s royal family. Prominent businessmen, such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma, have also been clients.
The family and business associates of Azerbaijan’s leader Aliyev used Trident’s services to build an offshore-controlled empire in the United Kingdom worth over half a billion dollars in unexplained wealth. Documents show that Trident set up 84 companies in the British Virgin Islands for Aliyev’s circle — including some that received money from the Russian and Troika Laundromats, two multi-billion-dollar money laundering schemes first revealed by OCCRP. The companies were also used to secretly invest in businesses back home in Azerbaijan.
In some cases, the documents show Trident maintained relationships with clients in spite of accusations of wrongdoing. Abu Dhabi adviser al-Qubaisi remained a client of Trident years after he was accused by the U.S. Justice Department of playing a role in a multi-billion dollar fraud involving funds from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB. Trident also continued to work with the family trust of Dan Gertler, an Israeli mining billionaire, years after he was accused by a U.N. expert panel of exchanging “conflict diamonds” from Africa for cash and weapons. Gertler has since been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
In a response to reporters, Trident refused to answer questions on specific cases. Instead, it said the company “is regulated in the jurisdiction in which it operates and is fully committed to compliance with all applicable regulations. Trident routinely cooperates with any competent authority which requests information.”
Other providers in the data include law firms, such as Panama’s Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee, known as Alcogal, and Cyprus’ Demetrios A. Demetriades, known as Dadlaw. They also include a wide geographic spread, from Asiaciti Trust, a service provider that focuses mainly on the Asia-Pacific region, to Alpha Consulting, a firm based in the Indian Ocean nation of the Seychelles.
The latest revelations show that offshore providers make up a truly global and interdependent industry, said Rachel Etter-Phoya, a senior researcher at the Tax Justice Network.
“The celebrities, the political families are all involved. They’re all using the same service providers,” Etter-Phoya said. “The service providers work together and go after similar clients [and] the clients recommended them to each other.”
The data also contains fascinating details on another trend: the growing role of the United States as an offshore haven. Due to the central role the U.S. plays in the global banking system, the country is in a uniquely powerful position to bring secretive offshore finance to heel. But while the federal government has made recent efforts to rein in the industry abroad, many states — such as Delaware, Alaska and Nevada — have held out or are moving in the opposite direction. In recent years, lawmakers in over a dozen U.S. states have voted to expand their financial secrecy industries.
The Pandora Papers contains details on over 200 trusts set up in the U.S. in recent years. In dozens of cases, clients have abandoned more traditional havens, such as the British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, in favor of the U.S.
The most popular destination has been South Dakota, where the past decade has seen the value of assets held in trusts reach more than $360 billion. State laws in South Dakota allow for the establishment of secret trusts which don’t have to pay a cent of tax to the state for any earnings. Unlike most states, which restrict the life of trusts to a century or less, South Dakota trusts are also “perpetual,” meaning they have no end date. This means they can continue making tax free gains and passing them on to future generations — theoretically forever.
“As a citizen, I’m so sad that my state was the state that opened Pandora’s box,” Susan Wismer, a former South Dakota lawmaker, told ICIJ.
“You Know Who”
In the coming days, OCCRP will publish a broad range of stories based on the Pandora Papers. Frequently, the documents show that the biggest beneficiaries of the offshore systems are people in power, as well as their friends and family.
Known in the industry as “politically exposed persons,” or PEPs, such people are supposed to be subject to increased scrutiny to make sure their money hasn’t come from questionable deals or outright corruption. Offshore service providers routinely say they subject such people to enhanced “know your customer” checks.
In total, 35 current and former national leaders appear in the leak, alongside 400 officials from nearly 100 countries. Among those names are former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović, and Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba.
Among the revelations are details of how Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who was elected on an anti-corruption platform, used offshore companies to disguise an investment of 15 million euros in luxury property in the south of France, including a chateau. The files also show how another European leader elected on an anti-graft platform, Volodymyr Zelensky, appears to have used complex offshore arrangements to allow his family to continue benefiting from overseas business without declaring it.
The leaked files show that offshore firms sometimes appear to have taken a lenient approach to their due diligence on politically sensitive clients.
