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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Rethinking the Internationalization of African Universities Post-COVID-19
For the developed countries higher education internationalization is part of their arsenal of global soft power, while the developing countries value it for its potential to build high quality human capital.
African universities have had complex and contradictory experiences with internationalization rooted in colonial and postcolonial histories and the international division of intellectual labor. Africa’s insertion and positioning in the global knowledge economy have largely been characterized by marginality spawned by asymmetrical and unequal relations with the global centers. This leads to a paradox. Because of the histories of colonial and postcolonial dependence and underdevelopment, African higher education is simultaneously highly internationalized and the most internationally peripheral system.
Some of the challenges and opportunities for higher education internationalization in general and for African universities specifically have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this presentation, I would like to explore possible new directions that may develop in the post-COVID era. I have argued in a series of essays and books, including most recently, The Transformation of Global Higher Education: 1945-2015 (2016) and Africa and the Disruptions of the Twenty-first Century (2021) that the motivations and rationales of higher education internationalization are as multifaceted as the institutional contexts and actors are diverse.
Some of my next remarks in the next few paragraphs are derived from a chapter in my latest book. For the rest of the presentation, I seek to explore, rather tentatively as the pandemic continues to ravage economies, health care systems, organizations and institutions including universities around the world, the systemic fractures, hierarchies, and inequalities in higher education internationalization and some of the opportunities for imagining and investing in different processes, patterns, and practices that could be more equitable and mutually beneficial for African countries and universities and their global partners.
Anatomy of Internationalization
The incentives and justifications for higher education internationalization are variously articulated at national, sectoral, and institutional levels. They include national development and demographic imperatives. For decades internationalization has followed the historic trails and reproduced the unequal flows of people, programs, and paradigms between and the global South and the global North, the polite bureaucratic terminology for the old imperial metropoles and their former colonial dependencies.
For the developed countries higher education internationalization is part of their arsenal of global soft power, while the developing countries value it for its potential to build high quality human capital. For example, it was reported in October 2021 that “France is strengthening partnerships with the African higher education sector – a move perceived to be part of a broader strategy of higher education diplomacy, or ‘soft power’ aimed at strengthening African alliances to serve France’s cultural, economic and political agendas.” Among the initiatives launched was “a five-year €130 million (about US$151 million) fund to support African digital start-ups through the Digital Africa initiative… a three-year €30 million fund for democracy in Africa, in which African universities could play an important part. In addition, a ‘House of African worlds and diasporas’, will be established.” All paltry gestures and homage to the tired discourse of foreign aid.
For its part, also in October, “The British Council has announced the names of nine South African universities that were awarded grants under the Innovation for Africa project, which is part of its Going Global Partnerships program… The project, which is university-driven and learning- and networking-focused, is designed to support the development of Africa-UK university partnerships that build institutional capacity for higher engagement in entrepreneurship.”
Demographic pressures vary but reinforce these demands. Internationalization provides an important outlet for excess and specialized demands for higher education from the emerging economies and countries of the global South with their bulging youthful populations. At the same time, in the increasingly aging countries of the global North, importing students from the global South is critical to universities facing a youth demographic squeeze.
For the higher education sector, there is an assortment of economic, political, social, cultural, and academic imperatives and rationales. Economically, internationalization is often justified in terms of preparing students for careers in a globalized economy, enhancing national development and competitiveness, and as a means of generating extra-institutional income. Politically, it is valorized for promoting international understanding, global citizenship, and intercultural competency in an increasingly polarized and dangerous world. Its sociocultural imperative lies in the need to cultivate intercultural literacy in progressively multicultural societies.
There are also specific institutional rationales. Many universities pursue internationalization for financial reasons, as a critical revenue stream, since foreign students tend to be charged higher fees than local students are. It is maintained that internationalization facilitates inter-institutional co-operation, competition, and comparison, which can enhance the quality of higher education by compelling institutions to meet or rise to international standards. In a globalized world, internationalization is seen as an indispensable part of institutional recognition and branding, an essential attribute and asset in the intensifying competition for talented students, faculty, resources, and reputational capital among universities within and among countries.
Surveys conducted by the International Association of Universities including the latest undertaken in 2018 show that more than 90% of respondents mention internationalization as a priority in their strategic plans. The most important expected benefits of internationalization included “Enhanced international cooperation and capacity building” and “Improved quality of teaching and learning.” The main institutional risk identified was that “International opportunities [were] accessible only to students with financial resources,” followed by “Difficulty to assess/ recognize quality of courses/programs offered by foreign institutions,” and “Excessive competition with other higher education institutions.”
The incentives and justifications for higher education internationalization are variously articulated at national, sectoral, and institutional levels. They include national development and demographic imperatives
At the societal level, the main risks to internationalization were “Commodification and commercialization of education programs” as well as “Brain drain.” Institutional leaders were seen as the main internal drivers, while externally it was “Business and industry demand”, “Demand from foreign higher education institutions”, and “Government policy”. As for obstacles, they include “Insufficient financial resources,” followed by “Administrative/bureaucratic difficulties,” “Lack of knowledge of foreign languages,” and “Difficulties of recognition and equivalences of qualifications, study programs and course credits.”
In all regions the most critical internationalization activity remains student mobility, followed by strategic partnerships, and international research collaboration. Many institutions have identified geographic priorities for internationalization. To quote the report, “Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America are considered priority regions by all other regions, while Asia & Pacific is the top priority region for North American HEIs and the second most important region for European HEIs. Africa and the Middle East were identified as priority regions only by their own institutions who replied to the Survey.” Sehoole and Lee show that not all internationally mobile African students want to go to the global North; they prefer the comforts of familiarity in studying in other African countries that have quality education such as South Africa. Overall, North American responses in the IAU report diverged from the global norm, and there were some differences within regions as well.
Historically, higher education internationalization has entailed the flows of people, programs, and paradigms. When it comes to people the focus has largely been on student flows, and far less on faculty mobility. Globally, student mobility has been decidedly unequal. According to UNESCO Institute of Statistics datasets, the number of outbound international students rose from 4.8 million in 2015 to 6.1 million in 2019, the latest date for which data is available. It is important to note that internationally mobile students represent a small proportion of tertiary students, a mere 2.2% in 2015 and 2.6% in 2019.
The largest share of internationally mobile is claimed by Asia 2.4 million or 50.2% of the world total in 2015, which rose to 3.1 million in 2019 (51.8%). Europe came next accounting for 919,192 in 2015 (19.2%) and 1,001,931 in 2019 (16.52%) in 2019. Africa accounted for 510,491 (10.7%) in 2015 and 577,308 (9.5%) in 2019. The share for Latin America was 285,451 (6.0%) and 386,532 (6.4%) and for Northern America 132,161 (2.8%) and 152,541 (2.5%), respectively.
The script is flipped when it comes to inbound internationally mobile students. Europe and North America claimed the lion’s share. In 2015, Europe received 1.95 million international students (40.9%), while Northern America got 1.08 million (22.6%), or a combined total for the two regions of 63.44% of the world total. Asia increased its share numerically from 999,348 (29.9%) to 1.5 million (24%). Africa’s share declined from 226,155 (4.7%) to 224,312 (3.7%). Latin America and the Caribbean received 162,511 international students in 2015 and 239,769 in 2019. Oceania, principally Australia and New Zealand, which exported very few students (29,610 in 2015 and 31,285 in 2019) received 359,434 in 2015 and 570,180 in 2019.
In each of these regions there were notable differences. The bulk of Europe’s mobile students went to other European countries. In Asia, China, Japan, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates dominated. In Africa, South Africa, Egypt, and Morocco claimed a disproportionate share. Globally, the United States led followed by the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, and China. Several countries benefited from the anti-immigration backlash of the Trump administration in the US and Brexit in Britain. In July 2021, the Biden administration called for “Renewed U.S. Commitment” to international education in an unprecedented joint statement issued by the Departments of Education and State that promised to reverse policies of the Trump Administration and outlined a comprehensive national strategy.
The Disruptions of COVID-19
The outbreak of the COVID-19 at the turn of 2021 led to the closures of educational institutions from primary schools to universities around the world. Internationalization in the form of physical mobility was brought to a screeching halt. In many countries international students found themselves stranded as campuses closed, unable to go home, study, and work in their countries of residence. Some were subjected to increased racist abuse, scapegoating, xenophobia, and hate speech stoked by right wing populist politicians and pundits for whom foreigners, especially those from China and other parts of Asia and the global South, whose presence and bodies were pathologized as diseased and deadly vectors of the pandemic. Students planning to go abroad languished at home as their dreams of overseas study were unceremoniously postponed.
Familiar international engagements froze as travel restrictions led to cancellations and rescheduling of professional conferences, research collaborations became harder to pursue as the academic world moved to Zoom, organizations supporting the mobility of students and scholars became paralyzed, and retrenchments by cash-strapped institutions threatened the livelihoods, well-being, and careers of academics. Doomsayers predicted the end of higher education internationalization as it had developed since World War II.
The pandemic is of course still unfolding its lethal effects and consequences on global economies and societies. Many higher education institutions are still grappling with its massive devastations. However, they have also increasingly learned to manage and navigate its disruptions, develop new modalities of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and as hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship. The capacities to contain the crisis and plan for a more resilient, robust, and promising future vary enormously between and within countries and institutions. Overall, African universities, and smaller and poorer universities elsewhere, have been the least effective in containing the destructive effects of the pandemic, and plan for reform and transformation; many of them wishfully and desperately hope for a magical restoration of the pre-COVID-19 era.
Demographic pressures vary but reinforce these demands. Internationalization provides an important outlet for excess and specialized demands for higher education from the emerging economies and countries of the global South with their bulging youthful populations
As an administrator, I witnessed this tragic fatalism among some academics at many universities in Kenya including my own and elsewhere on the continent, a pervasive and perverse denial that the pandemic was destined to usher profound changes. Keen to protect their already measly privileges they willfully wallowed in a seductive, blinding, facile, retrogressive and nostalgic hankering for the past to return. The past that some long to rehabilitate was of course no golden age. On the contrary, it was characterized by inequalities, exclusions, hierarchies, and asymmetries. In the case of Africa, it reproduced the marginalization of the continent’s universities, scholarly communities, and knowledge production systems.
I have maintained that COVID-19 should be harnessed as an accelerator for much-needed institutional change. One paper identified seven key transformations exacerbated that were underway: reduced resources, growing competition, the impact of the fourth industrial revolution, the changing nature of jobs, shifts in university demographics, growing public demands on universities, and, of course, the impact of COVID-19. The changes identified above have implications in six key areas for universities in Africa and elsewhere: rethinking the nature of academic programs; delivery of teaching and learning; human resources; resource mobilization and utilization; institutional partnerships; and the nature of leadership skills.
In another paper, I argued that what is at stake for some universities is survival, for others stability, and for many sustainability. Institutional survival is a precondition for stability which is essential for sustainability. Confronting the entire higher education sector is the question of its raison d’être, its value proposition in a digitalized world accelerated by COVID-19. I focused on four critical dimensions: promoting progressive digital transformation, effective leadership, strong institutional cultures, and sustainable funding for African universities. For the first two I proposed a dozen strategies for each, and for the last two seven strategies for each, respectively.
As an administrator, I witnessed this tragic fatalism among some academics at many universities in Kenya including my own and elsewhere on the continent, a pervasive and perverse denial that the pandemic was destined to usher profound changes. Keen to protect their already measly privileges they willfully wallowed in a seductive, blinding, facile, retrogressive and nostalgic hankering for the past to return
The twelve-point agenda for the digital transformation of universities was outlined in considerable detail in a lengthy article. In a keynote address at the quadrennial conference of the Association of African Universities, I crystallized many of my reflections, arguing that quality higher education was indispensable for Africa’s future.
