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How a Notorious Arms Dealer Hijacked Niger’s Budget and Bought Arms From Russia

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At least $137 million of public funds was stolen from one of the world’s least developed countries through corrupt arms deals.

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How a Notorious Arms Dealer Hijacked Niger’s Budget and Bought Arms From Russia
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As militant groups spread across the Sahel, the West African nation of Niger went on a U.S.-backed military spending spree that totaled about US$1 billion between 2011 and 2019.

But almost a third of that money was funnelled into inflated international arms deals – seemingly designed to allow corrupt officials and brokers to siphon off government funds, according to a confidential government audit obtained by OCCRP that covers those eight years.

The Inspection Générale des Armées, an independent body that audits the armed forces, found problems with contracts amounting to over $320 million out of the $875 million in military spending it reviewed. The U.S. contributed almost $240 million to Niger’s military budget over the same period.

The Inspection Générale’s auditors said more than 76 billion West African francs had been lost to corruption, which is about $137 million at the current exchange rate. They discovered that much of the equipment sourced from international firms – including Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese state-owned defense companies – was significantly overpriced, not actually delivered, or purchased without going through a competitive bidding process.

“The rigged bidding process, fake competition, and inflated pricing in these deals is astounding,” said Andrew Feinstein, a leading arms expert and author of “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.”

The Nigerien authorities are investigating the findings of the audit, which have caused a scandal in the country after some details were reported in the press earlier this year.

The country has become a key ally for the United States in fighting groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State West Africa Province, better known as Boko Haram.

Auditors found a total shortfall in arms deals signed by Niger’s Ministry of Defense of 76 billion CFA, or $137 million. Credit: OCCRP

Auditors found a total shortfall in arms deals signed by Niger’s Ministry of Defense of 76 billion CFA, or $137 million. Credit: OCCRP

The surge in spending over the last decade helped Niger become one of the most formidable military powers in the region. The country – one of the world’s poorest – bought arms ranging from attack helicopters and fighter jets to armored vehicles and automatic rifles.

In addition to cash it provided to Niger’s military, the U.S. spent $280 million building a massive air base near the ancient trading city of Agadez in the north of the country. The base, which reportedly costs $30 million a year to run, allows U.S. forces to launch drones for both surveillance and air strikes.

American forces are also training Nigerien soldiers and fighting alongside them. In 2017, four U.S. Special Forces officers were killed in an ambush in the country’s frontier with Mali and Burkina Faso, reportedly by fighters associated with the so-called Islamic State.

France and the European Union are also major donors to Niger’s military, which receives further aid through its membership in G5 Sahel, a regional joint military force. The audit report raises the possibility that some of the military aid ended up in the pockets of unscrupulous private individuals and corrupt government officials.

Aboubacar Hima and Aboubacar Charfo. Credit: Nathalie Prevost/OCCRP

Aboubacar Hima and Aboubacar Charfo. Credit: Nathalie Prevost/OCCRP

At the center of the network of corruption are two Nigerien businessmen who acted as intermediaries in the deals: the well-known arms dealer Aboubacar Hima, and Aboubacar Charfo, a construction contractor with no previous experience in the defense sector. Auditors allege that the two men rigged bids by using companies under their control to create the illusion of competition for contracts.

Their success points to the opportunities available to a small clique of well-connected insiders with close ties to Niger’s government.

“As far as the audit is concerned, I don’t think there’ll be any prosecutions,” said Hassane Diallo, head of Niger-based Centre d’Assistance Juridique et d’Action Citoyenne, an anti-corruption group.

“All the economic actors mentioned in the audit belong to the ruling party. They come from the same region as the president.”

Hima’s lawyer, Marc Le Bihan, declined to answer reporters’ questions and said that Hima wasn’t being prosecuted. Charfo and Niger’s defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Rosoboronexport's stand at the ShieldAfrica security and defense exhibition, held in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in January 2017. Rosoboronexport relies on African governments for about 30 percent of its business. Photo: Rosoboronexport

Rosoboronexport’s stand at the ShieldAfrica security and defense exhibition, held in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in January 2017. Rosoboronexport relies on African governments for about 30 percent of its business. Photo: Rosoboronexport

‘Ferocious Style’

Through a handful of companies connected to him, Hima, who goes by the nicknames “Style Féroce” and “Petit Boubé,” handled at least three quarters of all the arms purchases scrutinized by the Inspection Générale. Together the deals were worth $240 million.

It is unclear exactly how Hima, the son of a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture, rose to such prominence in Niger’s political and business circles.

One key moment was likely his 2005 marriage to the daughter of former President Ibrahim Bare Maïnassara, who was killed in a 1999 coup. The marriage is likely to have brought him closer to Niger’s political establishment, since the party that Maïnassara once led now “supports the current regime,” according to Diallo.

In 2003, Hima set up Imprimerie du Plateau, a printing business that remains active today. By 2010 he had made the leap into the arms business in neighboring Nigeria, where he established companies that would play key roles in the deals auditors scrutinized in his home country.

Most of Hima’s deals were signed under a 2013 national security law that allowed for some of Niger’s defense spending to be carried out in direct negotiations with any company, rather than putting it to public tender. Niger scrapped that law in 2016, replacing it with one requiring a more transparent process. But by that point, much of the damage had been done.

Most of the sales identified in the audit had bypassed oversight bodies within the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Finance whose input was required under the 2013 law. The tenders also did not include key documentation, such as the prices offered by the various bidders.

In one deal facilitated by Hima in 2016, Niger’s Ministry of Defense bought two Mi-171Sh military transport and assault helicopters from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-owned defense company. The purchase, which also included maintenance and ammunition, cost Niger 55 million euros, or $54.8 million – an overpayment of about $19.7 million, according to the Inspection Générale. The auditors noted that the prices had been inflated by fraud and corruption.

Rosoboronexport relies on African governments for about 30 percent of its business. Because the state arms company is under U.S. and EU sanctions, it can’t openly receive payment for the deals in U.S. dollars or euros. As a result, the company’s transactions tend to avoid Western financial institutions, which are obligated to flag suspicious transactions to regulators.

In its contract with Niger’s government, Rosoboronexport asked for payments to be made into an account it held at VTB Bank, a Russian lender with majority state ownership. The account was held at the bank’s branch in Germany, which ranks as a top financial secrecy jurisdiction.

Rosoboronexport did not tell auditors who controlled that account.

“By using a VTB account in Germany, Rosoboronexport is trying to make the money flows from its arms deals as opaque as possible,” Feinstein said.

Nigerien auditors visited Moscow early this year in search of information about the helicopters and other purchases that had been facilitated by Hima on behalf of Niger’s defense ministry. But the auditors were left in the dark about the terms of the deals. Rosoboronexport refused to provide any information, telling the Nigerien government auditors that the agreements were “confidential.”

“[Rosoboronexport’s] failure to explain the pricing difference on this clandestine deal can only mean one thing: corruption,” Feinstein said. “The Russians clearly colluded with Nigerien officials to sell overpriced arms in a deal that was obviously illegal.”

Rosoboronexport declined to answer OCCRP’s emailed requests for comment. Reached by phone, a representative said: “If you are from the United States, we cannot help you with any answers via email.”

The audit report outlines a series of unorthodox – and in at least one case, blatantly illegal – machinations that allowed Hima to control much of Niger’s arms procurement process.

Through his political influence in the defense establishment, a company Hima had founded in neighboring Nigeria, TSI, gained power of attorney on behalf of the Ministry of Defense. This gave him the ability to approve weapons deals and issue end-user certificates, a type of document meant to ensure that weapons sold to one client are not passed on, or resold, to an unauthorized third party.

This was a clear violation of Niger’s laws, which state that end user certificates can be issued only by the government, according to Ara Marcen Naval, the head of defense and security advocacy for Transparency International.

The corruption of the end-user certificate system in Niger is particularly resonant given the country’s longtime role as an arms trafficking hub. This history dates to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union funneled arms into Niger before shipping them onward to its allies.

In the 1990s, when Liberia and Sierra Leone both plunged into civil war, the country again became a regional arms hub.

Niger was a key transit point for notorious Ukrainian arms dealer Leonid Minin in the 1990s. He sent weapons from his base in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to Charles Taylor, a warlord who was fighting the government in Liberia, where he later became president. Minin’s planes brought attack helicopters, anti-aircraft guns, missiles, and over a million rounds of ammunition to Niger before sending them on to Liberia.

The Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout also used Niger as a staging point to bring weapons into Liberia during its civil war. Known as the “Merchant of Death,” Bout is now in prison in the United States where he was convicted of supplying weapons to Colombian insurgents.

The power to issue certificates himself gave Hima the ability to steer government contracts to his own companies, like TSI, or to his partners. It also allowed him to limit the amount of oversight included in the deals’ terms, which removed a crucial safeguard that allows authorities to know who they are selling arms to.

Even before being granted power of attorney, Hima managed to issue Rosoboronexport an end-user certificate on behalf of Niger’s Ministry of Defense in 2018. Hima was on both ends of the deal: While he organized the purchase on behalf of the ministry, his company, TSI, acted as Rosoboronexport’s Niger representative. His company did not appear on the contract.

“The fact that TSI was allowed to represent Rosoboronexport – let alone Niger’s Ministry of Defence – makes this one of the most extreme examples of corruption in the arms trade that I’ve ever come across,” Feinstein said.

Hima used other shady techniques, too. For the helicopter deal and others, companies under his control submitted fake bids to create fictitious and unfair competition, auditors noted.

Another company linked to Hima, Nigeria-registered Brid A Defcon, won a $4.3 million contract to build a specialized hangar for Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou’s official plane. Two other companies that submitted bids for the contract — both controlled by Hima — echoed the names of well-known international manufacturers.

One was Motor Sich, which appeared to be an Algerian affiliate of the well-known Ukrainian engine manufacturer. The Ukraine-based Motor Sich told auditors that the company had not made any bids in the deal, said they had no connection to the Algerian entity, and denied any wrongdoing.

However, according to the audit report, it appears that the Algerian Motor Sich affiliate did win other tenders offered by Niger’s government, including a $11.5 million arms supply contract. Hima’s company, Brid A Defcon, acted as Motor Sich’s local agent in Niger in that deal as well.

Auditors reviewed multiple deals signed between Brid A Defcon, a company linked to Aboubacar Hima, and the Ministry of Defense. Credit: OCCRP

Auditors reviewed multiple deals signed between Brid A Defcon, a company linked to Aboubacar Hima, and the Ministry of Defense. Credit: OCCRP

The other company that submitted a bid for the helicopter deal was Aerodyne Technologies, which used the name of a defunct French aviation company. Though Aerodyne submitted its bid as a company based in the UAE, it appeared to actually be registered in Ukraine, according to the audit.

“As usual, Brid A Defcon has put the companies Motor Sich and Aerodyne Technologies in competition,” auditors noted.

Aerodyne opened emails from OCCRP but did not respond to questions. Brid a Defcon could not be reached for comment.

Among other problematic deals mentioned in the audit, Brid A Defcon also received $4.9 million to outfit the presidential plane with an anti-missile system that was incompatible with the aircraft.

Niger soldiers with their weapons pointed towards the border with neighbouring Nigeria, near the town of Diffa, Niger. Photo: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Niger soldiers with their weapons pointed towards the border with neighbouring Nigeria, near the town of Diffa, Niger. Photo: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Constructing Arms Deals

Sacks of cement and metal rods are piled on the ground next to a small building in Niamey, Niger’s capital. The compound, a one-story, dirt-colored concrete structure, is the unassuming headquarters of Etablissement Aboubacar Charfo, a construction company named after its owner.