Nikola Petrović was one such customer. The Serbian citizen was the head of the country’s state-owned electricity transmission company. He was also the kum — roughly equivalent to a best man or blood brother — of the country’s autocratic president, Aleksandar Vučić. He became an owner of a British Virgin Islands company, set up in 2016, via Swiss consulting firm Fidinam and Alcogal, the Panamanian law firm.
But when setting up the company, Petrović never informed Alcogal that he might be considered a politically exposed person despite being so close to the president. Furthermore, his Swiss lawyer specifically told Alcogal that Petrović was not a PEP. However, Alcogal’s due diligence after the formation of the company uncovered his political position and asked for a bank reference letter. Documents show that the Swiss law firm pushed back on requests by Alcogal, offering instead to write the reference letter themselves. Alcogal accepted the offer. Petrović kept the company secret from Serbian officials, never declaring it as required by law with the anti-corruption agency.
Petrović did not respond to questions.
The documents show the lengths providers take to preserve their clients’ anonymity. The leak shows how Panamanian firm Alcogal and a Swiss adviser for Jordan’s King Abdullah II worked to conceal the monarch’s identity from the public. Even in emails between themselves, they referred to Abdullah using pseudonyms: the “final beneficiary” living in Jordan, or “you know who.” After the British Virgin Islands passed a 2017 law requiring companies to confidentially disclose their real owners, correspondence showed that Alcogal and the advisers discussed using a workaround in which they would have disclosed a holding company, rather than the king, as true owner to local authorities. It is unclear what they ultimately decided to do.
The king’s attorneys told ICIJ that professionals manage the king’s companies to ensure compliance with relevant legal and financial obligations. In a response to ICIJ, Alcogal said that the law does not require it to report politically-exposed people, known as PEPs, on the basis of their political ties alone. The firm said that it conducts enhanced background checks on all politically-connected individuals.
“One Set of Rules for Them”
The vast, secret flow of offshore cash isn’t just hurting the budget bottom line. Across the world, it’s also feeding discontent and undermining governments’ legitimacy.
In Lebanon, a severe banking crisis and a series of financial scandals involving the country’s business and political elite has led to sometimes violent protests. Amid electricity cuts, fuel lines, and shortages of currency, Lebanese are fleeing the country in droves.
One of the banks that has been the focus of public anger is Al Mawarid Bank, which responded to the crisis by preventing clients from withdrawing their U.S. dollar savings. When news emerged in 2020 that bank chairman Marwan Kheireddine, bought a Manhattan apartment from the Hollywood star Jennifer Lawrence, angry crowds burned a building in Beirut they believed belonged to him.
But thanks to the secrecy enabled by offshores, wealthy individuals like Kheireddine are able to hide much more.
For example, the Pandora Papers show that in 2019 amid warnings by economists of the impending crisis, Kheireddine became the owner of a British Virgin Islands company that owned a $2 million yacht. The previous owner of the yacht, Yahya Mawloud, told reporters that the vessel had been given to Kheireddine as collateral for a loan.
Kheireddine did not respond to a request for comment from ICIJ.
Lebanese remain furious with their country’s elites, who they blame for the economic chaos. Wafaa Abou Hamdan, a 57-year-old widow, told OCCRP partner Daraj that inflation had caused her life savings to fall from the equivalent of $60,000 to just $5,000. “All my life’s efforts went in vain, I have been working continuously for the past three decades,” she said. “We are still struggling on a daily basis to maintain our living” while “the politicians and the bankers . . . who seized our savings have all transferred and invested their money abroad.
Even countries that appear to have benefited from the inflow of illicit cash, like the United Kingdom, are seeing increases in inequality and local corruption as a result, said Nicholas Shaxson, the author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World.
As revelations of offshore abuses by elites continue to pour out, there is a growing realization around the world that there is “one set of rules for them, and another set of rules for everybody else,” Shaxson said. “I think a lot of people grasp that viscerally.”
The good news is that greater awareness is leading more people to embrace concerted, cooperative action to work globally to reduce secrecy and close loopholes, he said.
“I’m quite optimistic for the long term. But you know, under no illusions that it’s going to be easy. Or, you know, even going to be successful.”
This story was first published by our partner OCCRP. It includes contributions from ICIJ, KRIK, Daraj, and other Pandora Papers partners.
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‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened
With the launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change, Zimbabwe’s political landscape has undergone a significant shift, with a younger activist generation increasingly impatient with the unfulfilled promises of liberation.