My propositions are not simply based on the appealing aphorisms that opportunity is the flip side of crisis, or that a crisis is too valuable to waste. It arises out of my reading of history as a historian, which shows that moments of global emergencies including pandemics give added impetus to trends already underway and serve to reshuffle the international pecking order, competitiveness, and sustainability of power, socioeconomic systems, and institutions. Those who wish to recreate the past after a crisis as profound as the pandemic are doomed to remain frozen as others charge past them to the future spawned by that very crisis.
For higher education institutions the changes will include the modes of internationalization that have prevailed for decades. During the pandemic universities have generally showed, contrary to their purported aversion to change, an incredible capacity to embrace reform by using digital technologies and experiment with new modalities of delivering teaching, research and support services for students, faculty, and staff.
For example, progressive universities have adopted “virtual internships and exchanges, navigating shifting enrollment patterns and student markets and reconsidering best practices in student services. While a certain measure of retrenchment and re-direction is inevitable in the short term, this pandemic is also presenting opportunities for us to broaden the scope and direction of what we do in international education. Whether we welcome these opportunities or not, these changes could potentially move us in very positive and new directions, directions that we might have otherwise not realized or been slower to pursue.”
I would like to propose an eleven-pronged agenda to rethink internationalization. None of what I say is new; it simply encapsulates trends that are both old and new. First, there is need for an expansive view of internationalization that integrates internationalization at abroad and at home and embraces internationalization of the curriculum and research. The former refers to curriculum integration that maximizes “students’ learning through international and intercultural experience.” It implies international exposure that is mediated through intentional interactions with local communities that have origins in different parts of the world and embedding global perspectives in the curriculum. “A pedagogy of encounter,” writes Leask and Green, “is a powerful concept because it does not rely on mobility. There are many opportunities to engage students in intercultural and global setting in class, on campus, and in local communities.”
This is an agenda for domestic and international intercultural engagement and understanding, for “border crossing” for all students rather than the privileged few who are able to travel abroad. After all, as noted earlier, only a tiny minority of tertiary students can study abroad. In terms of research, it entails valorizing equitable, transparent, and respectful practices of knowledge production and co-creation of research projects and agendas, and penalizing exploitative, fraudulent, and unprofessional behaviors. Student research, experiential and service learning, and international and virtual internships should be incorporated.
Second, promoting transformative technology-enhanced partnerships through inter-institutional collaborations and consortia that offer innovative enrollment opportunities for students, online program management, virtual and in-person internships, quality assurance and more seamless credit transfer. The widespread adoption and acceptance of emerging digital technologies and online communication and learning platforms and scholarly engagements forced by COVID-19, should be used by universities to develop effective mechanisms for collaborative online course development, curation and exchange through multi-institutional and transnational alliances, registries, and protocols. There are also opportunities for students to create and foster global online communities with those who share their curricular and co-curricular interests.
The development of immersive technologies of virtual reality, augmented and mixed reality offers incredible opportunities for virtual internationalization, foreign language learning, co-teaching, internships, and provision of student services. Particularly exciting are the possibilities of promoting transnational lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional education programs for all those seeking upskilling and reskilling with globally valued shorter degrees and micro-credentials as the nature of jobs and lifespans undergo massive changes upending the three-stage cycle of life (education-work-retirement) to a multi-stage cycle in which education and working life are continually intersected and retirement pushed further away.
At the societal level, the main risks to internationalization were “Commodification and commercialization of education programs” as well as “Brain drain.” Institutional leaders were seen as the main internal drivers, while externally it was “Business and industry demand”, “Demand from foreign higher education institutions”, and “Government policy”.
Given the wide inter- and intra- institutional disparities in access to these technologies it is critical to address the issue of enhancing the capabilities of disadvantaged institutions and communities through bilateral and multilateral forums and the mobilization of business, international and intergovernmental agencies, and philanthropic foundations and donors.
This underscores the third critical issue, how to finance sustainable and equitable internationalization among institutions and countries that sometimes have divergent economic resources and needs. In addition to aggressively sourcing external funding, international partnerships and projects it is critical to foster candid discussions and the development of pragmatic financial models and institutional investments. It entails rethinking student aid for dispersed students and many other financial aspects of the distributed university whose functions and impact are spread across domestic and international domains, and physical and virtual arenas.
Fourth, internationalization should focus more on building faculty and staff capabilities and collaborations, in addition to the traditional focus on student mobility and exchanges. Worldwide international faculty constitute a tiny minority of overall faculty and staff members. The IAU report revealed that “At 20% of HEIs there are no international academic staff members at all and at 34% the percentage of international academic staff is less than 5%. Latin America & the Caribbean is the region with the smallest percentage of international academic staff while Asia & Pacific and North America have the highest.” Internationalization of faculty must be a critical part of what Jane Knight, the Canadian scholar calls ‘knowledge diplomacy,’ a term she deems broader than “cultural diplomacy,” “science diplomacy,” or “education diplomacy;” it refers to the deployment of internationalization to build a horizontal two-way process of bilateral and multilateral inter-institutional relations that is so essential in tackling pressing global challenges.
Institutional indifference, ignorance, xenophobia, and racism often militate against the effective internationalization of faculty and staff. This is as true of countries in the global North as it is in the global South as I know from personal experience working over the past four decades in Canada, the US, Jamaica, and Kenya, where I was ‘othered’ on racial or national grounds. The IAU report continues, “International experience is valued at the majority of HEIs, but it is considered more an added value than a fundamental requirement, and there is still a substantial group of HEIs (30%) where international experience is not perceived as something important for hiring and promoting academic staff. International experience seems to be highly valued in the Middle East but very little so in North America. In other regions, it seems to be valued more in Asia & Pacific and Europe than in Africa and Latin America & the Caribbean.”
Universities that are serious about internationalization should seek to employ more international faculty. They should also collaborate in capacitating each other in their human resources in terms of faculty development and leadership opportunities in ways that are mutually beneficial and leverage on their respective assets. This is to stress the importance of building partnerships from an asset-based mindset, not a deficit-based mindset, in which the focus is on the potential each brings to the partnership, rather than the problems. This is a particularly pernicious problem in North-South partnerships in which the currency is material wealth and brand, rather than possibilities of forging social transformation that comes from connectedness, cross-fertilization, and mutuality that encompasses equity, autonomy, solidarity, and participation.
This leads to the fifth challenge and opportunity we must confront, namely, promoting ethical internationalization. This means pursuing inclusive internationalization in line with the increasingly popular discourses of equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging on North American and European campuses, although they are often championed more in rhetoric than practice. We must always ask, how do we integrate students, faculty and staff from marginalized communities, countries, and intellectual traditions in internationalization endeavors that are holistic, rigorous, robust, and transformative? The ethics of internationalization also entails sharing the results of international research, experiences, and interventions widely with the scholarly communities and societies on which the knowledges were produced and being purposeful in making meaningful contribution to society as part of a comprehensive knowledge management process.
Furthermore, ethical internationalization calls for what Luciane Stallivieri calls balance that seeks mutual reciprocity and cooperation regarding “geographic location; valuing different languages for the purposes of teaching, not just English; promoting South-South partnerships to enhance the knowledge produced in other parts of the planet; and creating an equilibrium with regard to incoming and outgoing mobility. Internationalization goals should be based on equal opportunities, symmetry, equivalence of interests and a focus on the equilibrium of international activities, especially when we design our internationalization plans and policies.” This implies institutional and intellectual accountability and integrity. These efforts must be part of the larger agenda of what some call decolonizing international partnerships, stripping them of enduring imbalances bequeathed from the histories of imperialism and colonialism.
Sixth, smart internationalization as Damtew Teferra, the renowned Ethiopian HE scholar calls it, requires integrating internationalization in institutional mission, values, strategic plan, budgeting priorities, and culture. It entails university administrations taking the leadership, the university community developing a shared understanding and commitment, engaging and mobilizing faculty and staff, and developing dual purposing resource strategies in which existing programs are enriched by incorporating internationalization initiatives and orientations.
The issue of differential tuition for domestic and international students is part of the calculus of dumb and smart internationalization. Many universities in North America, Europe, and Australasia impose much higher tuition on international students sometimes as much as four times. They rake in billions—$45 billion in the US in 2018, $15.5 billion in Canada in 2016, £22.6 billion in the UK in 2015/16, and $37.6 billion in Australia in 2018 according to official data. These revenues help many a university to balance their books and subsidize domestic students.
Treating foreign students as “cash cows” raises troubling moral questions and is unsustainable. Some studies indicate that “evidence from tuition fee reforms for international students suggests that the number of international students coming to a country can fall dramatically following an increase in tuition fees. For example, Denmark (in 2006) and Sweden (in 2011) introduced tuition fees for international students from outside the European Economic Area and experienced a sharp decline in the number of international students, by 20% and 80% respectively.” However, in the United States when the Big Ten Academic Alliance of research intensive universities raised tuition by 29% between 2007-2008 and 2014-15, they experienced “an increase of 74% in international student enrollment.”
This underscores different markets and institutions attract different types of international students. Choudaha and de Wit distinguish between “explorers” and “highflyers” who have resources and “strugglers” and “strivers” who are more price sensitive. The main Asian markets of India and China will increasingly dry up as these countries build world class universities following the path of earlier major exporters of students, namely, Japan and South Korea. The bourgeoning African market does not have the levels of wealth as in Asia to replace the declining Asian market, notwithstanding the Africa Rising/Rising Africa narrative that finds increasingly fewer cheerleaders as African economies reel from pandemic generated recessions.
Fay Patel argues that COVID-19, which led to sharp declines in international student flows and demonization of foreign students as part of pandemic panic and hysteria, opens possibilities of what she calls “humanizing international higher education.” She believes this will be achieved through the “glocalization of learning partnerships and frameworks from the developing community perspective so that compassion, kindness and empathy will form the basis for shared co-construction of knowledge in a post-COVID-19 world.” She urges international student communities to lead this agenda.
For smart internationalization to progress, the onus is on universities in the global North and global South to put their own houses in order. This entails restoring healthy and sustainable public investment in higher education that fell into precipitous declines with the rise of neo-liberalism at the turn of the 1980s. In the United States student debt has rocketed to $1.6 trillion and is higher than credit card debt. In many African countries many universities are virtually bankrupt which manifests itself in dilapidated infrastructure, poor salaries, low morale, declining instructional quality, and depressed research productivity. The private universities that have mushroomed in recent years are often glorified high schools while the public ones are ethnic enclaves mired in pettiness, corruption, and toxic politics and averse to planning for the future. Internationalization must be built on the healthy trunks of robust, resilient, and responsible universities, not the flimsy reeds of unstable, indigent, insular, and intolerant institutions.
Seventh, as part of the internationalization agenda universities need to become stronger advocates for more progressive forms of globalization as the specter of de-globalization spreads its xenophobic tentacles. The pandemic has led to border closures and retreat into the imagined safety of national laagers and brutally exposed the fictions of national isolation and security as it marched relentlessly around the world across the imaginary divides of race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and other social inscriptions. Universities must, as noted in a report by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean issued in March 2021, take “active responsibility for our common humanity, promoting well-being and sustainability, drawing strength from intercultural and epistemic diversity, and upholding and creating interconnectedness at multiple levels.”
Universities have a more immediate sectoral interest in developing systems for easier credit transfer and qualification recognition frameworks, especially as transnational multi-institutional partnerships expand. Various regional Higher Education Areas have been created. In November 2019, UNESCO adopted the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education, marking “the first United Nations treaty on higher education with a global scope. [It is] designed to facilitate international academic mobility and promote the right of individuals to have their higher education qualifications evaluated through a fair, transparent, and non-discriminatory manner… Moreover, it promotes the recognition of refugees’ qualifications, even in cases where documentary evidence is lacking.”
