Anatomy of a Multi-Million Dollar Colonial Carbon Project in Kenya13 min read.
The Northern Kenya Grasslands Carbon Project (NKCP) attempts to achieve a number of firsts but fails dismally in almost all of them, if the exposition by Survival International is anything to go by.
The legality, credibility and worth of a multi-million-dollar carbon trade project that forces pastoralists in Kenya to abandon age-old cultural practices, has been put to question in an assessment report that depicts it as conceptually misguided, abusive, potentially dangerous, lacking in genuine consent from the owners of the land and doomed to fail.
Based in northern Kenya, the project was however ok’d by international assessors and big-buck companies that have already bought the credits. The organization behind the project has been earning millions despite the fact that it does not own the land and has been unable to prove whether, or how, the project stores carbon in the soil. Nevertheless, this has not stopped the organization from touting it as one of the largest carbon removal projects on earth.
Painstakingly, and as if wielding the metaphorical fine-toothed comb and literary scalpel, Survival International has dissected the project in ways that expose its fundamental flaws, conceptual weaknesses and inherent inability to achieve what it loudly asserts and gets paid for. The international indigenous rights organization has inserted the analytical blade deep into the bowels of the project in its report Blood Carbon: how a carbon offset scheme makes millions from indigenous land in Northern Kenya.
As one reads through the 68-page analysis, there emerges the image of a deceptive, elaborate scheme that has little to do with what the project claims say it is all about. It is clear that the whole project has not aligned itself with the basic tenets of soil carbon retention. One gets a strong sense that the project owners have capitalized on the haplessness of the communities they purport to work with and the unquestioning eagerness of big polluters in the West to escape the blame by paying for what can literarily be described as hot air. These are polluting companies that have pumped millions to buy the carbon credits in the inexplicable belief that paying someone else in the southern hemisphere lessens the guilt associated with polluting the planet.
Unambiguously and with clarity, the exposé narrates the story of a large, well-funded non-governmental outfit that has unabashedly continued to benefit from distorting the truth while destabilizing and side-lining key traditional institutions that have managed and guided grazing practices adopted by pastoralist communities in northern Kenya over long periods of time.
Traditions influence resource use
As the narrative unfolds, it emerges that the project covers about two million hectares of one of the most remote and dry regions of Kenya. It brings on board some 13 wildlife conservancies that host more than 100,000 inhabitants, most of whom are members of the indigenous Samburu, Borana, Maasai and Rendille communities. Being pastoralists, the inhabitants rely on the naturally-occurring pastures, water, salt and other resources so vital for their extensive livestock rearing. To these communities, the health and wellbeing of cattle, sheep, goats, camels and, to some extent, donkeys is directly linked, in more ways than one, to their own survival, wealth and status. They inhabit a region with a delicate ecology which “drove” them to come up with a rational and pragmatic indigenous resource use and management system that places the elders in the driving seat, giving them the power to make decisions that bind other members of the community. Today, the pastoralists are in dire straits due to droughts that have risen in severity and frequency owing to climate change. As a result, the region now experiences a minor drought every two to three years and a major one every ten years or so, often resulting in severe famines and the attendant deaths of thousands upon thousands of livestock.
NRT’s support from the moneyed
This is the ecological, socio-economic and cultural context upon which the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) based the carbon trading project. Established in 2004 by Ian Craig, a rather “unseen” conservation personality from the old colonial stock, NRT prefers to be known as a “membership organization”. The body states that it improves people’s lives, creates and sustains peace and conserves the environment. Today, the organization boasts of bringing into its fold some 43 community conservancies spread over 63,000 square kilometres in the northern and coastal parts of the country. This area is significant as it constitutes more than 10 per cent of Kenya’s total land surface.
The NRT’s conservation work has drawn in the moneyed lot in the West who have generously kept it way above water financially. The amounts it receives each year are humongous and can turn other green organizations greener with envy. USAID, for instance, has donated some US$32 million since 2004. Over the years, USAID’s support was topped up by generous contributions from the who-is-who in the European giving order. Besides the European Union, Denmark and France, the organization receives over US$25 million from 46 donors each year. It is not known exactly how much the organization receives from whom as it does not publish its annual accounts. However, the financial support the NRT receives has greatly aided in raising its visibility as a wildlife conservation outfit whose model was adopted by the EU as the latter rolled out conservation in 30 African countries under NaturAfrica banner. Corporates too have come calling with accolades and cash as the NRT gives them somewhere “to hide their guilt”. For instance, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development bestowed the “Lighthouse” Award on the NRT last year.
