Smartmatic: The Election Company and their Role in the Upcoming Elections12 min read.
As Kenyans vote they deserve full adherence to the Constitution by the IEBC. A clear picture from the IEBC and Smartmatic on the ownership, corporate structure, funding, and governance structure of Smartmatic were necessary for these constitutional thresholds to be met.
So far in this series we have commented on several aspects of the upcoming general elections in Kenya. One of our articles, which was published on 8 July, focused on the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) election preparedness. In it, we discussed the IEBC’s supplier of the Kenya Integrated Elections Management System (KIEMS) kits, Smartmatic International Holding B.V (Smartmatic). For the reader’s benefit, KIEMS refers to the integrated elections management system which the IEBC is required by law to deploy in all elections. It comprises biometric voter registration, electronic voter identification and results transmission – a combination of both hardware and software. Following our article, Samira Saba, Smartmatic’s Director of Communications, reached out to us seeking to set the record straight in relation to claims around the credibility of Smartmatic’s systems. In our article, we cited the Philippine Cybercrime Investigation and Coordination Centre’s conclusion that Smartmatic’s system was ‘compromised’. Smartmatic elaborated on this claim, stating that the finding by the Philippine authority related to a now former Smartmatic employee sharing non-sensitive day-to-day operational material with individuals outside the company who then proceeded to unsuccessfully try and extort Smartmatic. In addition to offering this explanation, Samira informed us that with election day approaching, the likelihood of misinformation is only likely to increase and as such, she was ‘at [our] disposal to clarify any doubts [we] may have about’ Smartmatic.
In the interest of transparency and considering recent news reports around Smartmatic, we took up Smartmatic’s invitation to clarify their role in Kenya’s elections. In this article, we interrupt our regular Road to 9/8 series to set out and analyse Smartmatic’s responses.
But let us first set the constitutional context. Article 81 of our Constitution requires our elections to be “transparent” and “administered in an impartial, neutral, efficient, accurate and accountable manner”. Article 86 of the Constitution requires the IEBC to ensure that “whatever voting method is used, the system is simple, accurate, verifiable, secure, accountable and transparent”.
Has the IEBC and its relationship with Smartmatic met these constitutional tests?
Scope of inquiry
Our queries to Smartmatic focused on the following areas. First, we asked Smartmatic to shed some light around its ownership structure and its contract with the IEBC. Second, we inquired about Smartmatic’s proposed activities in the elections, specifically focusing on whether they would be handling any voter data, the reliability of the results transmission module of the KIEMS kits, their system’s critical dependencies and fallbacks, and whether they had confirmed the condition of any legacy KIEMS kits from 2017 which the IEBC intends to reuse. This is particularly relevant as, according to the publicly available tender document, the scope of Smartmatic’s mandate extends to providing the software which will run on all the KIEMS kits in the IEBC’s possession, not just those Smartmatic supplies. Finally, we asked Smartmatic about the recent arrest of Venezuelan nationals affiliated with them, and their relationship with an entity mentioned in a press release by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), Seamless Limited. You can find here the specific questions we posed to Smartmatic and their responses.
Who is Smartmatic?
In May 2021, the IEBC published an international tender seeking a service provider to supply, deliver, install, test, commission, support and maintain KIEMS kits for the 2022 elections. Following the tendering process where five entities put in their bids, the IEBC awarded Smartmatic the contract. This decision was challenged at the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board by an interested tenderer, Risk Africa Innovatis, which alleged that the tender documents did not specify preference margins for local suppliers as required in public procurement law and also did not require international tenderers to acquire at least 40% of their supplies from local suppliers as required in the Public Procurement and Disposal Act. While the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board nullified the award and directed the IEBC to tender afresh, this was subsequently overturned by the High Court and Court of Appeal on the basis that Risk Africa Innovatis technically did not have standing as it did not put in a bid. With the legal challenge out of the way, the IEBC proceeded to sign a contract with Smartmatic. We understand from the IEBC, that the value of this contract is approximately KES 3.2 billion. For comparative purposes, the IEBC’s contract with Safran Identity and Security SAS (now IDEMIA) in 2017, costed USD 39.9 million (KES 4.3 billion at the exchange rate prevalent in 2017) and entailed the supply of 45,000 KIEMS kits. While the IEBC may seem to have cut costs, it is worth highlighting that it is only acquiring 14,100 KIEMS kits from Smartmatic, less than a third of the amount it acquired in 2017. We understand from the IEBC that 41,000 kits which it acquired in 2017 are still functional. Whilst such contracts may differentiate between the price of hardware, software and support and maintenance, a back of the envelope approach to pricing based on the number of KIEMS kits supplied would suggest that Smartmatic is materially more expensive than IDEMIA.