Charfo had no prior experience in the defense sector, and there is no publicly available evidence of him winning any government contracts before President Mahamadou Issoufou came to power in 2011.

Charfo was known as an importer of bathroom tiles and building materials including cement, but he also managed to facilitate nearly $100 million worth of contracts for the government.

He appears to have gotten into the arms trading business through his contacts with the office of Issoufou. Both he and the president hail from the Tahoua Region, where Charfo is said to have strong ties to the ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism.

According to publicly available audits of various government bodies carried out by the accounting firm Bureau d’Expertises Comptables in 2017 and 2018, Charfo received several contracts from the presidential administration. One of those was a 2017 contract to furnish the new headquarters of the Inspection Générale des Armées – the same authority that later produced the leaked audit which exposed his corrupt arms deals.

Charfo also received contracts from the president’s office to supply military equipment to the armed forces, including weapons and ammunition, night vision goggles, and a trailer for transporting tanks, according to Bureau d’Expertises Comptables auditors.

The subsequent Inspection Générale audit shows that cost inflation and corrupt practices by Etablissement Aboubacar Charfo and Agacha Technologies, another company linked to Charfo, cost the Ministry of Defense $24.7 million over what it would have paid with fair competition.

Auditors found that multiple companies connected to Hima had been used to create the appearance of a competitive bidding process. Credit: OCCRP

Auditors found that multiple companies connected to Hima had been used to create the appearance of a competitive bidding process. Credit: OCCRP

The auditors probed five contracts won by Charfo’s two companies between 2014 and 2018. These included a $40 million agreement to purchase armored personnel carriers manufactured by China’s state arms company, NORINCO. Auditors found Charfo had inflated the price, overcharging the government by $8.2 million.

In a 2017 deal, according to the Inspection Générale, Charfo’s Agacha Technologies won a $6.5 million contract to supply 30 buses to the Ministry of Defense. Over half of that total was lost to over-invoicing and wasteful spending, the auditors found.

They also discovered that, like Hima, Charfo manipulated the procurement process to create the impression that he was competing against rival companies.

In reality, the “competing” companies were either controlled directly by Charfo or linked to him. He and his associates benefited from “fake bids and the use of fake competition,” according to the audit.

“The winner of the contract was known in advance,” it read.

Conflict steadily increased in Niger between 2011 and 2019, according to data collected by the U.S.-based the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Researchers counted 192 battles that state forces took part in, and 340 involving militants. ACLED also measured “remote violence,” which included missile or mortar attacks, as well as improvised explosive devices like roadside bombs. State forces were involved in 35 such incidents, with militants taking part in 85. Militants were involved in 371 acts of violence against civilians, with state forces involved in 36. Credit: Edin Pašović

Conflict steadily increased in Niger between 2011 and 2019, according to data collected by the U.S.-based the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Researchers counted 192 battles that state forces took part in, and 340 involving militants. ACLED also measured “remote violence,” which included missile or mortar attacks, as well as improvised explosive devices like roadside bombs. State forces were involved in 35 such incidents, with militants taking part in 85. Militants were involved in 371 acts of violence against civilians, with state forces involved in 36. Credit: Edin Pašović

Jet-fuelled Corruption

Charfo and Hima weren’t the only businesspeople who appeared to have gotten rich on Niger’s military spending spree by using shell companies to rig bids for arms deals. Several companies in Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic also appeared to benefit.

The people behind these schemes remain unknown because some of the companies were registered in offshore jurisdictions that enable their owners to remain anonymous. Others were formed as UK limited liability partnerships, which are controlled by other companies, not individuals, and are not obligated to disclose their directors or owners.

At least one of the deals involving these offshore entities appears to have included built-in kickbacks.

Auditors scrutinized several deals related to the supply of aircraft to Niger’s Ministry of Defense. Credit: OCCRP

Auditors scrutinized several deals related to the supply of aircraft to Niger’s Ministry of Defense. Credit: OCCRP

In 2012, Ukraine’s state defense company, Ukrspecexport, won a contract to supply Niger with two second-hand SU-25 fighter jets built in 1984. Niger’s Ministry of Defense paid $12.5 million for both aircraft, including $1 million for insurance and delivery and $1.9 million for spare parts. The audit noted that the prices had been inflated and the additional cost of more than 350 spare parts appeared unnecessary and suspicious.

“Adding spare parts to arms contracts is a common technique to build in the cost of kickbacks,” Feinstein said.

The Ukrainian company denied that it made the deals with Niger.

“Ukrspecexport did not make such deliveries and does not have any information on the issues you are asking about,” a representative said in an email.

Despite Ukrspecexport’s denial, international arms trade data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Institute confirms that Niger ordered the two second-hand aircraft, and that they were delivered the following year.

The Nigerien auditors also discovered an addendum to the SU-25 contract that appeared to facilitate a bribe. It stipulated that Stretfield Development, a London-based shell company with unknown owners, was to receive a $2 million commission on the deal in a “maneuver” the auditors described as “collusive” and “contrary to regulations.” The contract specified that the fee would be funded by the Nigerien Ministry of Defense, but paid through another London-based shell company, Halltown Business, which was shut down shortly after the deal was completed.

Details of the suspicious sale did not come as a surprise to Daria Kaleniuk, the head of the Anticorruption Action Centre, a leading Ukrainian advocacy group.

“For many years, Ukrspecexport was known to be a very dodgy company which has a monopoly of trading weapons and army equipment abroad through secret sealed deals,” she said.

Transfers Database Niger ordered two SU-25 fighter jets from Ukraine in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database. Credit: SIPRI Arms

Transfers Database
Niger ordered two SU-25 fighter jets from Ukraine in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database. Credit: SIPRI Arms

The address in London where Halltown was registered belonged to a company formation agent and was used by over 400 other companies. Among these were four firms that were part of the Azerbaijani Laundromat, a vast money-laundering operation that benefitted elites from that country and was previously reported by OCCRP. Following Halltown’s ownership trail led to a Panamanian company with two Ukrainian directors.

Niger also signed separate maintenance deals with a firm called EST Ukraine. The defense ministry agreed to pay the company $4.3 million for the upkeep of its MI-35s helicopter gunships and the second-hand SU-25 jets it had bought from Ukraine’s state defense company, which have yet to be delivered.

But EST Ukraine did not receive the payment. In fact, it was not even formally registered as a company. The company that received the payments — another Ukrainian firm called Espace Soft Trading Limited — was “not a party to the contract.”

That company, formed in 1998, is controlled by Yuri Ivanushchenko, once a member of the Ukrainian parliament and an ally of former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2014. The auditors listed Ivanushchenko’s company as one of the beneficiaries of the rigged bidding.

“During Yanukovych’s presidency, his close associate Yuri Ivanushchenko was overseeing work of Ukrspecexport and had significant influence over its decisions,” Kaleniuk said.

As with many of the other deals, auditors found that the bids for these maintenance contracts had been rigged. In addition to EST Ukraine, several other foreign shell companies submitted bids, presumably in an effort to create the appearance of competition. One of these was the UAE-registered Aerodyne Technologies, under Aboubacar Hima’s control.

Both Aerodyne and the winning EST Ukraine were run by Gintautis Baraukas, an associate of Hima who appeared to run shell companies on his behalf. Little is known about Barauskas, who used a false nationality while operating a network of shell firms in the UAE.

“This gentleman is not Ukrainian, he is in fact Latvian … He is involved in several cases that served to extort large sums of money from the State of Niger,” the auditors wrote.

EST Ukraine did not respond to requests for comment.

The United Arab Emirates is a world-renowned tax haven and the emirate of Sharjah is particularly popular with arms dealers due to its lax financial regulations and opaque aircraft registry, which allows goods to be moved through the airport in relative obscurity. The emirate is home to a host of shell companies that appear to be used to launder the proceeds of arms deals.

Many of the companies the Nigerien audit names as fake bidders and bribe recipients are based in Sharjah, and all appear to be connected to Baraukas.

One suspicious transaction flagged by the auditors involved Sky Rotors, a company that received a payment worth more than 1.5 million euros ($1.7 million) from Ivanushchenko’s Espace.

In an emailed statement, Sky Rotors confirmed it has supplied aviation parts to Niger since 2012, and said the defense ministry still has not paid its bill in full.

“The possibility of applying… to an international arbitration court for enforced debt collection is being considered,” a representative said, calling Sky Rotors “the injured party.”

“Hima was recommended as a person who has proven himself in working with the state authorities of Niger and who can assist in the return of the debts,” the representative added.

Hima’s mansion in Niamey, Niger’s capital. Credit: Nathalie Prevost/OCCRP

Hima’s mansion in Niamey, Niger’s capital. Credit: Nathalie Prevost/OCCRP

The Spoils

A white marble mosque rises beside Hima’s palatial mansion. Nearby is an elaborate water feature with streams tumbling over rusty-brown rock. Frozen in sculpture, a family of elephants marches toward a whimsically curved swimming pool overlooking the Niger River.

Hima’s residence in Niger’s capital is an ostentatious display of wealth in a country that ranks dead last on the United Nations Development Index, which measures a nation’s well-being based on indicators like life expectancy and access to education.

Niger’s treasury is footing the bill for the country’s military spending, which has grown as a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product from less than 1 percent in 2009 to 2.5 percent in 2017, according to the World Bank.

Hima also owns three apartments in the Czech capital, Prague worth over $2 million in total. He acquired them in 2015, first shelling out $1.5 million for a penthouse in the Dock Marina, a luxurious residential complex on the Vltava River that allows residents to park their boats near the entrance. He purchased two more apartments in the development in the following months.

Hima’s business interests in Prague go beyond property. His now-defunct Nigerian company, Brid A Defcon, frequently partnered with a Czech-registered firm with a similar name, Defcon s.r.o, in 2009, according to the audit.

In 2017 and 2018, the Czech firm fulfilled a $33.6 million contract from Niger’s government to deliver 80 trucks manufactured by the Austrian firm Steyr. Supposedly bidding against Defcon s.r.o was the Algerian branch of Motor Sich. Brid A Defcon submitted the bid on behalf of Motor Sich, which it controlled, in an apparent attempt to show the process was competitive.

Motor Sich managers said it had never made such a bid, leading auditors to conclude that the company name had been “usurped.”

Such deals fueled Hima’s luxury lifestyle and made him the most conspicuous of Niger’s illicit arms traders, said Diallo, the anti-corruption specialist, adding that it was “no surprise” that he invested his profits abroad.

“Charfo has buildings in Niamey, but he and the others are less visible than [Hima],” he said.

Diallo said the corrupt arms deals “not only exposed a hidden financial cost to Niger — the poorest country in the world — but also show how Niger’s sovereignty was captured and exploited.”

Additional reporting by Nathalie Prevost in Paris, Marshall Van Valen in Abidjan, Pavla Holcova in Prague, Elena Loginova in Kyiv, and Juliet Atellah in Nairobi.

This article was first published by OCCRP.

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Khadija Sharife and Mark Anderson are Investigative journalists with The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) a global network of investigative journalists.

Long Reads

Kenya Should Get Out of Somalia and Negotiate With Al Shabaab

For decades, Somalia regarded Kenya as a neutral arbiter, unlike Ethiopia, where long-standing resentments against Somalia have endured. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia in 2011 and its meddling in the country’s internal affairs have ruined Kenya-Somalia relations and emboldened Al Shabaab.