Expanding the NRT mandate
With such support and encouragement, the NRT has kept adding on to its initial conservation mandate. Besides taking up the maintenance of peace and security, the organization is also involved in livestock marketing. Its conservation, peace-making and security initiatives have however raised a hue and cry from many people in Kenya who question why a non-governmental body has armed units and controversially takes up what is solely mandated to the Kenya government by the country’s constitution. But the NRT feels justified in its peace-building mission, saying that this creates the right conditions necessary for its conservation programme. Those opposed, however, including many of the affected indigenous people, say that the organisation’s conservation activities are disruptive to the lives and livelihoods of local people as they require them to cede part of their communally-owned lands to create room for “core” areas that are exclusively used by investors, tourists and wildlife.
There have also been claims that well-trained and armed NRT rangers have been involved in extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights abuses as documented by the Oakland Institute, a US-based think tank, in its report Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya. The report dealt a devastating blow to the image of the organization as it exposed how the NRT and its partners, allegedly dispossessed the herder communities of their ancestral lands through corruption, violence and intimidation to create and maintain the wildlife conservancies.
There have also been claims that well-trained and armed NRT rangers have been involved in extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights abuses.
The NRT and controversy appear to be bedfellows. According to the Survival International report, the organization rolled out the carbon project almost a decade ago when the claims made against it were starting to gain public attention. The project is ambitious, opens new ground in the global carbon trading regime and is hinged on the involvement of pastoralist communities in the region. Essentially, it leans on the thinking that were the pastoralists to move away from traditional “unplanned” grazing and embrace “planned” rotational grazing, this would give vegetation over the vast area a better chance to grow prolifically. Consequently (as the thinking goes), this would result in greater storage of carbon in the soils of the project area. The NRT estimated that as much as 750 kilos of additional carbon would be stored in each hectare every year. Cumulatively, the organization estimated that the project could generate about 1.5 million tons of extra carbon “storage” per year and thereby produce 41 million tons of carbon credits for sale over its project’s 30-year lifespan. This would, in turn, generate between US$300million and US$500 million according to Survival’s estimates. With such highly attractive end results, the NRT labelled the project a “natural climate solution” as it went into the carbon credit market.
Project ok’d by assessors
Before taking the carbon credits to potential buyers, the project was taken through the Verra System, which is touted to have a “rigorous set of rules and requirements”. Documents show that the auditors appointed to “validate” the project struggled for several years to obtain answers to some of their questions about serious problems with the project. Some were never answered but, astonishingly, the project was eventually passed and credited with generating real, credible and permanent emissions reductions; it was attributed with the ability to store additional carbon in the soil. Since it was ok’d in the Verra System, the project has so far generated some 3.2 million carbon credits which the NRT’s agents had sold out by January 2022. Although the gross income the organization received is unknown, Survival International estimates that it has generated between US$21 million and US$45 million with some of the credits being offloaded to Netflix and Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook).
Impenetrable wall of conspiracy
Usually, the true value of claims made by conservation NGOs in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa is hard to ascertain. This is because the same outfits are allowed to assess the before-and-after scenarios of the conservation projects they are involved in. In some cases, local and international assessors are contracted to undertake evaluation studies. But as external assessors visit the field, they are usually chaperoned by officials from the same NGOs they have been commissioned to scrutinize. Even where assessors demand to do “independent” reviews, their work is largely hampered by language, and geographical and cultural barriers. This has created an almost impenetrable “wall of silence and conspiracy” because what ends up constituting the findings on impact is actually more or less what the NGO wanted the assessors to know in the first place. By the end of the day, the NGO ends up with a good image and a nod from donors. It is no wonder that there is little to show for all the billions pumped into conservation. In any case, species have been disappearing and wildlife populations are dwindling while the worst effects of climate change bite hard even within the NRT carbon project.
The project is ambitious, opens new grounds in the global carbon trading regime and is hinged on the involvement of pastoralist communities in the region.