The latter follows the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees that “provides a tested method for assessing and describing qualifications that cannot be adequately documented.” This was an important move given the scale of global internally displaced and refugee flows, which reached 82.4 million in 2020 double the number in 2010 and higher than it has ever been. One of the initiatives I am most proud of during my tenure as Vice Chancellor at USIU-Africa was the $63.2 million scholarship program with the Mastercard Foundation that earmarked 25% of the recipients for forcibly displaced youths. Similar programs exist at several European and North American universities.
For example, progressive universities have adopted “virtual internships and exchanges, navigating shifting enrollment patterns and student markets and reconsidering best practices in student services. While a certain measure of retrenchment and re-direction is inevitable in the short term, this pandemic is also presenting opportunities for us to broaden the scope and direction of what we do in international education.
Eighth, there is need to interrogate the impact of rankings that have become increasingly influential and ubiquitous. They have helped sanctify global academic capitalism by generating fierce competition among universities in a relentless race for reputational status that validates the hegemony of institutions in the global North and the primacy of research often at the expense of teaching and learning and social impact. To be sure, the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings were introduced a few years ago to assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The indicators compare institutions across four broad areas: research, stewardship, outreach, and teaching. However, the impact of the traditional rankings in which the top performers trade places among themselves still hold sway.
Ninth, there is need to probe the growth of international research and its implications as evident in the expansion of publications with international co-authors, increased funding for international research through grants from international organizations, national agencies, and universities’ own resources. Commenting on a report by the EU titled Benefits and Costs of Transnational Collaborative Partnerships in Higher Education, Orosz and Carcium noted, “There is plenty of evidence that international research collaborations result in more and better publications and patents.”
What are the prospects for forging new modes of academic hospitality that promote productive intellectual exchange, creativity, symmetrical and collective pursuit and production of knowledge? The recent collapse of the prominent academic partnership between Yale University and Singapore National University coming on top of restrictions faced by other major American universities in China, and growing distrust of Chinese academics in the US, has raised questions about the sustainability of such collaborations in the face of geopolitical tensions and rivalries.
Tenth, the phenomenon of international program and provider mobility (IPPM), which constitutes a crucial leg in the internationalization enterprise triad, needs to be critically assessed. The growth of IPPM is evident in the establishment of “international branch campuses, international joint universities, joint and double degree programs, franchise arrangements and distance education.” In the UK, for example, 52% of all international students enrolled in a UK qualification awarding program take some of their program through IPPM provision.” In terms of IPPM host countries such as Mauritius approximately 43% “of all local students are enrolled in some type of IPPM. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Botswana 20 to 30 per cent of all local students are enrolled in IPPM courses.” Thus, programs and providers are increasingly moving to students rather than the other way.
Unfortunately, the growth of IPPM retain and reproduce the enduring asymmetric flows between the global North and global South. In the words of a report by the American Council of Education issued in 2014, “among the institutions surveyed, enrollment in joint and dual degree programs administered by U.S. institutions is heavily skewed towards students from the partner country; participation of American students is limited, and study participants were not optimistic that this situation is likely to change. Given this imbalance, collaborative degree programs may be more of a proxy for recruiting international students and are likely to contribute to the continuing “imbalance of trade” in outward and inward flows of students. The data also reveal geographic imbalances; partner institutions are concentrated in Europe and Asia, with almost no representation in Africa. These issues are worthy of note by institutions that wish to engage their U.S.-based students in international education and to establish truly collaborative, reciprocal relationships with a diversity of inter- national partners.”
The report concludes: “Comprehensive, integrated internationalization requires a holistic approach that includes attention to curriculum, faculty engagement, leadership, strategic planning, and other key areas. Partnerships that not only allow credit transfer back and forth, but truly engage faculty, staff, and students from both institutions around substantive issues such as curriculum design and instructional philosophies have the greatest potential to advance internationalization on all these fronts. Whether through joint degrees or other program models, establishing such in-depth collaborations will help U.S. institutions lay the groundwork for mutuality and sustainability in their international partnerships, and advance not only the internationalization of U.S. higher education but also the global higher education enterprise as a whole.” I couldn’t agree more.
Let me conclude by sharing brief reflections on an important aspect of internationalization, the eleventh agenda. As you might know or would appreciate from my personal and professional biography, as an African diaspora academic I put great premium on the role of the diaspora as an indispensable global partner in Africa’s development drive. This includes higher education. Not only have I written extensively on the subject, my research on the African academic diaspora led to the establishment of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP), whose success has exceeded expectations.
For example, to date, the program has sponsored nearly 500 African born academics in the United States and Canada to work with dozens of universities in six African countries that were selected. I firmly believe the African academic diaspora, both the new and historic diasporas, represent huge intellectual assets for the development and globalization of African knowledge economies. However, as is true in other realms of international relations, the relationship between academics on the continent and in the diaspora are exceedingly complex.
As I’ve noted in my own work and is clear in the recently published African Diaspora Toolkit these relations are characterized by collaboration and conflict, misunderstandings and mutuality, and inclusivity and indifference. They are conditioned by historic and prevailing institutional, intellectual, and ideological structures, systems, and values, as well as individual behaviors and attitudes that must be clearly understood and always negotiated and cultivated to ensure reciprocal benefits. African diaspora partnerships must be embraced as an integral part of the internationalization of African higher education. This is equally true of the global diasporas of other world regions.
Conservation: What Do John Muir’s Writings and Thoughts Mean Today?
Conservation practice today is based on settler colonialism because it is invariably led by the needs, sentiments and aspirations of outsiders. This is a fundamental flaw that began with European immigrants to North America.
John Muir is widely acknowledged as the “father” of conservation thinking, indeed considered by many to be a conservation hero whose standing straddles two centuries. Whether or not that is justified is a different issue, but the pinnacle of this adulation is probably the reference to him as the “Father of the National Parks”. A historical examination of the global network of protected areas shows that the original US National parks like Yellowstone were the inspiration behind the establishment of similar structures all over the world.
From a personal perspective, there are a number of different things that inspired my childhood fascination with wildlife and wild places, and a major one was the wonderful hardcover book “The American Wilderness” by John Muir, a somewhat unlikely read for the typical African child, but part of my experience spending part of my childhood in the United States. Others were the romanticized and shallow portrayals of African wildlife in films like “Born Free” and “Serengeti Shall Not Die” by Joy Adamson and Bernhard Grzimek, respectively, which were made in the 1960s, but really became staples in the 1970s. One theme that endured the test of time from the turn of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st century has been the dominance of white people in the global conservation narrative.
When we read the works of John Muir today, what stands out to critical observation is his gift of expression and passion for the wilderness he talks about. However, therein also lies the deep malaise that grew from charismatic men like him, and their gift for imparting their belief. Conservation practice around the world today is based loosely on the fortress conservation model developed in 19th Century North America. Reference to history books reveals to us portraits of a society that had little or no place for any human perspectives that weren’t Christian, Male, and white. These dominant perspectives were enforced by continuous violence, perpetrated on Native American nations, women, black slaves brought from Africa, and Hispanic people from further south.
One of Muir’s more famous works, Our National Parks, was published in 1901 and this caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. They corresponded regularly and in 1903, Roosevelt visited Muir and they undertook a camping trip in Yosemite. To this day, it is still considered the “most significant camping trip” in history. There, together, beneath the trees, they laid the foundation of Roosevelt’s expansive conservation programmes. This was the beginning of the global protected area network, driven largely by hubris and the need for self-actualization through the purported protection of “nature”. This convergence of ideas between these two famous men also conferred acceptability to the notion of “pristine wilderness” devoid of human presence. The seeds of racism in conservation practice were also sown during this time by Muir, who regarded Native Americans as “unclean” and something of a stain on the pristine wilderness that was Yosemite.
The perceptions of European colonists around the world determined what part of biodiversity was worth killing and what was worth saving, resulting in a strange situation where they simultaneously occupied the place of killers and that of “saviours”. Even today, where the intrinsic values of biodiversity seem to be indelibly stained by the needs of tourism, the desires and aspirations of white people continue to influence what in nature is to be eliminated as vermin, what is to be hunted for prestige as trophies, and what is precious enough to be protected through the use of force and violence.
In some cases, species like the African elephant are hunted by white hunters for prestige while being protected by white saviours from black “poachers”. Indeed, conservation practice is one of the few facets of human endeavour where duplicity is accepted as the norm, with endangered wildlife protected with military might, while those who are wealthy enough gladly pay for licences to kill them for fun. We have Muir’s contemporaries like Teddy Roosevelt who were extraordinarily proficient killers of wildlife celebrated as pioneers of conservation. To fully understand the true import of John Muir’s story and legacy, conservation scholars ought to delve into American history to understand the context within which he was living and marvelling about this “beautiful wilderness” within which he found himself.
Firstly was the creation of Yellowstone National Park in March 1872. This park is widely acknowledged to be the foundation upon which the development of protected areas as a conservation tool grew into the widely held paradigm that we see today. We know very well what Yellowstone is in the history of America as written by the European colonists, but what is Yellowstone on the ground? A two million acre expanse of land from which the ancestors of the Kiowa and Crow Nations were excluded in order to provide a recreation area for the settler colonists. Conservation was and still is an integral cog in the wheel that is colonialism, because it “erases” indigenous people from landscape and lexicon. Even today, the history of Yellowstone as detailed in the US National Parks’ service website does not have any account of the Native Americans’ role in the history of the park. The history of Yellowstone National Park is therefore resolutely “white”.
Species like the African elephant are hunted by white hunters for prestige while being protected by white saviours from black “poachers”.
The efficacy of terrestrial wildlife conservation is widely (and erroneously) stated by science to be proportional to the geographical size of the “protected area”. Conservation science knows, but never acknowledges that the geographical size of a protected area is also directly proportional to the degree of violence required to establish and maintain it. This thinking is also an inadvertent admission that present day conservation science is based on settler colonialism, primarily the notion that wildlife cannot sustainably share landscapes with humans. The sharing of habitats, landscapes and resources with wildlife is an ancient and present reality of indigenous populations all over the world. It is a widely accepted fact that human populations, consumption patterns, and carbon footprints have changed irreversibly over the centuries. However, humans are a unique species in that we are able to change the carrying capacity of their habitats through behaviour. When we examine this capacity for behaviour change through the prism of natural resource use, it is conservation practice in its purest form, the very essence of civilization.
From their own historical accounts, the settler society in North America was still a very primitive and violent society in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the gun becoming an essential part of everyday life for people everywhere, in farms, in the wild, and even in urban settings. The Hobbesian nature of North American settler society of the period gave rise to the second amendment to the US constitution giving every citizen the right to bear arms. This was a self-justifying law, because the right to bear arms, in itself gave rise to the overarching “self-defence” justification for bearing arms.
This is the world in which John Muir distinguished himself through his appreciation of wilderness and natural spaces. Through his appreciation for wild spaces and his gift for writing, he managed to bring nature “home” for the white settler population, gathering a vast following in the process. The amount of interest in nature that Muir managed to garner was also a reflection of the entitlement to it that was felt by the European settler population. The settler population’s admiration for nature made no reference to the Native American nations that they found living with, and using these resources. The universal admiration for National Parks also reveals ignorance or tacit acceptance of the fact that protected areas are almost universally created through acts of violence and disenfranchisement. The peace and tranquillity that protected areas represent, is actually a result of areas being “cleansed” of the indigenous people that used them, an act that in itself reduces the owners of resources to the level of a nuisance that needs to be removed, or otherwise dealt with.