On the 26th of February 2022, Zimbabwe’s Vice President delivered a chilling threat to the opposition. In a speech the “retired” army general Constantino Chiwenga, the chief architect of the November of 2017 putsch that removed Robert Mugabe, threatened that the opposition will be “crushed and ground on a rock like lice”. The General claimed that the ruling party was a “Goliath”; the Biblical imagery of the diminutive David “slaying” the giant Goliath was entirely lost on the Vice President. Here are his words:
“Down with CCC. You see when you crush lice with a rock, you put it on a flat stone and then you grind it to the extent that even flies will not eat it… But we are as big as Goliath we will see it [the opposition] when the time comes”.
The following day violent mayhem broke out in Kwekwe, the very town where the fiery speech was made. By the time the chaos ended, the opposition reported that 16 of their supporters had been hospitalised and it was recorded that a young man was sadistically speared to death. The supporters of the ruling party had taken the threat to “crush” and “grind” the opposition seriously. Details emerged—from the police—that the suspects were from the ruling party and had tried to hide in a property owned by a former minister of intelligence.
The launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has galvanised the opposition. Going by the youthful excitement at the rallies, the violence flaring against its supporters, and the way the police has been clamping down on CCC rallies, the ruling elites have realised they face a serious political threat from what has been called the “yellow” movement.
Exit Mugabe and Tsvangirai: Shifts in opposition and ruling class politics
The death of opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018 came in the wake of the November 2017 coup and other significant political events that followed. The death was a big blow to the opposition; there had been no succession planning, which was rendered more complex by the existence of three vice presidents deputising Tsvangirai. The MDC Alliance succession debacle set in motion a tumultuous contest that splintered the opposition. Court applications followed, and the ruling elites took an active interest. When the court battles ended, the judiciary ensured a “win” for the faction favoured by the ruling class. That faction was formally recognised in parliament, given party assets and provided with financial resources by the Treasury that were meant for the opposition.
As for the ruling party, there has been a shift in the political contests along factional lines, accentuated following the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe in September of 2019. There is high suspicion that the 2017 coup plotters (generals and commanders) now want their proverbial “pound of flesh”—the presidency. With the presidency as the bull fighter’s prize, the factions are now lining up either behind the president or the behind generals and this is cascading through the ruling party structures. The historical faction known as G40 (Generation 40) that hovered around the then first lady has been practically shut out of political power, with its anchors remaining holed up outside the country. Remnants of the G40 faction in Zimbabwe have been side-lined, with some of them subjected to the endless grind of court processes to ensure they keep their heads down.
Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block, bringing into the matrix a potent powder keg waiting to explode in the future.
The ruling party has gone further to entice Morgan Tsvangirai’s political orphans in order to decimate the leadership ranks of the opposition. Patronage is generously dished out: an ambassadorial appointment here, a gender commissioner position there, a seat on the board of a state parastatal…, and so on. These appointments come with extreme state largesse—cars, drivers, state security, free fuel, housing, pensions and the list goes on. The patronage also includes lucrative gold mining claims and farms running into hundreds of acres that come with free agricultural inputs. The former opposition stalwarts must be “re-habilitated” by being taught “patriotism” at a Bolshevik-like ideological school and then paraded at rallies as defectors to ZANU-PF.
Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block.
As these political shifts take place and the opposition divorces itself from the succession mess, there are also changes in Zimbabwe’s economy and this has a direct impact on the trajectory of politics in the country.
Transformed political economy: Informality, diaspora and agrarian change
From about the end of the 1990s and stretching into the subsequent two decades up to 2022, Zimbabwe’s political economy has shifted significantly. Firstly, the fast-track land reform of the early 2000s altered land ownership from white settler “commercial” farmers to include more black people. The white-settler class power was removed as a factor in politics and in its place is a very unstable system of tenure for thousands of black farmers that have been married to the state for tenure security and stability.
Secondly, the follow-on effect of the land reform meant that Zimbabwe’s industrial base was altered, and this has resulted in a highly informalized economy or what others have called the “rubble”. An informal economy is now the new normal across the board for ordinary citizens and this has weakened organized labour as a voice in political contests. In 2020, the World Bank estimated extreme poverty at 49 per cent; this is infusing a sense of urgency for political change and is putting pressure on the political elites in Harare.