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Kenya’s military should leave Somalia. The 2011 intervention was billed as quick and short, but instead, it has metastasised into an almost decade-long occupation.

Kenya should depart Somalia for three specific reasons. One, the military campaign designed to “destroy” and “defeat” Al Shabaab, and keep Kenya and Kenyans safe has instead increased the group’s attacks on Kenya and Kenyans. Two, the need for a more robust domestic counterterrorism response to Al Shabaab’s attacks has led to egregious violations of human rights, and in the process, torpedoed the nascent police reform project. Three, the intervention also upended Kenya’s relations with Ethiopia, a vital partner in the Horn of Africa. It eviscerated soft power with Somalia, severely hamstringing Kenya’s diplomatic leverage in the region.

I. Operation Lindi Nchi

Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia took many Horn watchers and me by surprise because this was the first time Kenya undertook an independent military operation outside the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation. Intriguingly, the government provided little public information regarding Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Defend the Country).

But to any discerning person with a passing interest in the Horn of Africa’s history and politics, Kenya’s strategy, operation, the tactic, and geopolitical goal of the mission was at best foggy.

I was a young Horn of Africa analyst when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) crossed the border and entered Somalia in November 2011. To make sense of the intervention, I sought the views of three individuals. The first was the then military spokesperson, Major Emmanuel Chirchir. I sat down with him, not to understand the precise reason for the intervention, but to tap into the thought process that preceded it and the exit strategy.

The meeting left me deeply worried. The useful major failed to provide coherent answers to my questions. Later, his press briefings and Twitter engagements fortified my worries. His meetings descended into a series of amateur performances. In one incident, Major Chirchir shared these photos on his Twitter handle.

Posts from Major Chirchir's Twitter account.

Posts from Major Chirchir’s Twitter account.

The Associated Press published these photos, which were later published in the Daily Mail on Dec. 15, 2009. Major Chirchir was roundly pilloried for using the report to criticise Al Shabaab. This confirmed that public information management, a critical component of any military campaign, was being done on the fly, or not taken seriously. The lack of general information and ill-thought out communications campaign remained features of the army.

The second person whose insight I sought was Bethwel Kiplagat. The late ambassador was Kenya’s envoy during the 30-months marathon Somalia peace process in Kenya from 2003 to 2005. I was keen to glean any insight he could share. Kenya had to intervene to stop Al Shabaab because they posed a security threat to Kenya, Kiplagat told me. He said the political process could not go ahead if Al Shabaab threatened the fragile government in Mogadishu.

Next, I looked for Retired General Lazarus Sumebiyo, the IGAD’s special envoy for the South Sudan Peace Process. The general told me that entering Somalia was the “dumbest thing” the government could have done; shorter, well-calibrated strikes targeting Al Shabaab, rather than a protracted ground intervention, could have done the job better. He alluded that the invasion marked a deviation from Kenya’s policy of regional diplomacy that has served the country so well in the past.

The general told me that entering Somalia was the “dumbest thing” the government could have done; shorter, well-calibrated strikes targeting Al Shabaab, rather than a protracted ground intervention, could have done the job better.

Almost a decade into the intervention, the “dumbest thing” continues with no end in sight. Instead of defeating and destroying Al Shabaab, the campaign has ruptured relations with Ethiopia, for decades, the nation’s most significant partner in the region.

II. Botched Military Campaign

Major Chirchir’s failure to answer some of the fundamental questions spoke to a much larger problem with the intervention: the military intervention was never approved by the National Assembly as required by the Constitution. Article 95(6) of the Constitution states: “The National Assembly approves declarations of war and extensions of states of emergency.” The Somalia intervention was announced by the Minister for Internal Affairs, George Saitoti, instead of the Minister for Defence, Yusuf Haji.

As a measure of how little strategic thinking went into the military campaign, the intervention was launched in October, a rainy season in Somalia, like in other countries in the Horn and East Africa region. Immediately after the attack started, most of the mechanised units got stuck in mud.

Asymmetrical warfare

History is littered with significant and powerful armies humbled in battlefields by weaker opponents, especially in low-intensity conflicts. Fighting an unconventional militant group using a conventional method was always bound to fail in the long run. Al Shabaab has time on its side while a traditional army must go by the clock. They can outwait any traditional command, and forgetting this basic principle comes with a steep cost. But the Kenyan military seems to have learned little from their Somalia experience. The KDF has also maintained a domestic military operation against Al Shabaab in Lamu’s Boni Forest. This operation, like the operation in Somalia, has predictably stalled.

The Kenyan military’s initial media briefing was full of the bravado indicative of a short military campaign. It did not take long for assumed quick victory to recede from view; by June, less than eight months after the intervention, Kenya’s military ‘rehatted by joining the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Resigned cynicism has long replaced the early days of jingoism. The campaign has faded into background noise except for occasional media mention when the military suffers casualties. Its low priority in the collective Kenyan consciousness has insulated the leadership, including Parliament, from any form of accountability.

Although Kenya’s military intervention was during retired President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, President Uhuru Kenyatta has been an enthusiastic supporter. President Kenyatta, speaking about the intervention, said, “And in pursuance of this objective and that of the international community, our troops will continue being part of AMISOM until such time that our objective has been achieved.” However, there is little ground to suggest AMISOM, first deployed on 9 January 2007, is anywhere near achieving its goal. In military campaigns, an open-ended campaign without clear military and political goals invariably leads to mission creep.

III. Kenya and Terrorism

Kenya has been a target of international terrorist groups, but the attacks focused primarily on Western interests in Kenya because of the country’s perceived close alliance with the West. The first major terrorist attack on Kenyan soil occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1980, retribution for Kenya’s assistance to Israeli Defence Forces in Operation Entebbe. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine bombed the Norfolk Hotel, an upscale hotel frequented by foreign diplomats and in the past by the occasional head of state, such as Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. Most of the twenty fatalities and nearly 100 injured were not Kenyan.

On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda in East Africa attacked the United States embassy in Nairobi, killing 213 and injuring more than 4,000 people. A simultaneous attack on the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 11 and wounded more than 100. Somalia’s connections to Al Qaeda were instrumental in planning and carrying out these attacks.

Four years later, on December 28, 2002, Al Qaeda in East Africa attacked the Paradise Hotel, an Israeli- owned hotel in Kikambala, Kenya, killing 15 and injuring 80. The same day, the group attempted but failed to bring down Arkia Airline’s flight 582 from Mombasa’s Moi International Airport to Tel Aviv.

Domestic blowback

Following Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, Al Shabaab launched an unprecedented number of attacks on Kenyan soil, with most of their attacks focused on Kenyan interests and Kenyan citizens. These attacks occurred throughout the country, forming an arc across Northern Kenya, the Kenyan coast, and Nairobi. The violent response visited upon local communities in the name of counterterrorism complicated the problem.

The region has always been susceptible to spillovers from Somalia’s internal conflicts due to the long shared borders with Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenya’s ethnic Somali and other Muslim minorities experience festering contemporary disenfranchisement and historical marginalisation. The marginalisation is despite the decentralisation of power and resources in 2010 under the new constitution. Al-Shabaab took full advantage of Kenya’s vulnerabilities and porous border to tap into these grievances.

Al Shabaab also started attacking international aid workers, government officials, and military targets, while fueling tensions by specifically killing non-Muslim civilians. The most significant Al Shabaab attack to date in Kenya occurred on April 2, 2015, in Garissa County when shooters stormed Garissa University. During the attack, 147 Kenyans, mostly students, died and 79 were wounded. Five hundred people escaped the attacks, which witnesses say singled out Christians before shooting.

Kenyan Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) man their position at El-Adde in the southwestern Gedo region of Somalia on January 22, 2016. AMISOM Photo/ Abdisalan Omar

Kenyan Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) man their position at El-Adde in the southwestern Gedo region of Somalia on January 22, 2016. AMISOM Photo/ Abdisalan Omar

Inside Somalia, the KDF was not safe either. On the morning of January 15, 2016, Al Shabaab fighters attacked and overran an AMISOM forward operating base garrisoned by KDF troops from the 9th Rifle Battalion in the Battle of El Adde. By the end of the day, an estimated 141 Kenyan soldiers were dead. That figure would make the single most considerable loss for Kenya’s military since independence. Slightly over one year after the El Adde attack, on 27 January 2017, Al Shabaab took KDF’s military base briefly before being dislodged. In both incidents, the Kenyan government did not release the exact number of casualties; instead it played catch-up while disputing figures released by Al Shabaab.

Domestic attacks spurred the government to launch a strong response. Unfortunately, the choice of action came at a critical transitional moment. After decades of human rights violations, the Kenya police were finally undergoing structural transformation buttressed by provisions in the 2010 Constitution.

IV. Police Reform and Counterterrorism

As a response to deteriorating internal security, Kenya instituted a raft of legal, policy, and administrative moves. Parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), established a new Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU), and launched counterterrorism operations across Eastleigh, coastal Kenya, and North- Eastern, all areas where Al Shabaab is active. These operations led to egregious human rights violations, disregard for due process of law, and resulted in extrajudicial executions and disappearances of suspected Al Shabaab members.

Several human rights organisations and the media have documented these violations. It is not just suspected Al Shabaab members who were targeted, human rights groups documenting government agencies’ violations were also targeted through legal and bureaucratic suffocation that paralysed their daily operations. This included closing their offices, taking away their computers, using Kenya Revenue Authorities to question their tax compliance, and freezing their bank accounts.

Domestic attacks spurred the government to launch a strong response. Unfortunately, the choice of action came at a critical transitional moment. After decades of human rights violations, the Kenya police were finally undergoing structural transformation buttressed by provisions in the 2010 Constitution.

However, the Kenya Police’s human rights violations documented by the media and human rights organisations within the context of counterterrorism operations are not an exception but rather a continuation of an established trajectory. The Kenya Police has a documented history of human rights violations and impunity. The Executive’s appointment of senior police leadership without oversight from the state’s arms before the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution made the Kenya Police malleable to the Executive’s demands. It conferred the impunity to intimidate political opponents.

There have been sustained efforts to reform the police in the past. The latest followed the eruption of violence following the 2007-2008 national elections. As part of the mediation process, the African Union (AU), under the auspices of a Panel of Eminent African Personalities, established a mediation team led by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.   As part of the diagnosis, the panel advocated that the government undertake security sector and other reforms to rein in the police.

As part of the mediation, the panel formed the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV), also known as the Waki Commission (named after the chairman of the commission, Justice Philip Waki). According to the Waki’s Commission, a total of 1,133 people died as a result of post-election violence, and gunshots accounted for 962 casualties and 405 deaths. This represented 35.7% of the fatalities, making gunshot the single most frequent cause of deaths during the post-election violence.

The Waki Commission recommended that “the Parties shall initiate urgent and comprehensive reform of the Kenya Police and the Administration Police. A panel of policing experts shall undertake such reforms”.

President Mwai Kibaki, in May 2009, established the National Task Force on Police Reform, also known as the Ransley Task Force (named after the chair of the commission, Justice Philip Ransley).

Chapter 14 of the 2010 Constitution further codified police reforms. The reforms sought to create a “visible” change to the police leadership in three ways. The law established: (1) the position of Inspector General of the Police (IGP) who is appointed by the President with Parliament’s approval; (2) a civilian oversight mechanism through the Independent Policing Authority (IPOA) and National Police Service Commission (NPSC); and, (3) bring the administration police and the regular police under a single IGP and two separate Deputy IGPs – the latter designed to enhance a clear line of command, control, and communications.