When Smartmatic approached us, they introduced themselves as the ‘undisputed leader in the elections industry’, having ‘deployed election technologies in 31 countries.’ Founded in Florida in 2000, Smartmatic has gone on to notably provide technology for elections in Belgium and Norway, among other countries. They further cited accolades such as recognitions by the United Nations, European Union, and the Carter Centre. However, with the existence of news reports relating to Smartmatic’s ownership structure and bearing in mind the consequential role they are playing in Kenya’s democracy, we asked Smartmatic to provide us a with further detail on its organisational structure and ultimate beneficial ownership. We also asked if they would be willing to share its contract with the IEBC in the public interest.
We understand from the IEBC that 41,000 kits which it acquired in 2017 are still functional.
In response, Smartmatic did not provide us with its ownership structure, only stating that Smartmatic Corporation is currently incorporated in Delaware, USA. Two of its founders, Antonio Mugica and Roger Piñate run the company. By its own account, 83% of the shares in Smartmatic Corporation (which is the entity incorporated in the USA) are owned by SGO Corporation Limited, a holding company incorporated in the United Kingdom. SGO in turn is owned by the Mugica and Piñate families. The remaining shares in Smartmatic Corporation are held by employees and angel investors. According to the response we received, Smartmatic International Holding B.V.—the company which received the tender from the IEBC— ‘is part of this structure’. Smartmatic also declined to share its contract with the IEBC on the basis that confidentiality requirements prevented them from doing so.
A publicly available search on SGO Corporation reveals that it had, as directors, Lord Malloch Brown, but he resigned on 4th December, 2020, Sir Nigel Knowles but he resigned on 18th May, 2021 and David Giampaolo but he resigned on 9th August, 2017. As far as we can tell SGO Corporation Limited only has two directors, Antonio Mugica and Roger Piñate. From what we can tell, when Sir Nigel Knowles, Lord Malloch Brown and David Giampolo resigned, they were not replaced by other independent directors.
Elections are credible when the processes around them are transparent and capable of easy diligence. The KIEMS kits and the software relating to them are at the very heart of the election process. So Smartmatic are central to our elections. Being absolutely clear as to who Smartmatic is, what their corporate and governance structure is, their precise shareholding and their funding structure should be a matter of public record. The IEBC should have required this and should have shared this information with the public. We consider that even if the IEBC did not, Smartmatic should have volunteered this information in response to our request. Again, through this article, we request them to do so. We consider that it does not behove Smartmatic, whose business model is designed to be at the nerve centre of democratic transitions, to be less than fully transparent about such matters. Being less than fully transparent creates a cloud of mistrust and uncertainty especially when one considers the history of Kenya’s elections particularly since 2002 and the palpable tensions that surround elections. This is all the more the case because Smartmatic, on their website, proclaim that “transparency is at the core of what we do”. Yet the company that ultimately owns Smartmatic only has the founders as directors and does not have any independent directors. One can expect robust corporate governance when independent directors are present and the likelihood of less robust corporate governance when they are absent.
What is Smartmatic’s role in the 2022 Kenyan elections?
In the run up to the forthcoming elections, there have been numerous news reports around the procurement of KIEMS kits and their reliability. For example, it was reported that once Smartmatic was awarded the contract by the IEBC, they had a challenge kicking off as the IEBC’s previous service provider, IDEMIA, allegedly held on to voter data due to a pending KES 800 million payment from the IEBC. A few months after, once the voter register was updated, the IEBC allegedly reported a failure rate of nearly 60% during a dry run of the results transmission system. Bearing the recent developments in mind and considering the importance of these kits, we sought to have Smartmatic clarify whether they would be handling voter data in accordance with the Data Protection Act, 2019 (DPA); whether, in addition to supplying new KIEMS kits, they had confirmed the condition of the remaining 41,000 KIEMS kits which the IEBC had procured in 2017; whether they would be willing to comment on the failure rate recorded during the dry run of the results transmission system; what critical dependencies their systems rely on; and what fallbacks they have in place.