As far as the carbon trading project is concerned, the truth typically deviates, to a great extent, from what is stated by the organization and the project assessors. Survival International established an unmistakable dichotomy between what the NRT has eloquently put in the project’s documents and the reality in the project area. Most importantly, the NRT did not inform the communities properly about the project, “let alone receive their free, prior and informed consent to it”. As Survival International officials toured the area, they established that the organization had, at best, merely shared the required information with a small number of people who sat on the boards of the 13 conservancies. However, the information given was limited, was not shared in native languages, and was done “long after the project started”. The same was reported by the project’s auditors during the initial verification of the project. This is a clear violation of some of the principles that carbon trading projects are expected to adhere to.
The entire project can be seen as one that exploits and grossly interferes with the lives of tens of thousands of pastoralists. As the project unfolded, the communities have been increasingly losing control of their lands and the power to determine how to use it. As the organization went about removing what it calls “cultural barriers” to carbon retention in the soil, the unfairness of the entire approach emerged in the sense that people who have very little to do with polluting the planet were forced to alter how they have survived in order to adhere to the dictates of an organisation that used falsehoods and unproven methods to receive finances it does not deserve. This notwithstanding, the project is attempting to replace the prevailing practice in which boys herd livestock by paying cash to adults to be doing the task. This is seen as a blatant attempt to destroy the dignity of the men and women who are traditionally not involved in such an activity. This, as the report says, is likely to face “rejection and failure”.
Watch: Is the Northern Kenya Grasslands Carbon Project a Racket?
In addition, the report raises serious issues on the legality of the project. Half of the project area is on lands classified as trust lands which are subject to the provisions of the Community Lands Act 2016. The Act mandates not the NRT but the relevant county governments with “holding the land in trust” until they are formally registered as community lands. However, the registration process has taken too long, with the delays being partly attributed to what some locals say is “active obstruction” by the powerful organization. Indeed, the legality of the conservancies established by the NRT was challenged in the Environment & Lands Court in 2021. The case is still going on.
Related to the legality of the project is the question raised in Survival International’s report as to whether the NRT has the right to trade on carbon stored in the soils of lands that it does not own. The organization did not have a formal agreement with the communities in the 13 conservancies before it embarked on the project. It cobbled together the agreements in June 2021, eight-and-half years after it started the project. On this, the report says that “NRT did not have a clear contractual right to sell the carbon during this period”.
Survival International estimates that it has generated between US$21 million and US$45 million with some of the credits being offloaded to Netflix and Meta Platforms.
In its communication, the NRT has consistently claimed that it does not own the relevant lands. One then would expect that it would have let the biggest share of proceeds from the carbon trade project go to the communities. However, Survival International says that the organization not only continues to hog the lion’s share of the proceeds, but has the final say on how the proceeds are distributed. The organization claims that it dishes out 30 per cent of the total funds to the 13 conservancies “for purposes which the communities themselves determine”. But Survival International disputes this. “This largely proves not to be the case,” the report avers, going on to state that 20 per cent of the conservancies’ portion is actually spent on the “NRT’s prescribed” grazing practices while 60 per cent is distributed at the discretion of the organization. Community leaders interviewed during the investigation by Survival International said that the distribution is done “through a largely opaque process” and that the money “is used to exert control over communities and to promote NRT’s own priorities”.
Whipping communities into acceptance
The report terms the credibility of the carbon offsets as “wanting” and its impact on the pastoralist communities as “negative”. The project’s very success (or lack of it) depends on whipping communities into accepting a radical shift from the age-old traditional grazing pattern they have been practicing to what the organization believes would bring about the required carbon offsets. But for Survival International, this could “endanger [the] livelihoods and food security” of the pastoralists besides being “culturally destructive”. By establishing a project which demands that the herders confine their animals to the project area, the NRT’s desire was to align the project with one of the requirements of the relevant methodology. But the whole thinking attaches no value to what is obviously a rational and pragmatic animal husbandry practice adopted by the communities hundreds of years before the project was ever started.
The NRT did not inform the communities properly about the project, “let alone receive their free, prior and informed consent to it”.
More poignantly, the NRT’s demands for a change in grazing patterns appears insensitive to the problems pastoralists have been experiencing with the worsening changes in the climate. This is also a typical example of the predicament presented to communities in Africa whenever they are forced to engage in activities that hardly cater for their own survival and interests. To many “woke” Kenyans today, although the NRT was formed in Kenya, its very philosophy and operations are “alien and transplanted” from Europe. Many deem it to be a body that has boldly and with single-minded determination rekindled the colonial scenario in which white people see nothing wrong with using force and money to put in place changes that do not benefit African communities but instead are extremely disruptive to their lives.