Collectively, these changes meant greater independence of the police from the Executive. But the invasion and the insurgents’ response to it created an environment that was not conducive for implementing the reforms. The need for a robust domestic response against Al Shabaab’s attacks on Kenyan soil saw the Kenya Police commit multiple human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions during counterterrorism operations in Muslim majority regions inside Kenya. The Police resorted to the tried and tested collective responsibility and intimidation methods in the form of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

These violations were enabled via the loosening of legal safeguards against police violations. The upshot of the Kenyan police’s human rights violations was not only derailing the police reforms but was also providing Al Shabaab with propaganda material that they used to recruit further.

Those supporting the police’s response advance three main arguments.

One, terrorism is an extraordinary crime, and thus requires an exceptional response. This argument privileges security over liberty, creating a false, if not simplistic, choice. While not perfect, the Prevention of Terrorism Act provides a legal framework within which to fight terrorism. Additionally, there is no empirical evidence that policing that violates human rights leads to a decline in crime. On the contrary, it engenders distrust in the police among the affected community, thus making policing more difficult.

The second argument is the “a few rotten apples” theory – that there are only a few police officers committing human rights violations. The problem with this argument is that even if a few police officers engage in human rights violations, it is still too many. According to an online portal that tracks police violations by human rights groups, since 2007, Kenya Police have killed 689 people. These are figures that human rights groups have verified since the police do not keep the data. These figures could be higher because some cases go unreported.

Such statistics only provide a glimpse, and while helpful in understanding the depth of the crisis, miss the human element. Those who disproportionately bear the brunt of the police’s violations are young men living in slums in Kenya’s major urban areas.

The third defence is that whenever accused of violating human rights, the police ask, “Don’t the police also have human rights? Why don’t the human rights groups advocate for the police’s human rights as well?” This is a valid argument; however, the two issues are not mutually exclusive. One can advocate for police’s human rights while simultaneously asking for police’s accountability.

V. From Counterterrorism to Countering Violence Extremism

The police’s human rights violations are part of the reason behind the move away from counterterrorism to broader policies for countering violent extremism (CVE). CVE is anchored in a global shift in counterterrorism.

Policy trends in the West have a way of becoming mainstream and fashionable elsewhere because Western countries provide much of the funding to support research for policies that then end up being tested in a local setting like Kenya. Even when these policies are discredited in Western countries where they originate, they end up being adopted and accepted uncritically in the Global South.

Hence, Kenya and other countries pivot to CVE away from counterterrorism. This is in line with the global shift in the discourse regarding the utility of counterterrorism as a tool for fighting the rising tide of domestic terrorism, displacing the conventional focus on threats emanating from far-off countries. CVE is one such trend that has grown into a cottage industry that has generated new CVE “experts” overnight.

Policy trends in the West have a way of becoming mainstream and fashionable elsewhere because Western countries provide much of the funding to support research for policies that then end up being tested in a local setting like Kenya. Even when these policies are discredited in Western countries where they originate, they end up being adopted and accepted uncritically in the Global South.

While CVE initially emerged as a response to counterproductive consequences of counterterrorism, it has morphed into a banality hollowed out of its utility, meaning, and potency in time.

The remarkable aspect of CVE’s “trendiness” is that the diagnoses are hardly original, but rather, repackage a laundry list of solutions, some of which are borrowed from Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR). One of the overarching aspects of the CVE is the Danish or the Aarhus Model.

The Danish Model

Prevention of terrorism became a top item in Denmark’s political agenda in 2005 in the wake of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, the train bomb attacks in Madrid in 2004, and the bomb attacks in London in 2005. This, combined with the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten’s printing of twelve cartoons of Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, lit a fuse.

Kwale, Lamu and Mombasa counties’ CVE plans were heavily borrowed from the Danish Aarhus Model, named after the Aarhus region. The model was developed when in 2009, the Danish Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs was given European Union approval for a three-year pilot project on de-radicalisation. The project was launched in cooperation with the municipalities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, East Jutland Police District, and the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET).

The model also works at three levels: a) General – this level is principally about raising awareness through public information programmes; b) Specific – this level involves those who have been identified as individuals or groups who are planning to travel to join extremist groups; and c) Targeted – this intervention is designed for individuals and groups who are considered “imminent risk”. Activities at this level involve exit and mentoring programmes.

Further, the Danish CVE plan is a multi-agency affair involving the Danish Security and Intelligence Service Centre for Prevention, Ministry of Immigration, Integration, and Housing, and the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration. The Danish approach draws on decades of experience with similar collaboration with other areas and benefits from existing structures and initiatives developed for other purposes than specifically preventing extremism and radicalisation.

However, adopting the model wholesale without considering the local peculiarities of Kenya misses the point that what works for Denmark does not necessarily work for Lamu, Kwale, and Mombasa. The biggest challenge in adopting the model in Kenya is that there is no national legal-policy framework regarding disengagement and reintegration of returnees, a third element of the Aarhus model.

VI. Amnesty for Al Shabaab

Following the Al-Shabaab attacks on Garissa University in which 147 people died, Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary, Joseph Nkaissery, declared an amnesty for members of the group aiming to return to Kenya. According to Nkaissery, the amnesty was to “encourage those disillusioned with the group that wanted to come back“.

Under the amnesty, the returnees would receive protection, as well as rehabilitation and counseling. The programme claimed that it would support training and alternative livelihood methods through work with different governmental ministries.

In 2015, the amnesty was announced initially for an initial ten-day period. It was later extended by two weeks. In May 2015, the government stated that 85 youths had so far surrendered under the amnesty programme and that “the government had put an elaborate comprehensive integration programme to absorb those who had surrendered. A year and a half later, in October 2016, the government made the amnesty indefinite.

Reports claim that anywhere from 700 to 1,000 fighters have returned from Somalia, but the amnesty has not had any impact in terms of rehabilitation, and that these alleged programmes were non-existent. Consequently, the counties have increased their involvement (an approrpiate development), as the state response has been inadequate, and left mainly to civil society, but without government support. The mistrust of returnees from within the communities is an equally significant problem, along with livelihood issues.

Sound diagnosis

Because of the diversity of the stakeholders involved and consulted, the county CVE plans provide a sound analysis of what predisposes young men and women to radicalisation and eventually joining violent extremist groups. The fact that discussions regarding the development of CVE plans were spearheaded by local civil society organisations also enhanced taking on board nuanced local realities. This also engendered legitimacy and trust from the communities.

The two aspects that have not been fully fleshed out in most of the plans are, first, the source of money in implementing the policies (for instance, the Mombasa County Action Plan budgeted for KSh430,223,000 for January- December 2018). However, the available funds were Sh128,000,600, or only 29.77 per cent of the allocation. Second, the importance of women, while mentioned, has not been addressed in detail.

Fighting violent extremism is an extremely challenging undertaking, but uncritically exporting solutions without customising them for local realities does not help. Besides, in the UK and the US, CVE has been discredited because it was primarily used as a surveillance tool on communities on an industrial scale.

VII. Geopolitics of the Horn of Africa

Besides failing to keep Kenyans safe and rendering police reform stillborn, Kenya’s intervention in Somalia damaged the country’s regional diplomatic clout and leverage, especially with Ethiopia, a key ally in the Horn of Africa. The Kenyatta government’s management of relations with Somalia has been even more problematic.

Despite being in a region bedeviled with constant conflict due to Cold War proxy relationships, Kenya remained unscathed by the Cold War’s vagaries. This enduring legacy survived despite the fact that Kenya, effectively an ally of the US, is surrounded by Ethiopia and Somalia, who were clients of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and Cuba at different times.

Kenya’s president, Daniel Arap Moi, aware of the challenges of being sucked into any conflict, firewalled Kenya from being mired in regional conflicts by remaining ideologically ambivalent, at least in public. Kenya remained neither a friend nor a foe of any of these countries. Moi was making a virtue out of necessity considering his tenuous hold on power domestically.

Moi instead made Kenya a site for peace negotiations amongst warring groups in the region. Kenya was the venue for peace negotiations between the warring parties in South Sudan and Somalia. The Nairobi Agreement, a peace deal between the Ugandan government of Tito Okello and the National Resistance Army (NRA), a rebel group led by Yoweri Museveni, was signed in Nairobi in December 1985. Kenya carried the culture of hosting peace talks even after the end of the Cold War. The Sudan and South Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Kenya.

Moi also appointed competent foreign affairs ministers, such as Dr. Robert Ouko, Dr. Bonaya Godana, and Dr. Zachary Onyoka, just to mention a few. Post-Moi, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not distinguished itself in conducting Kenya’s diplomacy.

Somalia

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia was formed in 2004 in Nairobi after many months of negotiations. The TFG was the 14th attempt at creating a functioning government in Somalia since the collapse of Muhammad Siad Barre’s government in 1991. Formed late in 2004, the TFG governed from Kenya until June 2005. The late Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat led the negotiations.

Despite the Kenyan government’s treatment of Kenyan Somalis as a second-class citizens, bilateral relations between Kenya and Somalia were warm and cordial. Currently, relations between Kenya and Somalia are arguably the lowest in decades.

At the heart of the Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia dispute is the question of who will control the semi-autonomous region of Jubaland. The central player in that dispute is Mohamed Madobe, the President of Jubaland. His militia, the Ras Kamboni Brigade, fought alongside the Kenya Defence Forces when Kenya intervened in Somalia.

Kenyan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inspect a destroyed vehicle belonging to Al Qaeda-affliated extremist group Al Shabaab at Kismayo Airport in southern Somalia, 22 August, 2013. AU-UN IST Photo / Ramadaan Mohamed.

Kenyan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inspect a destroyed vehicle belonging to Al Qaeda-affliated extremist group Al Shabaab at Kismayo Airport in southern Somalia, 22 August, 2013. AU-UN IST Photo / Ramadaan Mohamed.

When Kenya first intervened in Somalia in 2011, Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia since intervening unilaterally in 2006 to stop the ascent of the Union of Islamic Courts. But Kenya’s intervention was in Jubaland, a region predominantly occupied by the Ogaden, who have been fighting the Ethiopian government for decades in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. There was no way Ethiopia could countenance that happening without them having a say. Besides, being Somalia’s breadbasket, the port of Kismaayo is also in Jubaland.

Since the collapse of Siad Barre in 1991, Ethiopia and Kenya maintained a united policy. But Kenya’s intervention changed that. While both countries are in Somalia with the primary purpose of defeating Al Shabaab, they are both now pursuing a different route. Ahmed Abiy’s coming to power in April 2018 gave this a further ascent. Until that point, Ethiopia principally supported the semi-autonomous regions under the guise of decentralisation. To many Somalis, Ethiopia was not interested in the emergence of a central government in Somalia. Since Abiy became the Prime Minister, Addis and Mogadishu have grown closer, shifting decades-long Ethiopia policy, and leaving Kenya and Ethiopia at loggerheads.

These differences were on full display during the Jubaland presidential election when Kenya supported Madobe, and Mogadishu and Ethiopia supported the opposition candidate. The Kenya-Ethiopia’s dispute continues to stymie AMISOM operations. The only actor benefiting from such open hostility is Al Shabaab.

The maritime dispute

For decades, Somalia regarded Kenya as a neutral arbiter, unlike Ethiopia, where long-standing resentments against Somalia have endured. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia and its meddling in the country’s internal affairs have ruined Kenya-Somalia relations.