Smartmatic, in a broad response to our queries, directed us to a press statement issued by the IEBC on 26 July, stating that the IEBC is the only entity at liberty to speak authoritatively about the election process. We are unclear as to why Smartmatic believe they are not at liberty to speak about matters in the public domain. They also refrained from commenting on the technical points regarding the reliability of the KIEMS kits, the failure rate, and their use of fallbacks. We consider that this is another missed opportunity by Smartmatic. In relation to their handling of voter data, Smartmatic stated that it ‘does not own or copy any personal data about voters in Kenya.’ They further went ahead to indicate that they are not in charge of processing results as the results are manually counted in each polling centre and tally reports are physically transported to tallying centres. By its account, Smartmatic does not play a role in any of these functions. Their KIEMS kits will only be used to transmit statutory tallying forms that are manually completed by the IEBC’s officers, not to tally any results. These tallying forms will be published by the IEBC on a public site and an official tally will be done manually in the tally centres.
It was reported that once Smartmatic was awarded the contract by the IEBC, they had a challenge kicking off as the IEBC’s previous service provider, IDEMIA, allegedly held on to voter data due to a pending KES 800 million payment from the IEBC.
Smartmatic’s account of the election process is broadly accurate, but major questions remain unanswered. In accordance with the Elections Act and its subsidiary legislation, the voting process begins when a voter is biometrically registered through a KIEMS kit prior to the elections. On election day, a voter is identified using the KIEMS kit’s electronic voter identification system. After being identified, they vote and are marked, through the KIEMS kit, as having voted. Tallying commences immediately voting ends and the presiding officer is required to complete the statutory Form 34A with the final result of the vote. While the tallying process is entirely manual, the eventual tally must be keyed into the KIEMS kit’s results transmission system and a scan or photo of the Form 34A uploaded. The same process is replicated cumulatively at the constituency and national levels with the Forms 34B and 34C respectively. All ballot papers and physical copies of the forms are delivered to the national tallying centre for verification before a declaration is made.
While Smartmatic’s claim that it neither owns nor copies any voter data may be technically accurate, it does not substantively respond to our query relating to compliance with the Data Protection Act, 2019. In the tender for the supply of KIEMS kits, the IEBC specified that the successful bidder would be required to undertake voter data migration from the previous system to the new one. Further, KIEMS contains three modules: biometric voter registration, electronic voter identification and results transmission. Two of these modules directly involve the handling of voter data such as national identification numbers. Based on our understanding of the tender, the supplier of KIEMS kits is also required to provide the software which the kits will operate on and on election day, is also required to provide technical support in relation to both hardware and software. With this in mind, it seems unavoidable that Smartmatic will handle voter data. Its compliance with the DPA therefore remains an open question. In fact, the impasse with IDEMIA over voter data seems to confirm it. We must then think about its compliance with the obligation to register with the Data Commissioner, the provisions on cross border transfers of personal data, and, where it temporarily stores data, the requirement to maintain a server or a copy in Kenya. We point out that the IEBC has also contracted other service providers for among other things, maintenance services for its data centre, the supply, delivery and installation of network monitoring tools, the supply of the KIEMS network, and the supply of security information and event management, so Smartmatic is not solely responsible for the data life cycle.
On the reliability of the results transmission system, Smartmatic also did not respond. In the tender calling for bids for the supply of KIEMS kits, the IEBC specified that the successful entity (now Smartmatic) would be required to provide software support for all KIEMS kits, and as established, the KIEMS includes a results transmission module. Smartmatic did not respond to our request for comment on the failure rate recorded during the IEBC’s dry run. Further, they also did not confirm whether they verified the condition of the legacy systems owned by the IEBC. This leaves a host of open questions: since we presume the Smartmatic’s software will run on both the KIEMS kits they have supplied to the IEBC and on the legacy systems, how do we allocate responsibility for their proper functioning as between Smartmatic and the IEBC? How will we know whether the failure of an KIEMS kit to operate is attributable to IEBC or Smartmatic or whether the kit that failed was supplied by Smartmatic or was a legacy unit? Is Smartmatic’s limited responses consistent with their public proclamation that “transparency is at the core of what we do”.
Who are they working with?