Does the NRT deserve the millions?
The NRT cannot escape the accusation of carbon colonialism and nor can the polluting companies that find nothing wrong with dealing with a “broker” and everyone else to the exclusion of the owners of the land upon which the carbon trading project is based. This notwithstanding, the question arises as to whether the organization deserves the millions of dollars paid to it by Netflix and other companies. For one, the project does not provide believable evidence that traditional grazing has led to the degradation of soils and hence the loss of soil carbon. “It is based on a presumption that the traditional forms of grazing were causing degradation of soils and that only the carbon project could remedy this,” the report says. It adds that the NRT does not support “with any empirical evidence” the assertion that degradation there happens due to “unplanned grazing.”
Although the NRT was formed in Kenya, its very philosophy and operations are “alien and transplanted” from Europe.
At the same time, the project’s core activity of “planned rotational grazing” does not seem to be taking place. “The limited information provided by the project purporting to show a decline in vegetation quality prior to the project does not in fact show this at all,” the report says. In any case, evidence presented by the NRT indicates that the quality of vegetation “has declined since the project started”. The report concludes that “this would suggest that soil carbon in much of the area is in fact also declining.”
Brick by brick
Survival International dismantles, brick by brick, most of the project’s foundational claims. Besides painting the carbon storage assessment method as “unsuitable”, the report disputes the credibility of the periodic reports on grazing activities submitted by the 13 conservancies, terming them “entirely worthless”. The report says that they cannot be relied upon to ascertain whether the rotational grazing has been implemented let alone its outcomes. Added to this is the fact that the NRT used an error-laden method to measure the amount of carbon retained in the soil. This was the use of remote sensing to establish vegetation cover rather than direct measurement of soil carbon. Apparently, the NRT is aware of the weaknesses of this approach and actually admits that it contains very large margins of error and inaccuracy—Survival International terms it “demonstrably faulty”. Further, it is highly doubtful that any additional carbon stored (which is unlikely) can last long in the project area. In this regard, Survival International asserts that the worsening changes in climate in most parts of the project area as well as the entire northern Kenya region “will result in declines in vegetation and soil carbon storage”.
The NRT purports that it was able to count the number of days livestock spend away from the project area. This information is essential in knowing whether the extra carbon supposedly stored in the project area’s soils might come at a cost of carbon simply being lost somewhere else through grazing, thus invalidating the project. But the monthly grazing reports used to monitor livestock movements are inadequate for such a purpose; they lack credible information on where animals are at any given time, and are based on maps that are vague and border on guesswork. Besides this, the project area is largely remote, inaccessible and this makes it almost impossible to monitor what happens in the highly porous boundaries of the project. Although the NRT says that it has the mechanism to detect and monitor livestock movement off the project area, it does not comply with the methodology under which the project was developed in the first place. This can be translated to mean that the organisation has little or no idea of the amount of carbon “leakage”.
An informed lie?
From a layman’s assessment of the report, it is clear that the project has “adhered” to the long tradition in which many conservation NGOs in Kenya misrepresent facts for the purpose of securing funding from those ready to open their purses in the West. One cannot explain how the NRT was able to secure the nod of assessors and huge amounts of money from big-buck companies. The explanation lies elsewhere; the success with which such NGOs manage to get millions in funding has to do with whether they are able to include white people, either as founders, as members of their boards or as staffers in the top echelons of their establishments. For some reason, NGOs that recruit white people in Kenya stand a far better chance of securing financial support from Europe or America. In this regard, the NRT is associated with the Craig family who have lived in Kenya since the early 1900s. This is a family that has more than a casual relationship with the British royal family. For instance, not only did Prince William have an intimate friendship with Jessica Craig, the daughter of the founder of the NRT, Ian Craig, before he married Kate Middleton, but he also proposed to Kate at Craig’s former family home in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. A casual observer might not see the connection, but many organizations formed by white people in Kenya are able to easily get away with unjustifiable untruths and half-truths. Those who fund them appear to have no desire to commission independent assessments that would shed light on the truth value of such organizations in solving the problems they purport to address.
The NRT carbon project is no different. It clearly misrepresents facts while its truth value and worth are questionable. One is unable to decide whether the entire project is based on a carefully crafted lie arrived at through the use of a complicated algorithm, or that it is simply a sham.
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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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