The150,000 sq.km maritime dispute with Somalia exacerbated the conflict. The disagreement, which came to the surface in 2004, could have been resolved amicably had officials at the Kenya International Boundaries Office (KIBO) taken the negotiations seriously. During the negotiations, Kenyan officials regarded their Somalia counterparts with disrespect, assuming that as a “failed state”, Somalia cannot negotiate on an equal footing. Kenyan officials also failed to show up for a meeting with Somalia without explanation. The case eventually ended up at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Instead of correcting earlier mistakes, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officers dug in their heels. It started engaging in reactionary moves like denying Somali diplomats entry visas and reintroducing flight stopovers in Wajir, thus substituting petulance for diplomacy.

VIII. The political settlement with Al Shabaab

Since 2011, Al Shabaab has been dislodged from many of its territorial strongholds, thanks to the 22,000-strong AMISOM troops and the Somali National Army. Yet Al Shabaab continues to control parts of south-central Somalia. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has also significantly increased drone attacks.

More significant is the fact that, according to AMISOM’s Transition Plan, AMISOM will be winding down in Somalia in December 2021. The departure is despite a lack of demonstrable improvement in the Somalia National Army’s capacity to take over. If Al Shabaab continues to pose security threats inside and outside Somalia despite these investments, what will that mean after AMISOM leaves Somalia?

One of the significant and fatal gaps in addressing the Somalia crisis is the singular and disproportionate focus of using the terrorism lens. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” became the overarching slogan, becoming almost an article of faith, foreclosing any model of thinking, planning, and programming to address the crisis in Somalia.

Expanding the focus of analysis and therefore suggesting potential solutions to include other models would help to negotiate a post-AMISOM reality. That should be helpful even if AMISOM stays in Somalia because there cannot be a never-ending mission. It must have an end date.

More significant is the fact that, according to AMISOM’s Transition Plan, AMISOM will be winding down in Somalia in December 2021. The departure is despite a lack of demonstrable improvement in the Somalia National Army’s capacity to take over.

Conflicts end either through total defeat, a stalemate, or a negotiated political settlement. In Somalia’s case, the complete collapse of Al Shabaab is highly unlikely. The group has developed a sophisticated mechanism of continuing to generate revenue, including taxation and recruitment, and continues to operate as an urban/rural guerrilla outfit capable of launching violent attacks with lethal outcomes. As a result, Somalia and Al Shabaab are engaged in a “mutually destructive stalemate”.

Kenya negotiated the Somalia process that eventually led to the Transitional National Government’s formation, the first government formed since the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991. It took several attempts of delicate negotiations. Kenya also played a significant role in resolving decades of civil conflict in Sudan that led to the formation of South Sudan. While negotiating with Al Shabaab is entirely different from the Sudan and Somalia negotiations, quite frankly, the only reasonable way of ending the present crisis is by a political settlement leading to Al Shabaab being part of the future Somalia government.

Some senior Al Shabaab figures would consider negotiating with the TFG if offered positions, while others would want to have their names removed from the UN and US terror lists. Still others, eager to rejoin society, seek general amnesty, and many would like to be resettled in a third country. All these incentives are a price not too high for peace in a country shattered by a civil war since 1991.

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Post-Gaddafi Libya and the Unleashing of Anarchy in the Sahel

With Muammar Gaddafi gone, battle-hardened desert tribal groupings and latent ethnic rivalries have erupted in the Sahel, producing hundreds of small conflicts that had been simmering for decades.

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Post-Gaddafi Libya and the Unleashing of Anarchy in the Sahel
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On February 16th 2011, the Arab spring hit the streets of Misrata through sporadic street protests, then spread out into other Libyan cities, ostensibly sparked by the arrest of a human rights activist in the restive eastern city of Benghazi. Libya was simply catching on to the spontaneous civil blowup that was sweeping across the region against a litany of social ills, political mess and economic repression in the wider Middle East.

Libya, the geographical buffer between Egypt in the east and Tunisia in the west fell into that hysterical upheaval along the Mediterranean strip and colonel Muamar Gadhafi just didn’t have the institutional or diplomatic backing needed to stem such a fallout.

It’s often whispered that by not creating independent judicial, parliamentary and social structures but instead building a ‘rule by the people’ Gadhafi had succeeded in building the country around himself. This worked well to foment his grip, but proved to be the fragility of his stranglehold, once the eruption in the Libyan city of Benghazi began to spread outwards. The 3rd century AD city of Benghazi uniquely resented Gadhafi after he took its capital status to Tripoli and stripped it off its stature and prestige during his 1969 coup.

His mistake also partly explains how within just 10 months, the street protests had morphed into an all-out civil war backed by European countries that eventually toppled him, on 20th October 2011, a rare feat, for a leader who’d held to power since 1969. This Arab Spring was simply the culmination of low-grade isolated fights that had impacted the wider Arab civilization since the days of the radical Muslim cleric Sayyid Qutb and his views on the holy jihad in the 1950s.

Starting in his days as a colonel, Qaddafi has always been an ideologically erratic and pragmatic fox who’s Pan-African ambitions unsettled many primitively territorial, and provincially-minded African presidents around him. He misused this ambition though, to advance Libya’s regional clout as the most lucrative player in the Sahelian, sub-Saharan and Arabian political marketplaces.

Jesse B. Awalt/Released

Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan chief of state, gives his first speech as Chairperson of the African Union in the Plenary Hall of the United Nations building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the 12th African Union Summit Feb. 2, 2009. The assembly elected Qaddafi to replace Kikwete as chair of the organization. Photo. Wikipedia/Jesse B. Awalt

More than 15 African president and rebel leaders and their respective countries are said to have inordinately benefited from his largesse fueled by his desire to buy or control everyone territorially. It should be remembered that Gadhafi pursued pan-Africanism only after his 1970/80s pan-Arabism dream proved unviable.

The recent coups in Mali and clashes in Niger and Cameroon are simply part of the wider Sahelian cocktail of devastation caused by converging scourges of climate change, weak regimes, violent jihadis, droughts, rising population, raging poverty, arms smuggling, and corruption. Gadhafi had somehow managed to suppress these regional problems through a combination of threats, cash, promises and charisma.

The war lords, South American drug smugglers through the Conakry coast, and Western mining companies all benefited from Gadhafi’s ambitions which inadvertently stabilized the hostile 9.2 million square kilometer Sahara Desert.  The desert measures 4800 kilometers in length and 1931 kilometer width landmass and makes up the largest desert in the world.

So when Gadhafi fell, the Sahelian communities on Libya’s southern borders, and in adjacent borderlands, became the recipients of wave after wave of returnees armed with dwindling cash reserves, ideas about democracy, firearms, superiority complex, and battle hardened combat experience.

More consequentially the Libyan crisis produced an estimated 600,000 returning Tuareg welders, blue-collar employees, miners, specialists, returnee migrants, and worst of all, mercenaries. Gadhafi’s inner circle, African dissidents, his lieutenants, and armed mercenaries ended up with large cash reserves, war experience, huge weaponry caches, and rebel networks running from eastern Senegal to western Sudan and across the Red Sea into the Arabian gulf.

When Gadhafi ruled the Sahel, ordering bombings and peace in equal measure across the region, he’d never had imagined that his end would come in the hands of a 22 year old Omraan Shaban. Shaban, a millennial with an elongated nose, a caricature like moustache, a pouty mouth that mimicked a muffled rage, and sunken white eyes became a sensation as part of the team that shot Gadhafi.

A resident of Misrata in the western Mediterranean coast, Omraan Shaban would become the embodiment of the capture of the strongman in the graffiti-laden culvert in Sirte town, and a symbol of youthful hubris or heroism depending on how you look at it. While the anti-Gadhafi rebellion started in the Eastern city of Beghazi the ultimate rivalry would come down to the two western Libyan cities; pro-Gadhafi Ben Walid town, versus anti-Gadhafi Misrata.

In 2012, 5 months after Gadhafi met his death, Omraan, a Misratan and member of the Shield brigade was part of the retaliation against kidnapping of 4 journalists in the pro-Gadhafi city of Ben Walid when he was captured and tortured for his role in the murder of Gadhafi. He’d later succumb to his bullet wounds in a French military hospital in September 2012 where he was receiving treatment.

Meanwhile further south in the Libyan desert border town of Ghat a tall bearded man, dressed in Bedouin clothes drives atop a white Land cruiser in the desert on the outskirts of the Akakus petroleum plant. Gadhafi’s fall had unraveled a 120 years’ truce that had existed between the city’s majority Tebu and Tuareg tribes close to the Libya-Algerian border.

Aboubaker Akhaty, a Toureg leader in Libya’s southern city of Ubari reckons that for a civilization built atop a gas reservoir, their existence was always going to depend on a skillful negotiation between the oil companies, marauding mercenaries, Tebu herdsmen and the flow of arms from the northern Libyan cities at the Mediterranean coast.

Destroyed tanks in Masrata, 2012. Photo. Flickr/joepyrek

Destroyed tanks in Masrata, 2012. Photo. Flickr/joepyrek

Mercenaries fleeing the fall of Gadhafi entered small cities that lie just across from the Algerian border town such as Ghat, Madam in Niger and Wath in Chad. The contested city of Ubari or Awbari was the last spot in Libya’s southern desert before these thousands of Gadhafi’s mercenaries vanished into the Sahara wilderness some for good, others not for long.

Ubari’s strategic importance in the Sahelian conflict is defined by the geographical fact that it’s flanked by one of Libya’s largest oilfield’s, El sharara to the north and the largest arms and oil smuggling routes to the south of the city and just north of the Chadian border. The Libya’s southern civil war was triggered 3 years after the fall of Gadhafi when Tebu and Tuareg smugglers started disputes over these lucrative smuggling routes.

An estimated 250,000 of the 600,000 workers who left Libya headed home to Niger, while 70,000 crossed into Chad, homeless and penniless and carrying everything with them from guns, household goods, ambition, hopes, ammunitions and versatility.

Southern Libyan towns like Sebha and Kufra, may not mean much to anyone outside its borders, but the fall of Gadhafi marked the beirut-ization of such cities lending them to the whim and impulses of drug lords, arms smugglers, human traffickers and became an existential threat to weak regimes in Niger, Chad, and northern Sudan. These lawless cities served as the rear attack flank for armed rebel groups like the Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and host to rebel leaders, fleeing soldiers, and their Middle eastern, and Eurasian fixers.

With its origins in the scenic Algeria’s Kalbiye mountains which are part of the Mediterranean Atlas ranges, AQIM formerly known as  Salafist Group for Preaching and Combatrebranded in 2007, 4 years before the fall of Gadhafi and would move in to establish its post-Gadhafi territory by recruiting from southern Algeria, south-east Libya and among the Beribiche tribe in the coup-laden northern Mali.

Kidnapped special UN envoy to the Niger’s Agadez region Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat, who was held hostage by AQ-IM for 4 months in the Sahara Desert in 2010, wrote in his book A Season in Hell that  “There was a big gulf in the AQIM between those who were black and those who were not. They preached equality, but did not practice it. Sub-Saharan Africans were clearly second class in the eyes of AQIM.” The racially motivated militant groups like AQIM tried filling the vacuum created by the absence of Gadhafi, using recruitment and local spy networks, arms supply, other logistics and illicit trade activities.