Thirdly, the exodus of Zimbabwe’s younger population into the diaspora has introduced another factor into the political matrix. According to official figures, the diaspora transferred about US$1.4 billion in 2021 alone, but this figure doesn’t capture remittances that are moved into Zimbabwe informally; the figure is much higher. The diaspora has actually used its cash to have a political voice, often via the opposition or independent “citizen initiatives”. It is proving to be a significant player in the political matrix to the extent that Nelson Chamisa has appointed a Secretary for Diaspora Affairs. For its part, the ruling party has blocked the diaspora vote.
Fourth, the national political economy has been “captured” by an unproductive crony class to the extent that researchers have estimated that as much as half of Zimbabwe’s GDP is being pilfered:
“It is estimated that Zimbabwe may lose up to half the value of its annual GDP of $21.4bn due to corrupt economic activity that, even if not directly the work of the cartels featured in the report, is the result of their suffocation of honest economic activity through collusion, price fixing and monopolies. Ironically, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been a public critic of illicit financial transfers, is identified by the report as one of the cartel bosses whose patronage and protection keeps cartels operating.”
Fifthly, and often under-researched, is the substantial role of China across Zimbabwe’s political economy as Harare’s political elites have shifted to Beijing for a closer alliance. This has paid handsomely for China which has almost unrestrained access to Zimbabwe’s natural resources, and the political elites are “comrades in business” with—mostly—Chinese state corporations; China’s influence is pervasive and evident across the country. Put together, the factors above mean that the political economy structure has changed significantly and it is within this landscape that the Citizens Coalition for Change—dubbed the “yellow movement” — that has been launched by the opposition will have to operate and organise.
‘Yellow Movement’: Re-articulating the future beyond the ‘Harare Bubble’?
Since its launch, the opposition movement has swept into the CCC’s ranks the younger demographic of activists together with some solid veterans who survived the brutal years of Robert Mugabe’s terror. Zimbabwe’s median age is reported to be about 18 years of age; if these young people can register, turn out to vote and defend their vote, there is a whirlwind coming for the old nationalists in Harare.
Some within the ruling party have noticed this reality, with a former minister and ruling party member stating that “Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”. This admission is consistent with the words of Temba Mliswa, another “independent” member of parliament and a former leading activist in the ruling party, who stated that:
“The generational approach is like you trying to stop a wave of water with your open hands. You cannot ignore it. It’s a generational issue. You cannot ignore it. You need to look at it. You need to study it… There is no young person in ZANU PF who is as vibrant as Chamisa, who is as charismatic as Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa is going to go straight for ED (President Emmerson Mnangagwa)… There is no gate preventing this.’
These admissions are an indication that the CCC movement poses a serious threat to the ruling party. But beyond the contest of politics, of ideas, of policy platforms, the “yellow movement” will have to divorce itself from the “Harare Bubble”. The ruling nationalists polished a rigid centralised political system inherited from settler-colonialism, and have used this to build a crony network of robbery based in the capital city while impoverishing other regions. But they are not alone in this; even the opposition has often overlooked the fact that “all politics is local” and it has also created a “Harare Bubble” of yesterday’s heroes and gatekeepers who, armed with undynamic analyses, continue to cast their shadows into the arena long after their expiry date.
“Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”.
The yellow movement will have to go local and divorce itself from the parochial legacy of previously progressive platforms that have now been cornered by an elite who have become careerist, corrupt, inward-looking and, like civil warlords, only loyal to imported 10-year-old whisky bottles and their kitambis—their visibly ballooning stomachs.
Yet there is no ignoring it; Zimbabwe’s youth have been emboldened by political change in Zambia and Malawi, and by the rise of younger leaders in South Africa. The winds are blowing heavily against the status quo. In the 2023 general election, the ruling nationalists will face a more tactful, daring and politically solid Nelson Chamisa who has strategically pushed back against “elite pacts”. Added to his eloquence, his speeches are getting more structured, substantially more polished, and he is projecting the CCC movement as a capable alternative government. With the indelible footprints of Morgan Tsvangirai in the background, the next general election, in 2023, will be an existential contest for Harare’s old nationalists—they are facing their Waterloo.
The Dictatorship of the Church
From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.
In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.
Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.
Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.
Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.
The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.
Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Critics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”
Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.
A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.
Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.
In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique
Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.
Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.
The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.
A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.
More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.
In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
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