Racism is very difficult to deny or escape in conservation literature over the generations and Muir wasn’t immune to this difficulty. His writings revealed a grudging admiration for the ways in which the native Americans lived off the land on naturally available resources while leaving a very light footprint on the landscape. Muir’s own limitations in this regard were brought into sharp relief by his inability to find sufficient food during his forays into the wilds of Yosemite, the main limitation that curtailed the amount of time he could spend out in the wild. He was conflicted in the manner in which he regarded nature as clean and pristine, while regarding the natives who blended so well into it as “unclean”.
Conservation was and still is an integral cog in the wheel that is colonialism, because it ‘erases’ indigenous people from landscape and lexicon.
Despite being a typically detailed and expressive writer, Muir’s work studiously avoids mentioning any positive interactions with, or assistance from the Native Americans, although he does describe interactions and conversations with Chinese immigrants. This starkly illustrates conservation’s greatest prejudice—the disregard for indigenous peoples. It does not stand to reason that Muir could have spent so much time exploring, sketching, painting and describing Yosemite without regularly encountering its original residents. This was a deliberate effort to erase them from the Yosemite narrative and it is a sad testament to the culture of conservation that this erasure was accepted without question for over a century.
Once we understand the attitudes of John Muir and European settler colonialism, the pall of racism that stains his writings becomes more visible, for instance in the way he refers to the Natives’ knowledge of their environment as “instinctive behaviour”, a description commonly used in zoology to describe the behaviour of various wildlife species. In addition, there is the conflicted manner in which one who considers himself a naturalist grudgingly admires indigenous knowledge, while stating that it is beyond the remit of what he describes as “civilized whites”.
Another vital lesson that contemporary conservation scholars should draw from Muir’s descriptions of his experiences is the nexus between western Christianity and conservation’s attendant prejudices. Muir grew up in a staunch Christian family and the spiritual tone is very “audible” in his writing, particularly when describing beautiful features and landscapes. More telling, are the repeated references to the Native Americans as “unclean”. He expressly refers to “dirt” on their faces, but it is a well-known fact that face painting is an integral part of the culture of many Native American nations. Moreover, personal hygiene was never an important attribute of 19th century “civilized white” outdoorsmen. This was more a reference to “heathen” in the biblical sense—recognizing them as human, but unable to attain the imagined level of “cleanliness” upon which he placed “civilized whites” and nature.
Once we understand the attitudes of John Muir and European settler colonialism, the pall of racism that stains his writings becomes more visible
In order to understand the impact (or lack thereof) that John Muir had on the behaviour of the “civilized whites” of his time, we need to examine the state of biodiversity in North America at the time. His lifetime (1838-1914) straddled a period of precipitous decline in wildlife species that had astounded settlers by their sheer abundance. The Bison roamed the prairies in the tens of millions until the early 19th century, but were hunted down to less than a hundred animals in 1880. They were killed for their tongues and hides, with the rest of the animal left out to rot. Even by contemporary standards, the sheer destructiveness and bloodlust defy belief. Some heroes like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody are still celebrated today for having single-handedly killed thousands of Bison.
Two notable declines of avifauna in North America also occurred during Muir’s years, namely the Ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon—species that neither posed any danger to, nor had direct conflict with human populations. The passenger pigeon’s decline was far more precipitous and it finally went extinct when the last specimen died in captivity in 1914. To put this into context, the passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at around 5 billion birds. They were hunted by the Native Americans for food, but the precipitous decline and eventual extinction was driven by the arrival of Europeans and hunting for food on a commercial scale. The ivory-billed woodpecker was also decimated by hunting, probably driven by the fact that it was a large, brightly coloured and highly visible bird.
Protected areas are almost universally created through acts of violence and disenfranchisement.
The casual destruction is starkly illustrated by reports that in the late 1940s when the bird was critically endangered some hunters and fishermen were still using ivory-billed woodpecker flesh to bait traps and fishing hooks. Given the low level of technological advancement at the time, these extirpations demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to killing, which indigenous populations around the world are neither psychologically equipped to understand nor to perpetrate.
The unique neurosis of conservation interests and naturalists is notable in the fact that the final precipitous decline of both these species was driven by collectors who went out to shoot specimens for private and institutional collections. The inexplicable pride that collectors have in writing scientific papers about the “last collected” specimen is a feature that excludes indigenous people from extirpating species, because even where they are hunters, an animal that is reduced to a few specimens is no longer worth the energy and time required to hunt and kill it. For a “conservation scientist” however, when there are only two left, there is an irresistible compulsion to find them, kill them and collect them. The reward is fame through media coverage, scientific publications, promotion in academia, and bizarrely, conservation grants to help “prevent extinction ever happening again”.
The hundreds of skins of these decimated species that remain in the collections of universities and museums bear silent witness to the wanton destruction done in the name of conservation “science”. So the most important question of our times is, if we claim that John Muir inspires our conservation work more than a century after his passing, why wasn’t he able to stop the mass extinctions precipitated by the destructive nature of his fellow “civilized whites” in North America during his lifetime? It is very difficult to find any records of his trying to do so, despite all his lofty social connections. The lack of concern from conservationists over the actions of white people obviously isn’t a new phenomenon.
Conservation being a “noble obligation, therefore, set the stage for the exclusion of the proletariat, and the celebration of the nobles, regardless of what they actually do. Our state of knowledge in 2021 needs to acknowledge that sustainable use of natural resource is the cornerstone and a necessary preoccupation of indigenous civilizations all over the world. This is uncontestable because the indigenous societies that didn’t have this culture died out, leaving only ruins as evidence of their past existence. The fact that wildlife and biodiversity still exist side by side with these societies implies that conservation was, and still is part and parcel of their cultures and livelihoods. In over 20 years of research and practice in wildlife conservation policy and practice, I still haven’t encountered a word for “conservation” in any African language because it was simply a principle governing how people lived their lives. The word used most often in Kiswahili, for example, is uhifadhi, which translates more accurately to “keep”, more akin to an item kept on a shelf than a living system with producers and consumers.
Therefore, conservation as a structured, abstract and discrete concept is a creation of destructive people, those who need to create barriers to their own consumption, which extends far beyond the remit of their needs and into the realm of wanton destruction. It is a concept that lives very comfortably with contradictions and duplicity, for example, the protection of wildlife not for its intrinsic value but in order to satisfy the desires of those who seek dominion over it. This fundamental flaw is the reason why wildlife conservation in Africa still remains and has been unable to escape from racism and violence to this day. Its mind-set grew from the thoughts, imaginations and deeds of Theodore Roosevelt and his bloodthirsty harvest of wildlife during his 1909 Kenya safari. The animals he brutally killed for his self-actualization are still displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (which sponsored his trip and still celebrates this slaughter to this day).
Many euphemisms have been used to describe his trip, including high-brow terms like “expedition” and “scientific collection”, but the truth is that he was neither a scientist nor and an explorer. He was a wealthy American seeking self-actualization and to demonstrate dominance through the slaughter of African wildlife. This is still the profile of westerners’ involvement in African conservation even in the 21st century, with the only notable difference being that some of them are now women and some come to “save” rather than slaughter our natural heritage.
Looking at the story of John Muir, there is so much importance attached to his association and closeness to Theodore Roosevelt, which of course is perceived as a significant bolster to his already considerable credentials as a conservationist. So who was “Teddy” Roosevelt and what does he mean to those of us seeking harmony with our natural heritage today? He was a picture of the self-interested need to possess and dominate nature that so often masquerades as love for nature and wildlife. This sentiment is also a very comfortable redoubt for racism, because it instantly places indigenous people living in situ in the position of “obstacles” to conservation and the survival of ecosystems. Roosevelt was an unabashed racist, and conservation will continue to suffer, until it can escape from the intellectual clutches of its prejudiced icons.
The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at around 5 billion birds.
Racism amongst individuals wasn’t remarkable in early 20th century America, but scholars of conservation today must pause for thought at the manner in which racists are accepted and celebrated by individuals and institutions in our field. The American Museum of Natural History in New York features a larger than life bronze statue of Roosevelt at the front entrance. He is astride a magnificent horse and flanked by two people on foot: a Native American, and a black man. The location of the statue implies appreciation of Roosevelt as a conservationist, but the statue itself portrays Roosevelt as a conqueror of sorts, giving a nod to white supremacy. We in conservation accepted it and never once questioned its message. It took the social upheavals and racial tensions of 2019 to commence discussions around its removal, almost 80 years after it was erected.
There are many cases in history where racists escaped odium because their prejudices were closeted. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t of that ilk. He described Native Americans as “squalid savages” and justified the taking of their lands to spread white European “civilization”. It isn’t difficult to imagine that this sentiment played an important part in his affinity for John Muir, especially since the creation of national parks was a faster and more effective way to appropriate lands belonging to indigenous people. It still is, all over the world. The following are excerpts from his spoken and written words. One of the most starkly racist statements from a world leader was probably Roosevelt’s expressed opinion on the lengthy genocide perpetrated by European settlers on the Native American population. “The most righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman . . . A sad and evil feature of such warfare is that whites, the representatives of civilization, speedily sink almost to the level of their barbarous foes.”
It isn’t a stretch of imagination to perceive the possible part this sentiment played in the mutual admiration between Muir and Roosevelt. Muir’s regard of Native Americans as “unclean” would have been bolstered by the unequivocal support of a racist president. This in turn, would have greatly enhanced the moral acceptability of the violent eviction of Native Americans to make room for the National Parks that are so celebrated today.
Roosevelt’s racism wasn’t restricted to the natives and this was his opinion on the annexation of Texas in 1845: “It was of course ultimately to the great advantage of civilization that the Anglo-American should supplant the Indo-Spaniard.” His opinions on black people probably give us the most pause for thought when we examine the spread of fortress conservation around the world’ On slavery, Roosevelt said: “I know what a good side there was to slavery, but I know also what a hideous side there was to it, and this was the important side.” He also believed that the “average Negro” was not fit to take care of himself, and this was the cause of what he referred to as “the Negro problem”.
It isn’t debatable that Theodore Roosevelt was racist, and racism isn’t a new malaise afflicting societies around the world, but it is imperative that we ask ourselves why conservation is the one field that can make a racist acceptable and even celebrated around the world. Judging from the views he aired in the public domain, Roosevelt’s bigotry borders on white supremacy, but he was a much admired figure during and after his presidential tenure, receiving many accolades, including the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. In the 100 years since his death in 1919, he has been relentlessly celebrated as a champion of nature with a slavish devotion that only conservation and religious cults are able to inspire. He is praised for “setting aside” land for National Parks, even though it didn’t belong to him, and the process was in violation of Native Americans’ rights.
In over 20 years of research and practice in wildlife conservation policy and practice, I still haven’t encountered a word for “conservation” in any African language.
Conservationists even celebrate the centenary of his slaughter of Kenyan wildlife, somehow seeing it as the inspiration for their conservation work. It was meticulously documented in photographs and journals, but through it all, Africans were conspicuous by their absence from the narrative. Photos therein depict hundreds of black porters carrying heavy loads on foot, while Roosevelt and his white companions rode on horseback. The inspiration for the bronze statue outside the American Museum of Natural History is obvious. His detailed journals narrating his direct bloodthirsty interaction with African wildlife without “interference” from indigenous populations helped give rise to the myth of an untrammelled African “wilderness” devoid of human presence or influence.
Sadly, this still remains the cornerstone of what western tourists aspire to experience. It is ludicrous that conservation science even extends this fallacy to the rangelands of East Africa, which archaeology acknowledges to be the cradle of mankind, having developed in the presence of humans for over a million years. Indigenous peoples have been vilified by conservationists for generations as “primitive”’, “unclean” and “uncivilized”, but it is now time for us to acknowledge the truth and confront the fact that those dubious distinctions are actually features of conservationists and their chosen profession.