By 2013, the post-Gadhafi AQIM spread its tentacles to other parts of the region and forged alliances with murderous groups like Ansar Dine in Mali and northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Besides the core Sahelian states, of Mali, CAR, Nigeria, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, northern Chad and Sudan’s Darfur region soon became victims of unmitigated tribal, economic and security crisis after the fall of Gadhafi. Returnee migrants, Tuareg mercenaries and the flow of arms from Gadhafi’s looted weapon caches is what created this precarious security situation in Mali and the wider Sahelian states.

Demonstrably, over the last 10 years, the combined effects of these realities have reinforced existing pockets of unrest within the Sahel region, with increased fallouts around northern Mali. The Tuaregs under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), with their access to lots of arms, anti-tank and explosives continue to drive their desire for a Tuareg republic in the Western Sahara to be named Azawad.

A series of military losses beginning in late 2011 such as the fall of cities like Gao and Kidal to the rebels by the Malian army, had exposed the dire underbelly of a Post-Gadhafi Sahel.  Inadequate resourcing, poor tactical leadership, and failure to master the terrain by the region’s national armies led to about 1000 troops either killed, taken captive or deserted in the French-led Operation Serval, Operation Barkhane and Operation Epervier.

The initial push for a Tuareg country was marked by a motivated secular ethno-nationalist patriotism for a people long loathed by their neighboring tribes as well as the French since they massacred an entire French military convoy led by Eugen Bonnier at Goundam in 1894.

While Niger’s Tuareg returnees came to a land for whom civilization had bypassed, their Malian Tuareg brothers pitched camp at Zaka, in northern Mali a scene straight out of the surface of the moon. The strategic difference is that their Malian cousins had armed themselves with guns, even greater ambition, desert Landcruisers, an ideology and guns, lots of guns.

As Gadhafi sneaked around the town of Sirte trying to evade eventual capture and the French drones above in late 2011, Ibrahim Bahanga his longtime ally headed to Kidai region in Northeast Mali, just outside intadjedite, and not far off from his birthplace, at Tin-Essako. His vision-to establish the Tuareg country of Azawad-would outlive him as he fell under a staged accident, in late August 2011, two months before Gadhafi’s assassination.

Bahanga’s death deep in the Malian Sahara Desert in a suspicious car accident few hours before a crucial meeting of Tuareg rebel leaders was the first in a series of major setbacks that were to follow. Few weeks later the Malian Sahel was hit with the worst drought in 27 years taking away attention and crucial war resources-misfortunes were piling. The historically articulate but politically naïve deputy Bilal Cherif took over after Bahanga’s death to continue the quest of MNLA rebel group for an independent Azawad state for Tuaregs.

While Bahanga and Cherif pursued a secular ethno-nationalist ambition, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb AQIM arrived too, with their desert Land cruisers, and awash with guns. There’s was a fundamentalist plan to set up the long desired caliphate that would ideally span the Sahara from Senegal in the West to Sudan in the East and Yemen across the Red Sea. Local Islamic group Ansar Dine awaited the AQIM and together they’d launch a joint war against Malian Army in the north. The 3-way battle lines soon concretized as secular Tuareg nationalists battled with farming bantu southerners in Mali, as well as AQIM’s Islamic militias from the edges of the Sahara.

On January 17th 2012 three months after the death of Bahanga, MNLA launched their first offensive for the liberation of Azawad. The ill-equipped Malian army found itself fighting rebels with competing visions of a liberated desert north; with secular Tuaregs on one front and the Islamic jihadist on the other-causalities mounted. In the south, the Bambara, an ethnic subtribe of the dominant Mande tribe, who made up some of the highest causalities in the Malian military poured out into the streets of Bamako, angered by the images of dead soldiers coming from the Malian insurgency war in the north.

By the time the US state department spokesperson Nuland called the press on 22 March 2012, to voice support for Malian regime under president Amodue Toumani Toure, the military Captain Sanogo had taken over and the president fled the country. As the cool of the afternoon beat off the scorching Malian desert afternoon sun the secular MNLA convoy rode into the Malian city of Gao in pickup trucks, while the Islamic AQIM drove into the town of Timbuktu to the specter of pensive residents. The remaining Malian forward operating bases (FOB) collapsed as Malian Army fled south abandoning stash of cash, weapons, and military infrastructure reminiscent to what had happened to Gadhafi 6 months earlier.

The MNLA Tuareg under Colonel Meshkenani Bela led the conquest into northern Mali and takeover of Gao, but overlooked a critical fact that would haunt them afterwards. They were a minority tribe on the Niger river bend where they were outnumbered by local tribes like the Songhay and the Fulani who were anything but impressed by their takeover. While the Tuareg MNLA entered Gao city through the west, the Islamic Militant Movement for Oneness and Jihad MOJAO which had broken off from AQIM entered through the east and laid claim to sections of Gao-the powdered keg now just needed a fuse.

By March 30th 2012, it soon became clear that Tuareg’s MNLA had neither the capacity nor experience to govern politically and the Islamic MOJAO-buoyed by their merge with terror leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al Mulathameen-pounced upon the chance to run and stake claim to Gao.

The former Malian army leader turned Tuareg rebel commander Colonel Al Salat Habi, who oversaw the city of Gao on behalf of MNLA had only one option-to negotiate with Al Qaeda, an enemy he’d fought both as an army man in Aguelhoc town and now as a tribal Tuareg commander at Gao.

By April 2012 Northern Mali fell, regional powers panicked, drug smuggling routes tanked and rerouted to Tanzania and Kenya and hostage taking replaced the collapsing drug trade, and raked in upwards of $250 million for groups like MOJAO.

Meanwhile in April 6th 2012 the MNLA under the leadership of Bilal Cherif declared the independence of the state of Azawad. For decades the Malian state had become complacent, even accommodating of the Al Qaeda as a counterforce to the threat of a Tuareg civil war.

Osama Bin Laden’s geographical curiosity of the African Sahel during his time in Sudan, and the desire for a remote desert caliphate had paid off as AQIM ruled the historically and strategically important city of Timbuktu. They imposed a local Muslim Tuareg, Tohar, as their commander. Al Qaida-IM made up in cultural literacy and political tact what they lacked in cash resources.

They partnered with Ansar Dine, used the Tuareg tribesmen in police and civilian roles to smoothen their interaction with local Tuareg populations. But what they achieved through the social and ethnic blend of Ansar Dine, AQIM, through its radical scholars like Abu Al Baraa undid and inspired global rage by introducing public floggings, beheadings, and tearing down of 14th and 15th century historical shrines and structures. The world had to act, and act fast.

It is a testament to the Tuareg’s geo-political illiteracy that their most contested lands is in Northern Mali which is the least mineral endowment of all their lands, smaller in size relative to the adjacent countries and one in which they are demographically outnumbered.

As the situation deteriorated in Northern Mali, the situation is worse in central Mali. There, ethnic Bambara and Dogon tribes organized murderously efficient armed militias, known as Dozo hunters which culminated in Ogossagou massacre that saw 170 Fulani men, women and children murdered.

Across the border in Niger, Bedouin and Tuareg’s Movement for National Justice (MNJ) was already fomenting a rebellion against the massive billion-dollar French uranium mining facility-Areva. It’s a testament to the extreme marginalization that the region remained wretched poor and desolate despite supplying 5% of the world’s high-grade uranium.

Residents of Timbuktu pass by Djingareyber Mosque. Photo. Flickr/UN Photo

Residents of Timbuktu pass by Djingareyber Mosque. Photo. Flickr/UN Photo

In June 2012, Azawad in northern Mali soon fell into the hands of Al Qaeda-IM and Ansar Dine, who didn’t waste time in advancing south to the Malian town of Konna and massacred a Malian army regiment in what came to be known as ‘’The Battle of Konna’’. The world’s patience ran out. France sent its tanks rolling north and east of Mali as NATO jets bombarded their strongholds. The Al Qaeda’s last message while atop grey desert Landcruisers was a promise of retreating into the desert but they’ll soon be back to exert Allah’s vengeance on the infidels.

In the last 8 years since, the Tuareg rebels, local armies, and Islamic radicals have since split into hundreds of highly mobile militias that launch attacks on the border between Mali, Niger, Chad, Algeria, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.

In 2008 Mohammed Yusuf, a 38-year-old Salafi preacher in Maiduguri town, northeast of Nigeria and close to the Lake Chad, fed up by the excesses of the southern Nigerian elites, drew crowds towards the promise of caliphate that will redistribute the oil and mining revenues. Yusuf was an admirer and avowed devotee of 14th century Salafist Muslim cleric Ibn Tammiyah. In mid-2009 his followers Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad famously known as Boko Haram clashed with the Army at a custom checkpoint close to Gamboru area in Maiduguri, Nigeria. He was hunted from his in-law’s house, detained then later on mutilated and his body dumped by the road.

The viral video of his cuffed and badly executed body unleashed a reign of terror and retaliations by his loyalists. His deputy Abubakar Shekau took over and wasted no time in reconnecting with Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb across the border, and over the next 4 years extended an olive branch to radicals as far as Al Shabaab in Somalia.

In 2013 Boko Haram attacked and killed a Nigerian cop in the Northeast town of Baga followed by a major attack at Bama, and the incensed Nigerian army responded in kind by mowing down dozens, torched houses and left behind estimated 180 corpses and countless who drowned in the nearby lake Chad while trying to flee the carnage.

Lake Chad lies further west of Niger, just north of the Chadian Capital N’djamena and borders Cameron, Nigeria and Niger itself. The 1350sq kilometer lake is the largest water body in the Sahel and one of the last buffers against the ravages of the southward expanding Sahara desert. Between 1978 and 1995 the lake shrank 95% unleashing a humanitarian, ecological, and climatic disaster only comparable to the globally catastrophic drying up of the Aral Sea in the Soviet Union and its direct impact on nearly 100 million lives.

The climatic disaster has been accompanied by civic, geographical and colonial disasters such as the demarcations that cut off the villages from Baga, the regionally largest and closest trading post in Northeast Nigeria. The Chadian regime inadvisably moved the state’s regional offices from the lake’s largest island to the city of Bol on the shores among the Islamic Kanembou tribe and away from the fishing Bougourmi tribe-the two tribes historically don’t get along.

In his heydays Muammar Gadhafi had sponsored numerous plans to topple the CIA-backed former Chadian president Hissène Habré which culminated in the 1986/7 disastrous Toyota Wars in which the two forces fought fiercely atop Toyota Hiluxes supplied by France and the US. The post 1990 Idris Deby’s regime hasn’t done a better job of strengthening institutions and rebuilding the country. He’s committing a mistake that his former northern neighbor Gadhafi had done years earlier and it had costed him his life. Outside of the capital N’Djamena, the only other semblance of civilization is the world’s scenic 18 strips Ounianga lakes in the north and the 3rd largest city of Abeche in the east.

In 1980 Chad ended up in a long running civil war, and Gadhafi in his signature style provided arms, political sanction and logistical support to the Arab Nomads rebels hiding in Eastern Libya. The Sudanese government, well aware of the repercussions of the Chadian civil war pouring across its borders, armed the Arabic-speaking Abbala nomads as a buffer in that long running insurrection. The two groups later merged to form the infamous Janjaweed. Soon enough they drifted away from Gadhafi and provided existential utility to the Khartoum government as they battled with the Christian south.

The Janjaweed in turn lost Gadhafi’s outright support as they increasingly became Khartoum’s weapon of war and supplementary military flank against southern tribes like the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa peoples. Gadhafi didn’t mind though as he had backed Sudanese strongman Sadiq Al Mahdi to assume power in Sudan in 1986 until 1989 when Omar Al Bashir took over.