In late July, three Venezuelan nationals entering Kenya were arrested while in possession of election materials. The DCI confirmed the arrest of Joel Gustavo Rodriguez, Carmago Castellanos Jose Gregorio and Salvador Javier Suarez. According to the DCI, the trio attempted to enter Kenya while in possession of stickers used to label election elections equipment. It was apparently not immediately clear to the authorities that these individuals were employees of Smartmatic or agents of the IEBC. In the DCI’s press release, it was alleged that the individuals came to Kenya at the invitation of Abdullahi Abdi Mohamed, an individual associated with Seamless Limited. Little is known about Abdullahi Abdi Mohamed and his LinkedIn profile has been deleted. The IEBC responded to these events by issuing a press release confirming that the individuals were employees of Smartmatic and that the materials in their possession were non-strategic in nature. The IEBC went further to indicate that Smartmatic had a local partner in Kenya as required by the tender but did not specify who the partner was. We asked Smartmatic to confirm whether the three individuals were their employees. We also asked them to confirm whether they had procured the services of Seamless Limited, and if so, to shed some light on Seamless Limited’s specific role in the elections and its capacity to carry out this role.
Smartmatic confirmed that all three Venezuelan nationals were employees of Smartmatic, employed through one of its subsidiaries in Panama. All three have permanently resided in Panama for approximately 10 years and have worked on elections in several countries. In relation to the stickers in their possession, Smartmatic informed us that they were merely logistical in nature and not electoral material. They further indicated that the stickers ‘were printed according to the guidelines in the gazette notice published on July 1, 2022’ by the IEBC. Regarding its affiliation with Seamless Limited, Smartmatic declined to comment on the basis of having signed a non-disclosure agreement. Their exact quote was “As per NDA signed, we don’t comment on partners.”
The response provided by Smartmatic in relation to the stickers, while technically accurate, raises many questions. For one, it is not clear why Smartmatic’s employees were carrying the stickers in their personal luggage. Further, it is also not clear on what basis Smartmatic was printing and supplying the IEBC with such stickers, yet it was not within the scope of the tender for the supply of KIEMS kits, and the IEBC is required to tender offers from the public for all supplies. For illustrative purposes, the IEBC has tendered for the supply of non-strategic election materials such as reflective jackets. The gazette notice which Smartmatic referenced only contains the official list of polling stations. It does not contain any guidelines for Smartmatic to adhere to.
In relation to Seamless Limited, the tender published by the IEBC required Smartmatic to provide proof of technical support staff with a local registered office in Kenya. In a press statement, the IEBC indicated that Smartmatic complied with this requirement and procured a local partner in Kenya. The IEBC did not name the local partner. News reporting alludes to this local partner being Seamless Limited. However, Smartmatic declined to confirm or deny this. We reached out to Seamless Limited for comment but are yet to receive a response as at the date of this publication. As far as we can tell, its website is generic in nature and does not refer to its role in the elections. The phone number quoted does not connect. Its offices are based, it appears, in a co-working space.
Again, both the IEBC and Smartmatic are failing to be as transparent as we consider they should be in the context of a democratic election process. We do not consider that relying on a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is a good ground for refusing to even confirm the identity of the local partner that Smartmatic has chosen to work with, more so considering that Seamless did not consider itself bound by this NDA and confirmed its relationship with Smartmatic in a statement to the press. Smartmatic could have chosen to simply deny any connection with the entity known as Seamless Limited. They have not done so. So, we have no option but to assume that Seamless Limited is Smartmatic’s local partner, especially since news reports suggest that Abdullahi Mohamed has confirmed the existence of a relationship between Seamless Limited and Smartmatic. If so, then who is Seamless? What qualifies them to also be at the heart of our democratic process? What is their precise role in the forthcoming elections? How do we hold them accountable for this role? We have no answers to any of these questions.
As Kenyans vote they deserve full adherence to the Constitution by the IEBC. A clear picture from the IEBC and Smartmatic on the ownership, corporate structure, funding, and governance structure of Smartmatic were necessary for these constitutional thresholds to be met. It should have been easy and simple to do. It has not been done. The role of Seamless Limited remains more than opaque, with Smartmatic referring to an NDA and the IEBC referring to a local partner but not naming that local partner. Kenyans can draw their own conclusions about this obfuscation. IEBC and Smartmatic should both be able to confirm who the “local partner” is and what their precise role is. Many questions, not too many answers and only days to the election. It all seems so sadly familiar.
This article was published in collaboration with Africa Uncensored.
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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.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
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.
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