As we evolve into more intellectually astute or “civilized” practitioners of conservation, we will have to look at how attitudes have been shaped by Christianity, in nations where the settler colonialists included Christian missionaries. Dominion of man over other creatures is a well-known Christian tenet and dominion over the same in foreign lands is an expression of expansionism and imperialism over lands and peoples. An examination of the fortress conservation model and how it has been practiced around the world, its perceived successes and failures is basically a walk along the path trodden by European colonists in partnership with Western Christian missionaries.
The fortress conservation model has either died, or had to remodel itself radically in those societies where Christian missionaries and colonialists found strong and structured religious traditions that preceded them. Knowledge of this history is vital in the understanding of contemporary conservation narratives. China and India are the world’s two most populous nations. They are also home to a magnificent array of biodiversity, including iconic endangered species like the giant panda and the tiger, respectively. A common narrative in the conservation arena today is the claim that human populations are compromising the space available for wildlife and space needs to be “secured” for wildlife in one way or another. We have known for some time now that this is a racially biased concern because it is never said in reference to any country whose indigenous inhabitants are white, despite the fact that some like the UK have relatively high population densities and hardly any biodiversity worth speaking of. Countries like my homeland (Kenya) that have a well-developed tourism industry have the added intellectual burden of selling a spurious product which presumes to place indigenous people in the position of bystanders and props. Terms like “winning space for wildlife” are de rigueur in conservation circles with the attendant loss of resource rights remaining unsaid.
Closer scrutiny of all the noise surrounding human population as a challenge to conservation will reveal that China and India are prominent by their absence from this discussion. You are unlikely to hear of China’s human population being described on global platforms as a threat to the survival of the giant panda, or India’s population as a threat to survival of tigers. A similar argument could be extended to Indonesia on the nexus of population density, coexistence with biodiversity and low penetration of Christianity, which has now been replaced by conservation as the most effective vehicle of Caucasian hegemony in the world today.
Conservation will continue to suffer, until it can escape from the intellectual clutches of its prejudiced icons.
Conservation practice today is based on settler colonialism because it is invariably led by the needs, sentiments and aspirations of outsiders. This is a fundamental flaw that began with European immigrants to North America like John Muir, who then presumed to claim ownership, concern and value for natural heritage beyond that of the Natives in whose presence this entire ecosystem had evolved. Today, it is incumbent upon conservation practitioners plying their trade away from their homelands to correct this by understanding and accepting local people’s aspirations. We need to accept that these aspirations could include the desire for us to go away and leave them alone. We in conservation need to read more into the social sciences and move away from the imagination that ours is a field of biology. The Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe accurately (if inadvertently) describes conservation’s neuroses in his 2006 paper entitled Settler Colonialism and The Elimination of the Native. We must realize that the challenges we are facing aren’t discrete events, but a flawed, cruel and unjust structure, that must be dismantled before it collapses on itself.
The foibles and faults of Individuals like John Muir, therefore, aren’t the problem as much as the structure that they and others created that removes humans from nature and worships the resultant falsehood as a fetish. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Serengeti, Kruger, Tsavo, Corbett, Kaziranga and all the other national parks around the world are monuments to this fetish. We must value them, not just for their ecosystem values, but for the memories of the brutalized populations who were victims of their creation and continue to be victims of their maintenance. Anything else is patently false. We in Africa are constantly under assault from “saviours” who love African wildlife but hate African people. We must temper our celebration of conservation “icons” with knowledge of their deeds and context. If we do this, we’ll understand that someone like John Muir was just a relatively sensible member of a brutal and primitive colonial settler class who appreciated nature and sought to take it away from its indigenous owners.
It is imperative that we ask ourselves why conservation is the one field that can make a racist acceptable and even celebrated around the world.
The relentless need that westerners have to impose the colonial model of conservation on indigenous peoples of other races is less about concern for biodiversity and more about the need to deny the existence of the civilizations that preceded them in these lands. In my experience, one of the highest forms of civilization is the capability of living with wildlife for millennia without destroying it, and for this alone, indigenous peoples deserve to be celebrated, and not vilified, displaced and occasionally killed. This regular injustice has been accepted and celebrated for the last 100 years, until completely unrelated events in 2019 gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Suddenly, global consciousness of racial injustice has been heightened, with calls for the removal of monuments to racists around the world, including Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History.
Things came full circle in July 2020, when the Sierra Club distanced itself from John Muir, its icon and founder, admitting that he was actually a racist. Is this new information? No it isn’t. John Muir was one of those people who achieved “icon” status in their lifetimes, so society has always been aware of what he said and his thoughts. Our acknowledgement today of his prejudices is simply a sign that the primitive conservation field is gradually becoming civilized. Ideally, we shouldn’t regard the legend of John Muir as an inspiration for anything we should do in the future, but as a prism through which we can view the false edifice we refer to as “conservation”. It is also a glimpse into conservation’s dark past—one that we should neither forget nor repeat. Through this prism of historical knowledge, “Yosemite” is an essential historical work for anyone who understands where conservation has come from, and where it should be aiming to go.
Fake Fight: The Quiet Jihadist Takeover of Somalia
The Federal Government of Somalia has spent the past four years waging a war on federalism, on political pluralism and on democratic norms, but not on Al-Shabaab.
On 26 October 2021, I was convicted of espionage by a Somali court and sentenced to five years in prison. The court also ruled that Sahan Research, a thinktank I co-founded and now advise, will be banned in perpetuity from Somalia. Fortunately, I wasn’t present at the time or I would have been manacled, taken away to a cell and probably prevented from writing this article on my well-worn MacBook. But then, I wasn’t meant to be present in court, let alone arrested and incarcerated: I’d been declared persona non grata and banned from entering Somalia three years earlier.
Relatively speaking, I was let off fairly easy. Somalis who cross the ruling cabal in the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, generally fare much worse. Since Mohamed Abdillahi Farmaajo took office as president in 2017, 12 journalists have been killed in Somalia, and in 2021 alone, dozens have been arrested, making the country one of the most dangerous places for media professionals across the globe. Prominent opposition politicians, including two former presidents, have been the targets of assassination attempts staged by government forces. Another has been detained since 2018 without charge or appearance before a court. The disappearance and alleged murder of a young female intelligence officer at the hands of her superiors ignited a national scandal that the government has aggressively quashed.
The shoddy episode of judicial theatre that resulted in my conviction was never about espionage, national security or any of the other charges put forward by the prosecution. It certainly wasn’t about justice. And it wasn’t even about me. Like so many other things about the Somali Federal Government (FGS) headed by President Farmaajo, it was an exercise in smoke and mirrors: a way of distracting, deflecting, and deterring anyone who might dare to question, or even contradict, Villa Somalia’s grotesque version of the “truth”.
For a start, there was virtually no attempt to create even the illusion of due process. The Attorney General filed charges with the Banaadir regional court, which has no jurisdiction to try cases involving federal crimes – crimes against the state – but which proved conveniently amenable to guidance from the presidency. Indictments were announced by press release and no summons were issued. When Sahan’s lawyer presented himself at the first hearing, he was asked to leave on the grounds that the court had already appointed defence counsel and his presence would only complicate things. The charges proffered by the prosecution alleged espionage and the revelation of state secrets, but in public the government insisted that Sahan published only lies – an assertion entirely at odds with the charge of revealing national secrets. Were we guilty of telling the truth (and too much of it) or lying? The government didn’t seem able to make up its mind. Either way, no evidence was presented in support of the charges, no witnesses were put forward, and no one ever bothered to record statements from the defendants. It was, in the truest sense of the term, a “show trial”.
State Capture, Farmaajo Style
The first lines in the script of this courtroom drama had been inked three years earlier during the lead up to elections in Somalia’s South West State (SWS), where a charismatic former Al-Shabaab leader, Mukhtar Roobow, had decided to run for president. Villa Somalia had thrown its weight behind a rival politician, Abdiaziz Laftagareen, and was incensed by Roobow’s candidacy: not because of his former jihadist affiliation, but because he commanded significant local support and would likely prove to be a strong and independent state leader. Farmaajo’s administration was in the early stages of a plan to dismantle Somalia’s nascent federal architecture and centralise all power in Mogadishu. To pursue that aim, he needed weak, pliable proxies in charge of each of Somalia’s Federal Member States (FMS). Villa Somalia made no secret of its opinion that Roobow didn’t fit the profile.
Farmaajo’s inner circle, led by his intelligence chief, Fahad Yasin, decided to nip Roobow’s ambitions in the bud through a simple, brutish ruse: they convinced the commander of the Ethiopian AMISOM contingent in SWS to invite all presidential candidates to a security briefing on 13 December 2018 where Roobow was forcibly abducted and transferred to the custody of Fahad’s bureau: the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in Mogadishu. He has since remained in NISA custody without charge or appearance before a court.
Roobow’s arrest triggered street protests for three days, which the police quelled with deadly force, killing 15 demonstrators, including a member of the state parliament. Some 300 more were arrested and detained without charge beyond the constitutional 48-hour limit. Baidoa’s police force was largely trained and paid for by international donors through a UN-supervised programme, for which Sahan served as third-party monitor. The police crackdown was widely reported in the media and by various monitoring groups, including Sahan, contributing to a decision by three of the programme’s donors to suspend their support. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG), a highly respected South African lawyer and diplomat named Nicholas Haysom, also expressed his concerns in the context of the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Programme, which governs support to security forces. Three days later the FGS declared him persona non grata (which, legally speaking, it cannot do to UN officials), and he was recalled from his post by UN headquarters.
Were we guilty of telling the truth (and too much of it) or lying? The government didn’t seem able to make up its mind. Either way, no evidence was presented in support of the charges, no witnesses were put forward, and no one ever bothered to record statements from the defendants. It was, in the truest sense of the term, a “show trial”.
Haysom’s expulsion achieved precisely what the FGS leadership had hoped it would: a chilling effect on much of the remaining diplomatic community in Mogadishu. If the SRSG could be sacked simply for doing his job, who else could possibly stand up to Villa Somalia and prevail? FGS officials, especially those involved in the security sector, from the president’s doltish National Security Advisor (NSA) all the way on down to dubiously qualified ‘technocrats’ in the Ministries of Internal Security and Defence (even those whose salaries were paid for by their donor counterparts) took the lesson to heart: browbeating and tantrums became their default behaviour in encounters with foreign colleagues.
Having fulfilled its obligation as a third-party monitor to report on police brutality, Sahan also felt compelled to flag a much broader strategic concern: Villa Somalia’s intensifying efforts to weaken Somalia’s FMS and to dismantle the federal structures mandated by the Provisional Constitution – especially FMS police forces. Few observers realised that the police crackdown in Baidoa had not been led by the SWS state police, but by a few dozen federal police officers operating under direct orders from Mogadishu. On 17 December 2018, following an interview I gave to the Washington Post about how Roobow’s arrest was symptomatic of Villa Somalia’s centralist, authoritarian tendencies, Sahan was banned from Somalia and I was declared persona non grata.
Villa Somalia was not to be deterred by a little bad publicity: in August 2019, the FGS attempted to hijack elections in Jubaland, unsuccessfully financing rival candidates and ultimately declaring the re-election of state president Ahmed Madoobe null-and-void. Later the same month, in collusion with Villa Somalia, the Ethiopian army secretly attempted to airlift several hundred commandos from Baidoa to Kismayo, with a view to ousting Madoobe from office. This ended in a tense standoff between Ethiopian and Kenyan troops at Kismayo airport that could have easily ended in armed clashes between the two erstwhile allies. While Madoobe, with the support of AMISOM’s Kenyan contingent, continued to dig in and defend his seat, Villa Somalia deployed troops to Jubaland’s northern Gedo region, wresting most of it from Madoobe’s control (with Ethiopian help) and arresting Jubaland’s Minister of Internal Security.