In mid-August 2011 Sudanese spy chief Mohammed Atta and former president Al Bashir-who was under an international arrest warrant-left for Tripoli and met Gadhafi ostensibly to discuss ‘the means to restore peace in Darfur. 10 months later the same Khartoum would supply anti-Gadhafi rebels in the east with arms and logistical supply rerouted through southwest Egypt.

With Gadhafi gone, the arm stockpiles, battle-hardened desert tribes and latent ethnic rivalries that he had long suppressed have erupted, producing hundreds of small conflicts which were simmering for decades.

My ‘worst mistake’ is what Obama called his toppling of Gadhafi in Libya during his mid-April 2016 interview aired on Fox News. Gadhafi, for all his flaws had outfoxed many adversaries and used his Bedouin credibility and mastery of the desert power politics to navigate complex regional, political, historical and religious interests in the Sahel and just like in Libya he had ensured they were all built around his fist, flair or charisma.

His rule had been marred by the Palestinian cause, the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing, the 1988 Lorkerbie Plane Crash, the 1989 blowing up of the French UTA airliner over Niger, the 1987 alleged coup plot in Kenya, in a never-ending list of proven and purported mischief. What’s not in doubt is that his 42 years reign had an oversized impact on the local, and regional power equilibriums.

Therefore, his ouster and death in that culvert in Sirte city in October 2011 was inevitably going to create a Sahelian vacuum that set off chain reactions from eastern Senegal through a dozen countries all the way east and south of Sahara. The ensuing chaos was inevitable,. There was just no two ways about it. Former US Defense Secretary in one of his last interviews before leaving office estimated it’ll take about 30 years to quell the militant extremism unleashed post-9/11.

So the current coup in Mali, the rise of AQIM, and AQAP, and forging links with Al Shabaab, Janjaweed, Tuareg insurrection, Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and dozens of embedded militia groups are a legacy to an explosive powder keg for which Gadhafi’s death was simply the perfect fuse.

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A Hidden Tycoon, African Explosives, and a Loan from a Notorious Bank: Questionable Connections Surround Beirut Explosion Shipment

An international team of investigative journalists has uncovered new facts about the lead-up to the explosion, which killed at least 182 people, injured over 6,000 and caused hundreds of thousands to lose their homes.

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A Hidden Tycoon, African Explosives, and a Loan from a Notorious Bank: Questionable Connections Surround Beirut Explosion Shipment
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Since the devastating explosion of a store of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port on August 4, Lebanese citizens have taken to the streets in shock, outrage, and grief.

Above all, they have demanded answers: Where did the nearly 3,000 tons of explosive chemicals come from, and who owned it? Why did the rickety ship that brought the hazardous material to Lebanon end up stranded in the city’s port in late 2013? And how could the impounded chemicals sit for over half a decade in an unsafe warehouse before tragedy finally struck?

In Lebanon itself, the causes of the disaster appear to be tied to bureaucratic ineptitude. Just two weeks before the warehouse exploded, Lebanon’s president received an urgent report from the country’s security services warning him that the situation was critically dangerous.

The international side of the affair, on the other hand, quickly became lost in a maze of corporate and financial intrigue. Igor Grechushkin, the Russian man variously described as the owner or the operator of the Moldovan-flagged MV Rhosus, is said to have abandoned the vessel in Lebanon after declaring bankruptcy. The vessel’s deadly cargo had been purchased from the country of Georgia by a Mozambican firm that produces commercial explosives, via a British middleman trading firm linked to Ukraine.

The ownership of the Rhosus, and the companies that ordered the nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate to be transported halfway around the world in a rickety ship, are obscured by layers of secrecy that have stymied journalists and officials at every turn. Even the Lebanese government does not appear to know who actually owned the ship.

A man stands next to graffiti at the damaged port area in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 11, 2020. Credit: Hannah McKay / Reuters

A man stands next to graffiti at the damaged port area in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 11, 2020. Credit: Hannah McKay / Reuters

But an international team of investigative journalists has uncovered new facts about the lead-up to the explosion, which killed at least 182 people, injured over 6,000 and caused hundreds of thousands to lose their homes.

Reporters found that the circumstances for the tragedy were set in the baffling nowhere-world of offshore trade, where secretive companies and pliant governments allow questionable actors to work in the shadows.

Among those secretly connected to the Rhosus and its final voyage: a hidden shipping tycoon, a notorious bank, and businesses in East Africa previously investigated for ties to the illicit arms trade.

In their joint investigation spanning ten countries, reporters found that:

  • Igor Grechushkin did not own the Rhosus but was merely leasing it through an offshore company registered in the Marshall Islands. Instead, documents show that the true owner of the Rhosus was Charalambos Manoli, a Cypriot shipping magnate. Manoli denies this, but declined to provide documents to back up his claim.
  • Manoli owned the ship through a company registered in the notoriously secretive jurisdiction of Panama, which received its mail in Bulgaria. He registered it in Moldova, a land-locked Eastern European country that is notorious as a jurisdiction with lax regulations for vessels that fly its “flag of convenience.” To do this, he worked through another of his companies, Geoship, one of a handful of officially recognized firms that set foreign owners up with Moldovan flags. Then, yet another Manoli company, this one based in Georgia, certified the ship as seaworthy — even though it was in such bad shape it was impounded in Spain days later.
  • At the time of the Rhosus’ last voyage, Manoli was in debt to FBME, a Lebanese-owned bank that lost multiple licenses for alleged money laundering offenses, including helping the Shia militant group Hezbollah and a company linked to Syria’s weapons of mass destruction program. At one stage, the Rhosus was offered up as collateral to the bank.
  • The ultimate customer for the ammonium nitrate on the ship, a Mozambican explosives factory, is part of a network of companies previously investigated for weapons trafficking and allegedly supplying explosives used by terrorists.The factory never tried to claim the abandoned material.
  • The intermediary for the shipment, a British company that was dormant at the time, convinced a Lebanese judge in 2015 to get the ammonium nitrate tested for quality with the intent of claiming it. The stockpile was found to be in poor condition, and the company, Savaro Limited, did not try to take back the ammonium nitrate in the end.

The new revelations show how, at almost every stage, the Rhosus’ deadly shipment was connected to actors who used opaque offshore structures and lax government oversight to work in the shadows.

The revelations also expose the particular dangers posed by the lack of transparency in the maritime shipping industry, according to Helen Sampson, the director of Cardiff University’s Seafarers International Research Centre.

The findings “highlight all the weaknesses of the [maritime shipping] system and how they can be exploited by those who want to exploit them,” Sampson said.

Offshore companies and convoluted ownership structures helped obscure the true ownership of the MV Rhosus.

Offshore companies and convoluted ownership structures helped obscure the true ownership of the MV Rhosus. Credit: Edin Pašović

The Rhosus’ True Ownership

The Moldova-flagged ship that set out from the Georgian port of Batumi in September 2013, carrying over 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate made by a local factory and bound for Mozambique, was in poor shape. The decks were corroded, it lacked auxiliary power, and had problems with radio communication. The vessel stopped in Beirut to pick up more cargo and never left. It was detained first by creditors seeking debts from its operator, and later by port officials who considered it unsafe to sail.

The MV Rhosus in Istanbul in 2010. Credit: Hasenpusch/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The MV Rhosus in Istanbul in 2010. Credit: Hasenpusch/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

After the ship was abandoned and impounded in 2014, leaving Ukrainian and Russian crew members stranded on board for 10 months, the ammonium nitrate was moved to a warehouse at the port. The ship eventually sank behind a breakwater, where its wreckage remains.

Following the Beirut explosion, media reports and government authorities have focused on one man as responsible for abandoning the ship and its cargo: Igor Grechushkin. A 43-year-old Russian citizen living in Cyprus, Grechushkin has been repeatedly identified as the Rhosus’ owner. He has avoided all attempts by OCCRP and other outlets to speak to him, although he was interviewed by Cypriot police at the request of Lebanese authorities on August 6.

Igor Grechushkin has attracted attention around the world for his role in the Lebanon explosion. But public records suggest that he has a history of acting as a corporate officer in companies run by others. He was also convicted of aggravated theft in the mid-2000s in Russia’s far east, for reasons that remain unclear.

At different times between 2006 and 2013, Greschushkin served as the secretary of two Cyprus-registered companies: Lyncott Enterprises and Hogla Trading, which provided ship chartering and maritime services. Both companies listed another Russian citizen, Alexander Galaktionov, as the director.

Both Grechushkin and his wife Irina have lived in Cyprus for several years. He appears to travel often between the island and Moscow.

Grechushkin was born in August 1977 in the far-eastern Russian port town of Vanino where his extended family still lives. According to his now-deleted LinkedIn profile, he attended the Far Eastern Public Administration Academy.

But Grechuskin, on paper at least, did not own the Rhosus. Instead, through a company in the Marshall Islands called Teto Shipping, he had chartered the ship from a company in Panama, Briarwood Corporation, according to official records from Moldova’s Naval Agency.

Panama, a notoriously secretive offshore jurisdiction, does not make public the ownership of companies registered there. But by searching through court records in Cyprus, OCCRP journalists found a 2012 document showing that Briarwood belonged to Manoli.

Three of Manoli’s other companies helped the Rhosus obtain its Moldovan flag, issued its seaworthiness certificates, and provided intermediary services that helped keep the ship at sea though it was riddled with serious defects.

Manoli’s connection to the Rhosus did not stop there. Records show that another of his companies, Geoship Company SRL, was responsible for officially registering the ship in Moldova, which has notoriously lax regulations for transparency, safety, and crewing.

Charalambos Manoli was born in 1960 in Famagusta, a coastal city in what is now the Turkish-controlled part of Cyprus. After studying shipbuilding in Scotland, he returned to Cyprus to work as a ship inspector, and went on to found multiple shipping companies.

Manoli is best known in Cyprus for his role in local football. From 2014 to 2017, he headed Anorthosis Famagusta FC, one of the country’s most popular teams. In 2015, he unsuccessfully ran for the leadership of the Cyprus Football Association.

In 2002, Manoli established Acheon Akti Navigations Limited, a Limassol-based ship management company. In 2007, he established another firm, Interfleet Shipmanagement Limited.

A Georgian company then owned by Manoli, Maritime Lloyd, acted as the ship’s “classification society” — a body responsible for certifying that ships are seaworthy. The company was sold in 2019.

In late July 2013, Maritime Lloyd issued a certification claiming the Rhosus had been safely constructed, inspection records show. But just days later, port inspectors in Seville detained the ship, citing 14 defects, including problems with its auxiliary power system.

The headquarters of Charalambos Manoli’s ship management company, Acheon Akti, in Limassol, Cyprus. Credit: OCCRP

The headquarters of Charalambos Manoli’s ship management company, Acheon Akti, in Limassol, Cyprus. Credit: OCCRP

Solving that latter problem was key to getting the Rhosus back at sea one last time — and it was another of Manoli’s companies that did it. In August 2013, two months before the ship set off on its final voyage from Batumi, Manoli’s Cypriot ship management company, Acheon Akti acted as an intermediary to rent a new generator from international equipment rental firm Aggreko, a company representative said by email. The unpaid hiring cost for this generator would become one of the debts that stuck the Rhosus at the Beirut port.

According to Cardiff University’s Sampson, the complex web of companies around the Rhosus was typical of those used to minimize costs and shield owners from accountability.

“If you’re sailing a ship that you know is unseaworthy then you have an incentive to hide your identity,” Sampson said.

