Connect with us

Long Reads

Fear and Loathing in Middle America

22 min read.

Ugly notions of war, pointless yelling about dishwashers and light bulbs, Lionel Richie songs, and visions of Nancy Pelosi in a sweltering cage. My bizarre night at a Trump rally.

Published

on

Fear and Loathing in Middle America
Download PDFPrint Article

Note from a resentful and sequestered journalist:

It’s a real downer to be so perpetually right about this man all the time. Years ago, on a cruel Wednesday in November, the morning after Trump ‘won’, I had a brief conversation via Facebook with a family member.

He stated: “What a disaster.”

To which I replied, “No, the disaster is yet to hit us.”

What a f***ing drag to be correct. The rally took place six months ago, for all I know, the VIRUS could have been banging around the corridors of that ugly squat Milwaukee structure already. At the time, it was one of the darkest eight hour periods of my life, a look into the other side only to find out that it was even worse than my ‘good liberal’ sensibilities could have fathomed.

At the time of writing, I thought, perhaps I’ve gone too far with this one, crossing the Rubicon of objectivity. It turns out, no one quite went far enough in putting this man back into his place, and because of it all wishes of him slithering away seem a distant hope.

The Trump supporter, the ones that attend such rallies and wear big middle fingers that read ‘HERE HILLARY!’, the ones who’d show up to a rally in the depths of a frozen January, seemed as though they’d follow the man of the long ties over a cliff if he’d merely pointed that way. There was something strange hanging in the air that day, like the feeling that the other shoe was about to drop, and do so squarely onto the bridge of one’s nose.

Sixth months later, the country lays tattered and beaten, split asunder by denial and modern political ineptitude swirled in with the Trump ethic’s engrained cruelty. It was certain then that this was going to be an absolute emotional suck of a presidential campaign – one that would drag the country backwards in some inexplicable way yet to be revealed. Turns out, it was every way imaginable, even some from a nightmare. The US now sits at the end of the barrel of one man’s ego, stuck in quarantine from the scourge of COVID-19, still arguing about masks for f***’s sake, the highest death tolls globally by far and Disney World throwing open its doors to keep the shareholders smiling via Zoom.

I thought at the time, watching that audience and their fervor, Trump would surely win the election. I no longer think that, but it might not matter. The damage was done a long time ago, it just took a germ, a knee in a man’s neck and decades of malignant systemic bullshit swirling together to prove it out.

It turns out some dumbness is terminal after all, but everyone was too worried about the “good of the country” to listen.

***

MILWAUKEE, January, 2020.

F*** Your Feelings: Donald Trump 2020. Indeed. A truer sentiment couldn’t have been more reflected in the teeming mass of humanity that writhed back and forth between segmented caution tape lines in the January deep freeze of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now, such heinous slogans were made for opportunity; it was $20 (CASH ONLY!) and printed onto T-shirts, flying off a folded table as fast as wind-chapped hands could clamour for them.

It was the first thing that I saw as I came bounding out of Major Goolsby’s Bar and Grill. I’d ventured into it to use the toilet (to avoid the horrors of portable loos used by thousands of waiting Trump supporters, many of whom had camped out on an overnight drunk in the line). On my way to the exit, I bumped into a table with six sorority age women, all silently eating Authentic Tennessee honey BBQ chicken wings and staring off idly into space; one of them wore a sign draped around her neck that said: First Time Voter, All Time Republican. None of them even looked up as the table rocked violently.

There were some 5,000 people out in the line, even this early, some two hours before the doors were set to open. I was wearing Republican “cosplay”, a green polo shirt, pressed khakis and a backwards Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball cap (an effort to make me look like a good and decent suburban conservative). These items, along with my winter-pasty Irish whiteness would serve me well; I could slide right in with these people and blend in, as long as I didn’t say something tolerant and flag myself.