Galmudug’s election was stolen in February 2020 and Hirshabelle’s followed suit in November the same year. In both cases, federal financing backed by the deployment of loyalist, Turkish-trained special forces and paramilitary police helped to ensure that Villa Somalia’s candidates emerged victorious. But, as in SWS, these were hollow victories: weak, proxy leaders proved unable to consolidate their wins and largely incapable of exercising state authority, ceding territory to Al-Shabaab. Through its electoral machinations, Villa Somalia had succeeded in exerting greater and greater control over less and less of the country.
Somalia’s Security Sector: Reinforcing Failure
While Villa Somalia’s brazen theft of elections and suppression of dissent served to weaken the autonomy of the FMS and enfeeble the federal checks and balances built into the Provisional Constitution, the deployment of security forces for the same purposes illustrated another, equally troubling development: the FGS had abandoned the fight against Somalia’s single greatest security threat – Al-Shabaab.
On paper, Somalia’s 2017 National Security Architecture and New Policing Model assign primary responsibility for domestic security, including counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, to the FMS. But in May 2018, the FGS issued a new Somalia Transition Plan (STP), effectively tearing up those previous agreements and clawing back all security functions to the federal level. Under the STP, Villa Somalia systematically obstructed security assistance to the FMS and funnelled resources almost exclusively to the alarmingly dysfunctional federal forces.
The STP also made promises upon which it utterly failed to deliver – with just two exceptions: Mogadishu stadium and the Jaalle Siyaad military training academy were both ceremonially transferred from AMISOM’s control to the Somali authorities. These accomplishments were, to be generous, ‘low-hanging fruit’.
More importantly, the STP promised to secure the main supply routes (MSRs) between Mogadishu and three strategic towns in neighbouring FMS: Baidoa, Baraawe and Beledweyne. At the time of writing, this pledge had spectacularly failed. For example, Leego, in Lower Shabelle region, lies just a little more than 100 kilometres from the capital and was specifically cited in the STP as a key objective in opening the road to Baidoa. Leego is also a vital Al-Shabaab financial hub, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars each month in road taxes. More than two years since the STP was first announced, no operation has ever been staged to seize it and the road to Baidoa remains, for government purposes, closed.
In 2019, a much-vaunted offensive to clear Al-Shabaab from Lower Shabelle region and open the MSR to Baraawe, nicknamed Operation Badbaado, ultimately fizzled out and was quietly abandoned. The offensive’s greatest achievement was the recapture, in early 2020, of Janaale, which had been abandoned after Al-Shabaab overran a Ugandan Forward Operating Base there in 2015. But between Mogadishu and Janaale, Operation Badbaado succeeded only in establishing a string of disconnected outposts, isolated from one another by large rural spaces controlled by the jihadists. The MSR to Baraawe remained closed.
The STP’s pledge to open the MSR from Mogadishu to Beledweyne was especially poignant. Until 2017, the section of road between the capital and Jowhar had been safe to travel, but less than a year after Farmaajo took office, it had become too hazardous for non-military traffic, forcing government officials, aid workers and civilians to make the 90-kilometre journey by air. In May-June 2021, Somalia’s boyish Chief of Defence Forces, General Odowaa Yusuf Rageh, personally led a flurry of aimless and uncoordinated raids into Middle Shabelle. The gesture amounted to little more than a series of chaotic skirmishes, producing nothing but unnecessary casualties and bad blood between the Somali National Army (SNA) and AMISOM, which claimed that Odowaa had failed to coordinate his amateurish expedition with the AU Force Headquarters. The road to Jowhar remained effectively impassable, as did the stretch between Jowhar and Beledweyne.
Whereas the shambolic state of the federal security forces might be explained by a combination of incompetence, inexperience, and a mediocre monocracy, the unchallenged expansion of Al-Shabaab’s influence on Farmaajo’s watch suggests a far more sinister explanation: tacit collusion between Villa Somalia and its putative adversaries. Indeed, the jihadists are possibly the only authority in Somalia that the FGS hasn’t chosen to pick a fight with.
Al-Shabaab is steadily extending its influence, not only in the interior, but even in territories nominally under some form of government control – including Mogadishu. As Farmaajo entered the latter half of his four-year term, a consensus was emerging that the terror group taxed more efficiently, raised more money, provided greater security, and dispensed higher quality justice than the FGS did. Major businesses in the capital readily acknowledged that they paid taxes to Al-Shabaab because the government could not shield them from the consequences of disobedience. Some of the country’s largest telecoms and financial institutions were found non-compliant with due diligence standards and even minimal anti-money laundering/countering terrorist financing best practices, enabling Al-Shabaab to make routine use of their services – including highly irregular transactions that should have raised red flags. The FGS, for its part, makes little or no effort to enforce its own regulations in this regard. The more Farmaajo’s social media legions huff and puff about his government’s successes, the more obvious it becomes that the war against Al-Shabaab is being lost.
These were hollow victories: weak, proxy leaders proved unable to consolidate their wins and largely incapable of exercising state authority, ceding territory to Al-Shabaab. Through its electoral machinations, Villa Somalia had succeeded in exerting greater and greater control over less and less of the country.
While the STP produced one military debacle after another, other FGS security initiatives demonstrated comparatively high levels of capability, competence, and determination in quashing Villa Somalia’s enemies: not Al-Shabaab, but rather the political opposition and recalcitrant leaders of insubordinate FMS. For this purpose, Villa Somalia relied not on forces trained, supported, and monitored by Western security partners, but rather upon those established and equipped by its more steadfast political allies: Qatar, Turkey, and Eritrea. In other words, the FGS is fighting two different wars using two very different armies.
The cornerstone of Villa Somalia’s parallel security policy was NISA under the direction Fahad Yasin. Having initially served as Farmaajo’s Chief of Staff, Fahad was appointed Deputy Director General of NISA in August 2018 and effectively ran the organisation until his official promotion to NISA chief the following year. With financial and technical support from Qatar, Fahad has transformed NISA from a decrepit, thuggish secret police force into a modern, capable intelligence service and the secretive core of Villa Somalia’s power. From behind the walls of NISA’s sleek, opulent new headquarters, he has overseen the formation of an entirely parallel security establishment.
Some elements of these forces were highly visible. In early 2018, Turkey began training the first batch of army special forces known as Gorgor (Eagle); later the same year Ankara expanded its training programme to include a new paramilitary special police unit named Haram’ad (Cheetah). Both units have since been equipped with modern weapons, equipment, and armoured vehicles of Turkish manufacture. As their numbers have expanded, Fahad has deftly manoeuvred to bring them discreetly under Villa Somalia’s direct control – and NISA’s in particular.
In 2019, plans were set in motion for another paramilitary force to be stood up, this time as an integral part of NISA. As many as 7,000 Somali youth were recruited on the promise of training and employment in Qatar, but secretly transferred instead to Eritrea. Those that subsequently returned to Somalia became known as Duufaan (Hurricane), while an indeterminate number remained trapped in Eritrea, largely incommunicado, sparking a blistering scandal back in Somalia, where their parents demanded information about their whereabouts and well-being. By some accounts, hundreds, possibly thousands, of these Somali trainees may have been dispatched to fight in Ethiopia in November 2000 against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, but a communications blackout on the conflict zone has made such reports difficult to verify.
Thousands more trainees were enlisted into the Xoogga Wadaniyiinta (Popular Forces), a largely unarmed youth militia apparently inspired by the Guulwadayaal (Victory Pioneers) of Siyaad Barre’s ruling party. And perhaps the smallest NISA unit, known as Ruuxaan (Ghosts), operates in hit squads, conducting political assassinations mainly in Mogadishu. NISA also possesses two armed units trained and mentored (and quaintly misnamed) by the US government: Waran (Spear), which protects NISA facilities and Gaashaan (Shield), which serves as a counterterrorism commando unit. But since the Americans keep an eye on them, they don’t suit Fahad’s purposes.
Fahad’s strategy for the use of these politicised units progressively took shape in 2019 during the course of interventions in Jubaland and Galmudug. Following Ahmed Madoobe’s re-election in August 2019, and Villa Somalia’s humiliating failure to have him ousted by Ethiopian commandos, Fahad formulated a new course of action to destabilise Jubaland and undermine Madoobe’s authority. The FGS surged federal forces into Gedo region, whose Marehan clan elites were divided in their loyalties between Madoobe (and his Marehan political appointees) and their kinsman, Farmaajo. Villa Somalia counted on the combination of force and finance to wrest Gedo from Jubaland’s tenuous control.
To reinforce the SNA units stationed in Gedo, which were mainly drawn from local Marehan militias, the FGS airlifted a combination of NISA’s Duufaan and paramilitary Haram’ad police from Mogadishu to change the balance of forces on the ground. More importantly, Fahad took direct control of the joint operation, dispatching his trusted NISA deputy, Abdullahi Adan Kulane ‘Jiis’, himself a member of the Marehan clan, to supervise their operations. Official military and police chains of command were short-circuited.
Violence in Gedo escalated, and casualties mounted through early 2020, threatening to draw Ethiopian and Kenyan troops into a confrontation on behalf of their local allies. In February 2020, as the situation threatened to deteriorate even further, the US government expressed its concern in a statement to the UN Security Council, describing the deployment of federal forces to Gedo region as an unacceptable “politically motivated offensive” that diverted resources away from the common fight against Al-Shabaab. But of course, that had always been the point.
Indeed, Al-Shabaab was the principal beneficiary of Villa Somalia’s hijinks. While federal forces focused on wresting control of Doolow and Buulo Hawa away from Jubaland, they made no move towards Al-Shabaab’s nearby base at El Adde, which at least 150 Kenyan soldiers had died defending in 2016, and which has since served as a critical operational and bomb-making hub for the jihadists. Other parts of Gedo region previously under Jubaland control also fell steadily under the influence of the jihadists. Today, Al-Shabaab controls more of Gedo than it had before Farmaajo took office.
Meanwhile, since late 2019, Villa Somalia had been plotting to take full control of Galmudug, dismantling its incumbent administration and engineering a rigged election to install a political proxy as state president the next year. The dynamics in Galmudug were very different from those in Gedo, but the FGS playbook was much the same. Loyalist federal forces were surged into Galmudug to achieve local security dominance and the cash followed in suitcases.
The unchallenged expansion of Al-Shabaab’s influence on Farmaajo’s watch suggests a far more sinister explanation: tacit collusion between Villa Somalia and its putative adversaries. Indeed, the jihadists are possibly the only authority in Somalia that the FGS hasn’t chosen to pick a fight with.
Roughly 120 troops from the 2nd Battalion, Gorgor Commando Brigade were airlifted to the regional capital, Dhuusamareeb, together with about 100 Haram’ad paramilitary police and 120 officers from the Banaadir Police Force, who had originally been part of NISA. Their commander, Sadiq Joon, had previously served as NISA commander in Banaadir. Villa Somalia also tried to involve US-trained and -mentored Danab (Lightning) special forces in its conspiracy, but this was quickly detected and shut down.
Like in Gedo, Villa Somalia established a discreet, informal chain of command that reported directly to NISA, with Sadiq Joon directly supervising the SNA and Haram’ad operations, in addition to his own Banaadir Police contingent. In parallel, Fahad entrusted a close aide named Ali Wardheere (or Ali ‘Yare’) with the financial arrangements, which involved bribing local politicians, clan elders, and leaders of the powerful Sufi militia, Ahlu Sunna wal Jama’a (ASWJ) to acquiesce in the FGS’ scheme.