“The fact that it appears that the owner of the Rhosus actually owns the classification society which issued the ship with its certificate of seaworthiness — I’d say that means that the certificate isn’t worth anything, really.”

Two pages from a 2011 loan from FBME to Manoli to purchase the MV Sakhalin. Credit: OCCRP

Two pages from a 2011 loan from FBME to Manoli to purchase the MV Sakhalin. Credit: OCCRP

Court records in Cyprus and documents obtained by OCCRP also reveal that, just two years prior to the Rhosus’ final voyage, the ship’s owner, Manoli, took out a $4 million loan from FBME. The Tanzania-registered financial institution operated mainly via its branch in Cyprus, which has since been shuttered for allegedly acting as a major banker for groups and individuals connected to organized crime, terrorism, and weapons profilferation.

Manoli took out the loan in October 2011 to finance the purchase of another ship, the MV Sakhalin, the records show. Just a month later, a Belize company owned by Manoli, Seaforce Marine Limited, missed the first repayment, court records show. Manoli responded by offering up the Rhosus as additional collateral. In March 2012, FBME secured a freeze on Manoli’s Cyprus real estate holdings after hearing that he intended to sell the Rhosus.

Internal FBME records obtained by OCCRP show that over US$962,000 of Seaforce’s debt was still unpaid as of October 5, 2014, meaning the debt was still current when the Rhosus made its journey.

There is no evidence linking Manoli’s debt to FBME with the circumstances surrounding the Rhosus’ last journey. The existence of the loan, however, shows that Manoli had dealings with a bank that would soon become notorious as a clearing house for dirty money.

Founded by the Lebanese Saab family, FBME effectively went out of business after being sanctioned in mid-2014 by the US government. Among FBME’s clients, according to the U.S. Treasury, was a financier for Hezbollah, as well as an associate of the Lebanese Shiite militant group and his company in Tanzania. Another FBME customer was an alleged front company for Syrian efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Although the Rhosus was offered to FBME as collateral, it was never used for that purpose, both Manoli and the bank told OCCRP.

“The MV Rhosus was never collateral for the loan and FBME Bank never had any involvement either with its financing or ownership,” the bank said in a statement.

It confirmed that it had made the loan to Manoli’s Seaforce for the purchase of the MV Sakhalin.

“Neither Mr Manoli nor SeaForce Marine Ltd made any repayments towards the loan, and the Bank initiated legal proceedings against them. Since the Administrators took over the Bank in July 2014, we are unaware of the current status of the case.

In a series of interviews, Manoli gave reporters changing accounts of the ship’s ownership. He initially claimed that his Panama company, Briarwood, had sold the ship to Grechushkin’s Teto Shipping in May 2012.

When later presented with documents that showed Briarwood still owned the ship — and that it had merely been leased to Teto Shipping — Manoli revised his statement. He acknowledged that Briarwood had indeed leased the Rhosus to Teto Shipping in 2012. But he claimed that later, in August 2013, just before the ship’s last voyage, he had transferred all the shares in the Panama company to Grechushkin, making the Russian the effective owner of the ship.

Manoli agreed to allow reporters to view documents showing a share transfer or a contract of sale, but subsequently refused reporters’ attempts to set up a video call to do this.

Manoli also sought to distance the ship’s owner — who he claimed was Grechushkin — from culpability in the explosion.

“The cargo went to Lebanon in 2013. Not now. They confiscated the man’s ship over there. And he declared bankruptcy because of the confiscation of the ship,” he said by phone. “Given this, what’s the responsibility of this man if Lebanese authorities didn’t properly store this fertilizer?”

Manoli denied there was any conflict of interest in his operating the companies that helped register and certify the Rhosus.

Registry documents also show that the Panama company that owned the Rhosus, Briarwood, maintained its mailing address at a now-defunct company in Bulgaria, named Interfleet Shipmanagement. The owner, Nikolay Petrov Hristov, confirmed that the company was a junior partner of a Cypriot firm of the same name owned by Manoli.

Hristov claimed he froze the Bulgarian company in 2012 after Manoli got him involved with the Sakhalin’s FBME loan without his knowledge.

Manoli, however, said that Bulgaria’s Interfleet Management had nothing to do with Sakhalin other than “technical management.”

One Last Stop

While OCCRP’s investigation shows that Grechushkin didn’t own the Rhosus, he was involved in much of the vessel’s direct operation. The ship’s captain at the time of its last journey, says Grechushkin personally ordered him to dock the Rhosus in Beirut on its way to Mozambique.

The stated reason for the last-minute stop, according to the captain, Boris Prokoshev, was to pick up trucks and other cargo in order to pay for passage through the Suez Canal. But the plan was scrapped after the first truck loaded onto the vessel almost damaged its deck, Prokoshev said.

The route traveled by the Rhosus on its last journey from Batumi, Georgia, to Beirut. Credit: Edin Pašović.

The route traveled by the Rhosus on its last journey from Batumi, Georgia, to Beirut. Credit: Edin Pašović.

This account is backed up by a document obtained from Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

Grechushkin soon abandoned the ship. Captain Prokoshev and three crew members, however, would spend the next 10 months trapped aboard the vessel by Lebanese authorities as creditors pursued Grechushkin for his debts. Lebanese inspectors who boarded the vessel in April 2014 said the crew had almost no food or money, and garbage was piling up on deck.

Correspondence held by Lebanese authorities show that on at least one occasion, in March 2014, Grechushkin did try to rescue the crew. Captain Prokoshev, however, complained soon afterwards that Grechushkin’s company had stopped paying their salaries and was avoiding all communication with them.

Lebanese authorities and the ship’s creditors apparently had no idea that Manoli was the owner of the ship. Neither Manoli nor his companies are mentioned in any Lebanese court documents obtained by reporters. Nor is there any indication that any attempt was made to contact him.

The Mozambique Connection

The owners of the Mozambican factory that ordered the ammonium nitrate did not attempt to retrieve the cargo after the Rhosus was seized.

Documents obtained by OCCRP show that the factory, Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique, is part of a network of companies with connections to Mozambique’s ruling elite. The companies had been investigated for illicit arms trafficking and supplying explosives to terrorists.

The factory is 95-percent owned by the family of the late Portuguese businessman Antonio Moura Vieira, through a company called Moura Silva & Filhos.

In an email, Antonio Cunha Vaz, a spokesman for Fabrica de Explosivos, said it had ordered the ammonium nitrate through Savaro Limited. When the shipment never arrived in Mozambique, they simply placed another order.

Moura Silva & Filhos was previously investigated for allegedly supplying explosives used in the 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed almost 200 people. The following year, after receiving a tip from Spanish authorities, Portuguese police raided four warehouses belonging to the company, seizing 785 kilograms of explosives allegedly concealed from its inventory system.

The company is also linked to Mozambique’s first family and military. Fabrica de Explosivos’ current head, Nuno Vieira, has since 2012 been the business partner of Jacinto Nyusi, the son of Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, with whom he owns an events and marketing company.

The same year, Vieira, together with Mozambican state investment company Monte Binga and the country’s secret service, founded Mudemol, a munitions and explosives manufacturer that supplied the military. Filipe Nyusi was the minister of defense at the time. Monte Binga has since been flagged by the United Nations for allegedly breaking international sanctions by involving itself in military deals with North Korea.

The explosives factory that was meant to receive the Rhosus’ cargo also shares an address with ExploAfrica, a company co-owned by the Vieira family. Confidential corporate and government documents shared by the Conflict Awareness Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit, show that ExploAfrica and its affiliates were investigated by South African and Portuguese authorities for obtaining U.S. and Czech weapons that later ended up in the hands of rhino and elephant poachers in South Africa’s Kruger National Parks on the border with Mozambique.

A South African front company that was allegedly used to buy the weapons, Investcon, is closely tied to Maputo-based Bachir Suleman, designated by the US government as an alleged “drug kingpin”.

In an email, Antonio Cunha Vaz, a spokesman for Fabrica de Explosivos, said that staff members from Moura Silva & Filhos were interrogated by police but were cleared of any wrongdoing. He said the company’s business links to the Mozambican president’s son were transparent, and denied any connection to alleged drug kingpin Suleman.

“All the deals made by ExploAfrica were perfectly legal and …If there was any use of weapons for purposes not complying to the law, ExploAfrica is not responsible for them,” Cunha Vaz added.

Firefighters spray water in the aftermath of the August 4 explosion. Credit: Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

Firefighters spray water in the aftermath of the August 4 explosion. Credit: Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

The Middleman

While the Mozambican factory made no apparent effort to claim the material, another company did: the trading firm that acted as a middleman in the deal.

Company records show that the middleman, United Kingdom-based Savaro Limited, ordered the ammonium nitrate at a time when it reported no official business activity to U.K. authorities. It has remained dormant since.

Savaro Limited is linked to another company called Savaro in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, via a series of shareholders and directors in Cyprus and the United States. The Ukrainian company’s director is Vladimir Verbonol, a local businessman. He told OCCRP he had no connection to the shipment.

Court documents show that Savaro in February 2015 hired a Lebanese lawyer to petition a local court to inspect the quality and quantity of the ammonium nitrate then being held in the port warehouse. That expert report concluded that most of the one-ton bags containing the ammonium nitrate — approximately 1,900 — were ripped and had their contents spilling out.

The documents show that Savaro declined to carry out chemical testing of the ammonium nitrate, and there is no record of the company attempting to recover the material after that point.

In Savaro’s place, a new potential buyer was sought for the dangerous stockpile.

First the Lebanese Customs Department asked the country’s army to take it, but they refused, instead suggesting that it be offered to a local manufacturer, Lebanese Explosives Co, owned by businessman Majid Shammas. There is no record of the company accepting the offer.

The army then suggested simply sending the ammonium nitrate back to Georgia at the expense of the importer. This, too, never happened, for reasons that remain unclear.

By February 2018, Lebanese authorities appear to have given up on their efforts to offload the ammonium nitrate.

But the stockpile remained in an unsecured warehouse — an explosion waiting to happen.

In a July 20, 2020, report to the president and prime minister — just two weeks prior to the explosion — Lebanese security services warned that there were serious security flaws at the facility that left the ammonium nitrate open to theft.

One door of the unguarded warehouse was missing, while there was also a hole in the southern wall, the report said.

“In case of theft, the thief could turn these goods into explosives,” the report warned.

According to three European intelligence sources investigating the blast, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, the amount still stored in the warehouse by August may have been smaller than the initial 2,750 tons. They said the size of the explosion was equivalent to as little as 700 to 1,000 tons of ammonium nitrate.

But the blast was big enough to destroy large parts of eastern Beirut. It was one of the strongest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

Reporting by Aubrey Belford, Rana Sabbagh, Stelios Orphanides, Sara Farolfi, Eli Moskowitz, Sarunas Cerniauskas, Antonio Baquero, Roman Shleynov, Riad Kobeissi, Diana Mukalled , Eman Qaisi, Giannina Segnini, Ana Poenariu, Atanas Tchobanov, Assen Yordanov, Ion Preasca, Yanina Korniienko, Dmitry Velikovsky, Karina Shedrofsky, Khadija Sharife, Nino Bakradze, Aderito Caldeira, Juliet Atellah, Alexey Kovalev, Fritz Schaap, and Christoph Reuter.

This story was produced in collaboration with Daraj.com (Lebanon), ARIJ.NET (Jordan), Meduza (Russia), iStories (Russia), Der Spiegel (Germany), RISE Moldova, RISE Romania, Bivol (Bulgaria), ifact.ge (Georgia), aVerdade (Mozambique)

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