Within seconds of diving into the midst of the queue, flasks came zipping from hidden pockets; whiskey and vodka flowed out in bright red half litre frat-boy “solo cups”. This was it, the centre of the universe for those yearning for the long-dead America that President Ronald Reagan destroyed in the 80s and then took credit for inventing; this was a carnival for depressed suburban accountant dads, their well-coiffed wives and an assortment of Northern US weirdos (like rednecks, but with strange heavily-nasal accents), ones that looked as though they’d simply hopped out of deer-hunting season and hustled fixing carburetors to scrape together just enough gas money to get to the Tuesday day-drinking. All around me, people were pounding back booze like the end was nigh, and with the helicopters swirling back and forth overhead, I couldn’t say it seemed they were far off base.

Red. It was all I saw. Not just the colour, but also the blinding feeling of it. Guys were hyped, this was their guy, a rock star idol straight out of the late 1980s, throwing a free festival for them. Simply everyone had on some kind of apparel. They’d all bought in and thrown down cash on this shameless shill; paying a billionaire to sport his likeness.

Scarves, hats, stars and stripes, camouflage MAGA jackets, signs, lewd buttons, T-shirts (several of them) that read in bold letters: Hillary Sucks, but Monica BLOWS.

That’s what it was, although I realised it too late: I didn’t match the crowd. For one hundred metres in any direction, everyone was branded and I wasn’t.

People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.

A fifty-five year old goateed man, while pulling a canned beer (the fifth I’d seen, but judging by his slur, the thirteenth of the day) from a cooler, saw this lack of conformity and my long hair and started in: “Man, I bet one of those liberals is going to raise their dumb f***ing head and say something. They always have to talk about their stupid feelings.”

People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.

I grinned a shit-eating grin and shot back, “I bet it’ll be a whole bunch of them.”

He lifted his shades and glared at me, beers and years of boredom behind his eyes. “You’re not one of them, are you?”

I had a vision of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when people who don’t match up with the aliens are pointed and shrieked at by gaping horrific mouths. I looked back at him stone-faced. “My man, I’m a Christian soul, but you couldn’t pay me to pray for that bitch Hillary.”

He glared back, reading my face for a long moment before smiling slightly and tilting his Bud Light: Lime beer.

There was a lot of fear in this crowd; it was almost palpable. Several attendees made comments about having to “come out” as Trump supporters to family, friends, and co-workers. They all gave stories of heavy alienation. I’d had similar conversations with young and gay kids from the Deep South state of Georgia – tales of shunning and fearing disownment.

Perhaps this wasn’t quite the audience for an impassioned discussion on historical disenfranchisement of minorities; to this line, they were the marginalised. It was obvious that they finally felt listened to, they all seemed to have the same giddy expression of a secondary school student who just found out that she had a date to the dance.

The irony was thoroughly lost on all of these Trump supporters, however, as they failed to realise that victimisation isn’t equal. It is clear from the crowd that a chief principle of a Trump crowd is playing to that ugly “woe-is-me” part of the lizard brain. In Trumpville, you really did get a raw deal all your life; you sad-sap white-male-of-the-first-world-making-60K-USD-a-year you.

Not only this, but it was probably a Honduran who delivered that shitty bargain up hot and steaming while stealing your jobs while you kept going to work every day.

Life, for some, just isn’t fair.

Dear God, these well-fed victims were all drinking like it was pre-prom and it was all downhill from here in life. I watched five middle-aged women in matching navy blue TRUMP 2020 shirts shotgun beers and then immediately throw the cans to the ground, only to pass a bottle of Fleischman’s: Wisconsin’s Number 1 Vodka! around in a circle; polishing it off in a mere two laps.

The scene outside was, to put it mildly, deeply strange. It was the same kind of weirdness that one would encounter heading into a rock-metal concert in the deep American South – shit always gets heavy in the event’s parking lot; it is where the broke get loaded and the swag hustlers push their wares.

Now the feeling echoed eerily similar. Seven songs played in a sort of ramshackle list, but not in any rational order – songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock would play twice in four tracks, followed by Elton John (not with permission to play his music) and, most jarringly, the Village People’s Macho Man, a famous gay anthem of the 70s.

Such musical eclecticism led to tableaus playing out before me; such as watching two pot-bellied, white-goateed men wearing matching ‘hristians for Trump! T-shirts, dancing and smiling with each other whilst holding hands in a sort of circular country jig.