Ironically, the principal threat to Villa Somalia’s plans came from then Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, who tried to outmanoeuvre Fahad using his own ‘fixers’ to influence the Galmudug electoral process – a reckless overreach that ultimately cost him his job. But Fahad prevailed and his chosen flunky, Ahmed Abdi Kariye ‘Qoorqoor’, was duly installed as Galmudug’s president in February 2020
As in Gedo, Farmaajo and Fahad had employed loyalist federal forces to subvert the autonomy of an FMS – not to fight Al-Shabaab, which controlled the entire southern part of Galmudug. On the contrary, by installing a feckless political proxy and dismantling the vehemently anti-Shabaab ASWJ, Fahad prepared the ground for aggressive Al-Shabaab expansion the following year, followed by the most significant offensive by federal forces for over a decade – in support of the jihadists.
The Return of Al-Itihaad Al-Islaam
Al-Shabaab was not the only Islamist group to benefit during Farmaajo’s term of office. A little-known, like-minded affiliate known as Al-I’tisaam b’il Kitaab wa Sunna had also been growing from strength to strength – mainly thanks to the influence of its powerful representative in Villa Somalia: Fahad Yasin. Widely credited with having engineered Farmaajo’s 2017 electoral victory, Fahad had initially been rewarded with the post of Chief of Staff at the Presidency, followed by the leadership of NISA. With generous support from Qatar, he was able to refurbish NISA, not only as the most powerful instrument of FGS political authority, but also as a de facto secretariat for Al-I’tisaam.
Al-I’tisaam and Al-Shabaab share a common ancestor: the jihadist movement Al-Itihaad Al-Islaam, which first revealed itself following the collapse of the Siyaad Barre regime in 1991. Like Al-Qa’ida, Al-Itihaad was an offshoot of the militant Al-Sahwa (Awakening) movement that had been forged in the crucible of the Afghan jihad and which espoused an extreme, intolerant, and explicitly violent version of Islam. Al-Sahwa’s hostility to the Saudi establishment saw its proponents, including Osama bin Ladin, imprisoned or exiled. But Bin Ladin was welcomed by the ascendant Islamist government in Sudan in 1991, and he soon found an eager ally in Somalia’s Al-Itihaad.
Together, between 1992 and 1994, they strove to confront US military intervention in Somalia. But AIAI’s ambitions exceeded the narrow military goals of Al-Qa’ida and, against Bin Ladin’s advice, the movement sought to establish an Islamic ‘emirate’ on Somali territory. Their harsh attempts to pursue this objective found little purchase amongst the Somali population and backfired. Their ideology particularly alienated Somalia’s majority Sufi population by blaming Sufism for all the nation’s ills, including the collapse of the state. In 1996, following Bin Ladin’s expulsion from Sudan and relocation to Afghanistan, a much-deflated AIAI suffered successive defeats at the hands of the Ethiopian military and, in early 1997, made its calamitous last stand in Somalia’s southwestern Gedo region.
Among the young militants who survived Al-Itihaad’s final battle and escaped to neighbouring Kenya was Fahad Yasin. Born in 1977 or 1978 (his Somali and Kenyan passports contain different dates of birth and different names), his parents separated when he was young and he was raised by his mother and his stepfather, receiving a religious education in Mogadishu. When the Barre regime collapsed in 1991, Fahad and his family fled to Kenya as refugees, but he soon returned to Somalia under the wing of his stepfather, who had joined Al-Itihaad. Al-Itihaad’s military leader at the time was Hassan Dahir Aweys: an unrepentant extremist with whom Fahad would develop an almost filial relationship over the coming decades. Fahad’s stepfather was killed in battle against the Ethiopians in 1997, and when Al-Itihaad’s surviving leaders dispersed, the young Fahad found himself adrift.
After a couple of years searching for a new cause, Fahad eventually tried his hand at journalism, blogging for a provocative website called Somalitalk, where he mainly posted political commentary. A supporter of interim president Abdiqasim Salaad Hassam, who notionally held office as head of the then Transitional National Government between 2000 and 2004, Fahad was reportedly discouraged when Abdiqasim was ousted by Ethiopian-backed warlords through a skewed regional ‘peace process.’ Telling friends that he wanted to study Arabic, he travelled to Yemen, where regional intelligence sources say he enrolled at El Iman University: a sort of international finishing school for jihadists founded by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a close spiritual adviser to Osama bin Ladin and a specially designated global terrorist (by both the US and UN) in his own right.
By some accounts, hundreds, possibly thousands, of these Somali trainees may have been dispatched to fight in Ethiopia in November 2000 against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, but a communications blackout on the conflict zone has made such reports difficult to verify.
While Fahad was carving out a career for himself in the aftermath of Al-Itihaad’s 1997 defeat, the movement’s other alumni had divided into two wings: one, asserting that Somalia was not yet ripe for jihad, pursued political and economic interests, while advancing the core tenets of Al-Sahwa’s radical ideology by establishing an underground organisation (tanzim) and by preaching (da’wa). They called themselves Al-I’tisaam. The other faction, unwilling to abandon the path of jihad, sought out foreign fields of battle on which to hone their beliefs and skills: notably Afghanistan, where they renewed their allegiance to Bin Ladin and Al-Qa’ida. Following America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, veterans of these foreign battles would return to Somalia – their allegiance to Al-Qa’ida firmly intact – to establish the terror group that eventually became known as Al-Shabaab.
In the late 2000s, as Al-Shabaab emerged from the shadows to become a household name, Fahad Yasin found a job as a correspondent in Somalia for Qatar’s Al-Jazeera news network. Not surprisingly, given his jihadist credentials, he enjoyed unique access to Al-Shabaab’s senior leaders, apparently having no difficulty in obtaining exclusive interviews with reclusive ‘high value individuals’ or ‘HVIs’ whom Western intelligence agencies were desperately seeking to locate and, one way or another, remove from the battlefield.
During the course of his relationship with Al-Jazeera, Fahad apparently forged close ties with Qatar’s intelligence services, becoming a valued asset and, ultimately, an agent of influence. By 2011, he was back in the Somali political arena, working in the entourage of President Hassan Sheikh, who was elected to office in 2012. There was not much room in Hassan’s administration for Fahad to shine: although no Islamist himself, Hassan’s kitchen cabinet was dominated by members of Dam ul-Jadiid, an activist offshoot of Harakaat Al-Islaax (Somalia’s chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood), whose progressive ideals had little in common philosophically with Fahad’s conservative, militant upbringing. Moreover, Fahad was politically overshadowed by a close relative, Farah Abdulqadir, who outranked him within the clan hierarchy and served as Hassan Sheikh’s closest advisor.
By this time, Fahad had also apparently forged a close relationship with Farmaajo, a dull bureaucrat from Buffalo, New York, who he lobbied Hassan Sheikh to appoint as prime minister. Farmaajo had previously served a 6-month stint as prime minister under the previous president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Hassan sagely ignored Fahad’s advice, offering him instead the Ministry of Ports and Maritime Transport. By then, Fahad already had his sights set on NISA or, as a consolation prize, the Ministry of Internal Security, and he refused the position on offer. Some members of Hassan Sheikh’s entourage, however, aver that a profound clash of ideologies contributed to this parting of the ways.
Fahad returned to Qatar where, around 2014, he was assigned to Al-Jazeera’s Centre for Studies, an independent research institution that has earned a reputation for being, inter alia, a forum for reflection and exchange between various international Islamist movements. But by 2016 Fahad was back in the maelstrom of Somali politics, this time managing Farmaajo’s presidential campaign. Fahad not only shared his candidate’s authoritarian instincts, but he also treated Farmaajo like a kinsman, since his late stepfather had also been a member of Farmaajo’s Marehan clan. Farmaajo was not an Islamist, but from Fahad’s perspective, this rendered his candidate even more useful. During his studies abroad and exposure to members of other Islamist groups, Fahad had apparently internalised a practice more commonly associated with Shi’a Islam: taqqiya – the use of deception and dissimulation in defence of the faith, which Sunni jihadists have pragmatically appropriated in recent decades. Farmaajo’s secular profile, his ultranationalist populism, and his American passport, complemented by an entourage of technocratic cabinet ministers from the diaspora with Western accents and stylish suits, would help to camouflage Fahad’s real ambition: an Islamist coup.
In February 2017, through a combination of shrewd electioneering and injections of cash from Doha, Fahad helped steer Farmaajo to victory and was rewarded with the post of Chief of Staff at the Presidency. Having finally ascended to the apex of national power, Fahad wasted no time in impelling the appointment of former Al-Itihaad militants – now re-branded as Al-I’tisaam – to key positions, both formal and informal, in government. Since the FGS had virtually no revenue and Fahad held Qatar’s purse strings, Farmaajo acquiesced to his recommendations.
Over the next few years, Fahad succeeded in placing dozens of erstwhile jihadists in key positions throughout the federal administration and security services. Among them were the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Presidency, the Minister of Agriculture, a state minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, the State Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Finance, and at least five senior officials at NISA: a Chief of Staff, Deputy DG, and the directors of Cybersecurity, Counterintelligence, and Foreign Intelligence (subsequently appointed Deputy Ambassador to Qatar). Other members of the group served unofficially, both inside and outside Somalia, as promoters, couriers, financiers, online activists, and informal emissaries.
At the same time, Fahad began mobilising Al-I’tisaam networks across the region, including a powerful lobby of Salafi imams and businessmen in neighbouring Kenya. Many of these religious leaders were based in the largely Somali-inhabited enclave of Eastleigh in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and had been active supporters of Al-Itihaad in the 1990s. Congregating mainly at a prominent mosque on 6th street, they held regular fund raisers for the jihadists and some of their most prominent activists were killed or captured fighting alongside Al-Itihaad in Somalia.
In October 2017, an Al-Shabaab suicide bombing in Mogadishu left more than five hundred people dead and thousands wounded. The disaster prompted an outpouring of sympathy and support from Somali communities worldwide, including the well-established and increasingly influential Salafi constituency in Kenya that had previously invested in Al-Itihaad. A high-level delegation was dispatched from Nairobi to Mogadishu to deliver their contribution for victims of the bombing.
Fahad seized upon the arrival of such prominent Kenyan-Somali imams and Al-Itihaad alumni for his own, ulterior motives: since the late 2000s, relations between Al-Itihaad’s two main successors – Al-I’tisaam and Al-Shabaab – had been strained nearly to the breaking point by public spats and mutual betrayal. Fahad saw not just an opportunity for reconciliation, but also to establish himself as an Islamist kingpin, and reportedly arranged a meeting between them. The initial encounter was successful, and a follow-up conference was convened in early 2018 in Kismayo.
During his studies abroad and exposure to members of other Islamist groups, Fahad had apparently internalised a practice more commonly associated with Shi’a Islam: taqqiya – the use of deception and dissimulation in defence of the faith, which Sunni jihadists have pragmatically appropriated in recent decades.
According to Somali media reports at the time, the meetings produced plans for the two groups to infiltrate Somali government institutions on a large scale, especially the security sector and judiciary. Al-Shabaab sought the integration of Al-Shabaab forces into FGS security forces, together with their weapons, and the departure of AMISOM. An as interim measure, they proposed that forces from Turkey and other Muslim countries could be deployed to supervise the process of integration. A committee was duly established to oversee the recruitment of former militants for training and insertion into the SNA and NISA.
The meetings also supported the establishment of ‘Popular Defence Forces’ (Ciidanka Difaaca Shacbiga ah), or PDF, to absorb urban youth and low-level Al-Shabaab fighters. Upon completion of training, these units would initially reinforce security at Villa Somalia and then gradually be expanded across in Mogadishu. However, the PDF never officially got off the ground and was eventually subsumed by Villa Somalia’s Xoogga Wadaniyiinta youth militia.
Beyond these security arrangements, Fahad briefed the participants that he had arranged an agreement between the FGS and an Islamic university in Kenya, bankrolled by Qatar, to train the Somali judiciary and Ulema (Islamic scholars). Not coincidentally, the university’s chancellor was a prominent Salafi scholar, businessman and former spokesman for Al-Itihaad.