I should have brought a flask myself, especially as I saw a young girl with an Iranians for Trump sign pose for selfies with overtly fascinated war-mongers in the line.

The music was split through every thirteen minutes or so by a pre-recorded public announcement. A woman with a voice similar in tone to Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale would suddenly exclaim:

“Hi and Welcome to this patriotic campaign rally to re-elect Donald Trump, featuring your Commander-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump! We thank you for coming out to show your patriotism and your pride. Donald Trump cares about your First Amendment Rights….almost as much as he cares about your Second Amendment Rights! But there are some people who want to take advantage of Donald Trump’s patriotism by interrupting his speech during the rally! If you see protesters, don’t get violent, just hold up your complementary Trump signs and yell TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP! The police will be around to collect them shortly! Thank you and Keep America Great!”

A nearby bystander muttered, “The Iranians are smart man, they knew we’d have blown them into a sandbox, just like those f***ing terrorists in Iraq.”

Jesus, this was going to be a long several hours out here, and the temperature was starting to drop. The wind picking up and sucking through the office blocks along the Milwaukee River, before swooping downwards to smack us.

Any faithful Midwesterner will tell you that the winters here are an atrocity, enough to make you curse your ancestors. Anyone you catch outside enjoying themselves in such foul climate is to be avoided, as they are probably up to no good. The bitter cold brings out the bitterness in people, a sentiment that was now being leaned into heavily.

Towards the front of the line, assorted hired security heavies were yelling, “WHATEVER YOU HAVE TO EAT, DISPOSE OF IT NOW! THERE ARE NO HANDWARMERS ALLOWED. THROW THEM AWAY NOW!” Soccer moms began to heft back entire sachets of wine; Skinny Girl Margaritas, martinis in water bottles, whatever their acrylic nails could reach.

The dirtiness was astounding towards the end of the queue; garbage cans overflowed three-fold their capacity and it was clear that many had brought chairs with the full intention of abandoning them. Folded camping chairs lay in piles, covered with soon-to-rot picnic platters of mysterious orange cheeses with Wisconsin-Made! processed beef summer sausage. Glass was everywhere, smashed into near dust on the ground. I had a terrible vision of being knocked to the ground by an overzealous ca -mechanic sporting a MAG’ Hat, crushed under feet pounding towards seeing their false idol spit foul-smelling lies through a loudspeaker.

Now was not the time for such thoughts; it was time to smile and nod. Agree tacitly, scream inwardly: individual thought is strongly frowned upon in such crowds.

Three hours in and I finally made it to the door, a great inward wind tunnel sucking us all into its void towards several polo shirt-wearing ex-military types guarding a metal detector.

***

Now, when I’d heard of this spectacle guised as a legitimate political campaign rally, I acted quickly, signing up for a ticket online and spelling all of my details out with precision. If I were to subject myself to this Trumpian f***ery, I planned on coming correct and not being turned back rudely at the door.

I had assumed that security would be bordering on a prison camp, a Kafkaesque mess of purity-by-campaign-slogan hat. I’d scrubbed my pockets of all potential liberalisms and half-suspected to be found out for malicious statements I’d made about the “administration” in mid-2017 while drunk on White Cap in Nairobi.

Instead, there was no check – I was simply whisked through and searched thoroughly, pushed along further down the tunnel, like they needed the numbers and were filling the seats with any hapless idiot dumb enough to cut back on their hourly wages long enough to attend.

It played into the sudden rush of realisation as to just how disjointed and chaotic the whole thing was. Just like that, I was in, surrounded by cowboy hats and camo, although I noticed that all talk of “open carry” and “2nd Amendment Liberty” was quickly discarded in the name of the safety of The Republican Party.

There was a strong sense of unity in the Panther Arena, a bizarre squat throwback to 1960s’ mid-size- market indoor coliseums; a beautiful modern facade outside, but once in, a droll concrete oval, with little character, only awkward scarlet TRUMP! posters to dot the walls.

Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.

I found a seat to the stage left of the podium, some twenty metres away. I wedged myself between middle-aged conspiracy theorists and pondered my options. Who could I kick aside if someone yelled “GAY!” in the middle of this throng and caused a fear-driven stampede? The 60 year old singing I’m Proud to be an American! off-key while ogling the blonde FOX News anchor standing at the crowd fence down towards the floor seemed a prime target to trample over.

“God damn, would you look at her, she’s got the tits of an angel!” the singer was whispering in my ear. He was the kind of awkward older Midwestern man you never want to be spiraled downwards into a conversational hole with, “She’s fair and balanced alright. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

I suddenly had the bad image of tens of thousands of once-decent Middle Americans being seduced by electric sex and overt racism over the entire eight-year run time of the Bush administration. I swallowed a grimace and leaned back towards him. “I heard that Roger Ailes (the now deceased CEO of FOX News) willed them to her.”

He looked back at me, slightly perturbed. It was a gentle reminder that this was not the crowd for sarcasm.

And what was this crowd exactly? Down on the floor seemed to be the most “out there”; the veritable roadie of the Trump supporter, the parking lot people. From my perch, I could see conspiracy theories in print, awkward hats, and oh, so many atrocious haircuts.

Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.

Collude This, Bitch! The letters were in glitter and framed a middle finger on a T-shirt; complements abounded to the wearer.

I sat in that sweaty seat, mainlining coffee as various campaign hangers-on came around and repeatedly asked me to volunteer, which I claimed I already had outside of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. A couple seemed to doubt this, but I just shrugged and went back to pretending to enjoy the music. In this crowd, ignorance is woke.

Speaking of which, why this music? It was a major theme from the entire proceeding. Why are they playing this right now? It wasn’t just that the artists being played had expressly told the Trump campaign to f*** off under threat of litigation, it was the odd mix of it. Nessun Dorma was followed by REMs’ Everybody Hurts, followed again by Proud to be an American. The music rang out as though an American-idol obsessed 13 year old had made a mixtape; there was no thematic tie at all; the music rambled the same way Trump did. Was the audience being subconsciously primed for a stream of continual disjointed thoughts?

Paul McCartney had just began singing the refrain to The Beatles’ Hey Jude when the music suddenly cut out, the recording coming to a screeching halt, leaving a brief void of silence and nervous laughter, only for the concert speakers hanging from the ceiling, at a volume that could only be described as apocalyptic, to blare forth the opening chords of Lionel Richie’s Hello badly shaking the molded plastic seats down to the screws.

It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.

And the arena kept filling up. Early on, as I sat idly in my seat, clasping a Trump sign that an overzealous young Republican had thrust rudely into my hands, I smirked and thought of Trump’s repeated crowd size claims; the ones that made it seem he had an underlying issue with how big things are…

Now, however, the room continued to engorge, with people seemingly streaming in from God knows where, many piss drunk already.

“Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”

My ears ringing, I made my way back out for another cup of drastically overpriced coffee, poured by a mostly black concession stand staff that seemed absolutely dead set on avoiding making eye contact with any Trump supporting patrons.

Who could possibly be intimidated by a man with seven AR-15 rifle pins on his skull-and-bones T-shirt? It is his God-given right after all, just as long as the guns don’t get into the hands of the minorities. There were a great many fashion statements seemingly derived exclusively from intimidation, a lot of awkward male posturing, a great many uncouth phallic references, both intentional and not.

It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.

The majority of the Republican leadership in Wisconsin is, above all, boring as an insurance salesman’s pitch during a heatwave. They meander through talking points, drone on about “fiscal responsibility” and yammer endlessly about “how every life is sacred” before “praying for the troops” who are “keeping us safe” in whatever military conflict has 100x the non-American casualties this week.

This is standard Bush-era, post-9/11 fare.

As such, these typical right wing tools seemed dreadfully out of place following the Trump campaign managers who came out to pounding 70s rock anthems before throwing T-shirts into the crowd at a high velocity and condemning the soul of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to burn in hell for eternity.

Everyone in the crowd sensed it; this was the state-fair/semi-professional stock car race/fireworks accident turned sentient and rampaging its way to the stage: the anticipation was now so thick that with each bland nothingness let forth from one of these faceless suits at the podium, the tension steadily built.

***

It was as if Wrestlemania was here and everyone wanted to be splattered by blood. This was no space for a PG rating.