Fahad’s aspirations for the consolidation of Al-Itihaad’s alumni under the umbrella of the FGS were gaining momentum. But in November 2019, he overplayed his hand, triggering a backlash from Somali Sufis. Somalis have traditionally followed the Shafi’i school of Islamic law, guided by several dominant Sufi turuuq, or sects. Despite the aggressive encroachment of exogenous Salafi movements, many Somalis still treasure their Sufi beliefs and practices. Fahad had invited to Mogadishu Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Umal, a prominent Kenyan cleric and businessman whom many consider to be Al-I’tisaam’s spiritual guide. The purpose of Umal’s visit was to donate some US$330,000 that he and his followers had raised for victims of flooding in Hiiraan region, and Fahad planned a lavish ceremony in his honour.
No one disputed the worthiness of the cause for which Sheikh Umal had raised the funds, but the high-profile reception planned for him by Villa Somalia did not sit well with Somali Sufis, who seized the moment to protest what they perceived as an alliance between Villa Somalia and Al-I’tisaam. The militant Sufi ASWJ interpreted Villa Somalia’s public embrace of a prominent Salafi imam as confirmation of Al-I’tisaam’s status as the de facto ruling party in Villa Somalia and, by extension, as undeclared custodian of the state religion. Sheikh Abdulqadir Soomow, a leader of the ASWJ and spokesman for the national Ulema Council, angrily charged Umal with inciting hatred against Sufis and their beliefs, promoting the rise of the “Kharijites” (a pejorative term for extremists like Al-Shabaab), and of “killing many people with his words.” Umal defended himself against the allegations, but his visit was hastily downgraded to a low-key affair, hosted in a hotel conference room near Mogadishu’s airport.
A serious clash between Sufis and Salafis had been avoided, but the episode foreshadowed a much bloodier reckoning between ASWJ and Villa Somalia less than two years later.
Farmaajo’s Extension, Fahad’s Second Term
In February 2021, having successfully stolen the elections in SWS, Hirshabelle and Galmudug, Farmaajo plotted another coup: stealing his own re-election. Despite having had four years to prepare the ground for federal elections, the Nabad iyo Nolol (‘Peace and Life’) government reached the end of its term – by design – utterly unprepared. For more than three years, Farmaajo had promised Somalis and international partners alike that he would deliver one-person one-vote (OPOV) elections for the next parliament, which would in turn elect the next president.
OPOV had always been a pipe dream, albeit one that Western diplomats enthusiastically subscribed to and, in many cases, oversold to their respective capitals. Not only did insecurity prohibit such an exercise and the federal government manifestly lacked the capacity to pull it off, but even more problematic was the fact that with less than one year remaining in Farmaajo’s term, there was no consensus between political stakeholders, including the FMS and the political opposition, on the electoral model that Villa Somalia was proposing.
Moreover, rushing into a hastily concocted, profoundly contested electoral process would be extremely dangerous: by scrapping the longstanding “4.5 formula” of clan-based power sharing, it would create winners and losers across the country. No one had bothered to do the math about which clan constituencies stood to win or lose most, or by how much. The risk of large parts of the population rejecting the electoral results, either because they distrusted an opaque process or because they felt unfairly deprived of representation, was extremely high.
The cabal in Villa Somalia was well aware of these considerations and was counting on the collapse of electoral preparations to buy them a term extension of at least two years to deliver on their OPOV commitment. But when they finally showed their hand and tabled the proposed extension in parliament in early April 2021, the opposition was infuriated and fighting erupted in the streets of Mogadishu. More than a hundred thousand people were displaced by the fighting, as the army fragmented along clan lines and opposition forces swiftly gained the upper hand. Faced by the prospect of being evicted from the presidency at gunpoint, Farmaajo reluctantly abandoned the scheme.
Seven months later, Farmaajo is nevertheless comfortably ensconced in Villa Somalia and Fahad’s plan to hijack the election is inching forward through iterative bargaining over excruciatingly esoteric electoral procedures. Although an “election” of some kind will almost certainly take place before Farmaajo reaches the benchmark of his coveted two-year extension, there is a clear and present danger that the Islamist ecosystem nurtured by Fahad Yasin will return to power in Villa Somalia – whether under Farmaajo’s leadership or another candidate of Fahad’s choosing.
The Talibanisation of Somalia
Any continuity of Fahad’s influence in Villa Somalia, with or without Farmaajo, would be disastrous for Somalia. It is increasingly clear what Fahad, his party and his patrons intend for the country: a process of staged negotiations between the federal government and Al-Shabaab, facilitated largely by Qatar and culminating in the ‘Talibanisation’ of Somalia. Notwithstanding the significant cultural and ideological differences between the Taliban and Al-Itihaad, the cynical abandonment of Somali aspirations for some form of liberal democracy in favour of an autocratic, absolutist theocracy would be no less treacherous or traumatic than it was for Kabul.
For several years, Qatar has been promoting the notion of dialogue between the FGS and Al-Shabaab as a way of winding down the insurgency. This would likely entail the opening of an Al-Shabaab office in Qatar, some preliminary proximity talks between the parties, followed by eventual face-to-face negotiations. Many Western governments are keenly interested in this possibility: the fight against Al-Shabaab will soon enter its third decade and the jihadists are stronger than ever. As every security analyst is taught, the dismantling of insurgencies and terrorist groups inevitably involves some form of negotiation. Force alone cannot prevail.
Villa Somalia has disingenuously reinforced that argument under Farmaajo’s leadership, not by trying to fight and failing, but by not really trying at all. The FGS has spent the past four years waging a war on federalism, on political pluralism and on democratic norms, but not on Al-Shabaab. The largest single offensive military operation undertaken since 2017 was an all-out assault against ASWJ, at Guri’el in Galmudug region in October 2021 that left at least 120 people dead and hundreds more wounded. Al-Shabaab’s nearby stronghold at Eel Buur, to the southeast, was, as ever, left in peace.
Guri’el was arguably the bloodiest battle in Somalia since Kenyan troops were overrun at El Adde, only it wasn’t waged against the jihadists. On the contrary, Al-I’tisaam clerics rushed to defend the government’s onslaught against Al-Shabaab’s sworn Sufi enemies: Sheikh Bashir Salaad, Al-I’tisaam’s senior cleric in Mogadishu and Chairman of the Ulema Council, equivocally equated ASWJ with Al-Shabaab, while Fahad’s old mentor, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys (under comfortable “house arrest” in Villa Somalia) praised Al-Shabaab for being monotheists, in contrast with ASWJ’s “polytheist idolaters”.
Such sectarian hyperbole also helps to explain why Villa Somalia has been loath to share external support, and especially security assistance, with the FMS. Jubaland and Puntland would, for certain, have put such resources to good use combating Al-Shabaab. Even the other FMS, despite their political affiliations with the FGS, would have found it hard to prevent locally recruited Daraawiish forces from taking the fight to Al-Shabaab on their home turf. Even Galmudug’s own Daraawiish, operating essentially as a community defence force, engaged in several pitched battles against Al-Shabaab in the months prior to Guri’el– without the support of the FGS. Villa Somalia declines to devolve combat capabilities to the FMS, not – as FGS leaders like to repeat – simply because they might turn against Mogadishu, but because they would almost certainly employ them against Al-Shabaab.
By the same token, Farmaajo’s deliberate failure to advance the constitutional review process, and stunting of the development of a functional federation, as well as forsaking of any pretext of an electoral system, all serve to strengthen Al-Shabaab’s hand at a future bargaining table. Prior agreement between the FGS and FMS on these vital issues, enshrining them in a completed constitution and complementary legislation, would leave little space to accommodate Al-Shabaab’s demands. Entering a dialogue with these matters unresolved would award Al-Shabaab carte blanche to re-negotiate all aspects of the state building process.
Bringing Al-Shabaab into government would also solve another wicked problem that many Western governments feel strongly about: AMISOM. Integrating jihadist fighters into the Somali security sector would obviate the need for an international peace enforcement operation. Bilateral train-and-equip missions for Somali security forces might continue far into the future, but the enormous cost and commitment required to sustain the AU mission would finally come to an end.
Since the late 2000s, relations between Al-Itihaad’s two main successors – Al-I’tisaam and Al-Shabaab – had been strained nearly to the breaking point by public spats and mutual betrayal. Fahad saw not just an opportunity for reconciliation, but also to establish himself as an Islamist kingpin
As long as Fahad holds the reins of power in Villa Somalia, negotiations with Al-Shabaab would consign Somalia to one-party rule under a reunified Al-Itihaad: a post-jihadist state in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan on the Gulf of Aden. That might sit well with some donor nations, but it is far less clear how it would be received by the Somali population. Although many have adopted Salafi beliefs and practices in the private and social spheres, the prospect of a totalitarian political system underpinned by ideological intolerance and policed by religious zealots is another proposition entirely.
Even more importantly, from the callow perspective of those who advocate stability as an end in itself, is whether such a dispensation would in fact bring enduring stability to Somalia and the region. None of Somalia’s neighbours is likely to be at ease sharing borders with a post-jihadist government that espouses radically different geopolitical perspectives and priorities. The level of discomfort would likely be even higher in those nations that host well-established chapters of Al-I’tisaam, chiefly Kenya and Ethiopia.
More distant foreign powers would likely share such concerns: the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are all deeply hostile to Islamist political movements and especially to those that carry Al-Sahwa’s DNA. Cosy relations between Mogadishu, Doha, and Ankara would only heighten apprehension in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo – at least as long as the two camps remain strategic competitors across north Africa and much of the Middle East.
Conviction Not for Crime, but for Heresy
I’m not entirely sure what my FGS accusers were hoping to achieve, but life has changed little since I became a convicted felon. I’m still at liberty, my assets haven’t been frozen, and I face no travel ban. My family hasn’t spurned me, and I’ve been allowed to keep my old job. My colleagues and friends are sympathetic, and I’ve gained a few new ones on social media. The support and solidarity I’ve received from unexpected quarters has given me a small taste of that special kind of sympathy usually reserved for political prisoners — mercifully without actually having to go to prison.
If prosecution was intended to muzzle me or my colleagues, it has clearly backfired: the preceding pages offer a foretaste of the story that Villa Somalia had hoped would never be told. None of this information constitutes a national secret or is otherwise protected by law. Much of it has already been reported – albeit in disparate, disconnected fragments – by reputable Somali and international media houses. Few politically conscious Somalis, whether they support or oppose the FGS, will find any of it new or surprising. As an analyst, my only crime has been to arrange these pixels of information into what I hope is a consistent and compelling portrait: to organise the facts and present them in a way that is relevant to policy makers, both Somali and foreign, and that helps to ensure that decisions on the way forward – especially with respect to engaging Al-Shabaab — are based on evidence and reason – not sloth and expediency.
Like any other members of my audience, the current leaders of Somalia’s federal government – whether they hold those positions legitimately or not — may choose not to read what I have written. They may read it and disagree, and they might even decide to respond. They may try to sue me, under applicable laws and in an independent court. But to concoct a show trial, to lay charges without evidence or right of reply, and to convict me in absentia and ultra vires? These are the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime with a hidden agenda.
Such intrigues say far more about the cabal currently squatting in Villa Somalia than they do about me or the organisation I work with. And they appear to confirm, no doubt inadvertently, the conclusions I have reached in this article: that Somalia’s state building process has been hijacked by an ideological faction well practised in the arts of deceit and dissimulation – taqqiya.
The only threat to Somalia’s national security at issue here is the one that Farmaajo, Fahad, their accomplices and enablers collectively pose to the nation’s future: a creeping coup orchestrated by an absolutist clique that brooks no dissent or opposition, and whose dystopian theological worldview construes the truth, when it is inconvenient or inconsistent with their narrative, to be not simply a crime, but heresy.
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