“Hurry the hell up,” I heard the creepy old man next to me mutter as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said some boring thing about bombing Iran if they didn’t “respect agreements”.

Yes, indeed, just ignore all serious things by those who can make such decisions and get to the main event. Politics isn’t political to this crowd. This is only entertainment.

After Vice President Mike Pence took the stage, briefly unbuttoned his jaw and let loose an incredibly boring vision of the world ending for 22 minutes, it was time for it.

Feet stomped and jaws clenched. Elvis was in the building. Then, as Michael Jackson’s Beat It got cut and switched over to a blaring rendition of Proud to be an American, Donald Trump himself awkwardly popped out into view from behind a curtain, emerging to his comfort zone, announced by a lisping voice booming through the PA system.

He tottered around for some minutes, gesticulating wildly while the 10,000-strong crowd went somewhere well beyond ape-shit in pandemonium.

“F*** YEAH DONALD!” a man in a bright orange hunter vest screamed out from behind me, his voice cracking as if pre-pubescent. The crowd swayed back and forth, chanting “U-S-A!” in a unified boom, surging up and forward, staring at this strange-looking man now standing at the pulpit.

It has been ridiculed in the media, but it can’t be understated just how strange this man’s posture truly is. As he launched into his self-congratulations at nearly causing a regional war in the Middle East, I couldn’t stop staring at his hips; they sat there as though they were displaced, somehow his torso shifted forward above them, requiring a stand and microphone for him to lean into, as if he wasn’t truly whole unless screaming obscenities about minorities to his converted faithful.

After brief introductions, one of the most surreal six minutes of any speech ever came flowing with such stunning speed. I was flabbergasted. With one breath, the press was cursed as “corrupt, evil, liars”. With the next, Iran was threatened with obliteration without subtlety.

The masses in the cheap seats were with him all the way.

Americans, by and large, have an ugly tinge of entitled jingoism to their conversational abilities and global view; and sometimes we just can’t help ourselves but lean into these instincts, especially when drunk and encouraged.

Many within this weird country look down openly on people from other cultures. They talk about Africa as though it is a monolith made of people below their station. As they clamoured for a fascist leader who was openly lying to them, admitting it, then asking them to clap for the falsehoods, I took a mental note of just how “superior” American Democracy really was.

“You tell them Trump!” In came the harangues and chorus of agreement. From somewhere above, faint voices began to ring out, their words unclear, their message of protest practically crystal. Two girls, probably come down from some bastion of liberal tendencies at the University, revealed smuggled T-shirts and unfurled a cloth banner that read something to the affect of NO TO WAR!

The crowd universally booed and hissed them with vicious intent. Fists waved, middle fingers straightened. Trump waved his hands about like some sort of deeply disturbed conductor, before rebuking the girls to “go home to mommy!”

“He sure knows how to tell those pussies off, huh?” The same dirty old man was trying to engage me again, now breathing seemingly directly into my eardrum.

Knowing Americans, this same schmuck sitting next to me will probably print up six or seven of Trump’s lamest threats, print them onto T-shirts and later be convicted of tax fraud when he launders prescription drug money through selling them on eBay. He’ll then be pardoned by the administration via a midnight tweet storm. The world turns onward.

The crowd was stomping their feet; sin turned Pentacostal while led by their preacher. The first thirty minutes or so could be viewed as a sort of unhinged Greatest Hits album, like watching a fading rock star, propped up on just enough speed to bang out his most well-known chords. Trump struck out at all the classic notes:

Bomb Iran? Just playing (or are we?).”

“How great is the military? Great, but only because they respect me, oh, how they respect me.”

“Aren’t Mexicans coming up from the south to surely rape your elderly first grade teacher and beat her poodle to death with a sack full of meth and drug profits? Almost definitely, but I alone can stop it. BECAUSE OF THE WALL.”

“Police are great aren’t they? It’s surely a shame that the inner cities don’t respect them enough.”

“Democrats are a vile sack of evil, trying to convict me and get me out of the White House, but don’t they know any better? I’ll never leave. Just kidding, or am I?”

“Nasty Nancy Pelosi is trying to convict me in this horrible, ugly, witch-hunt; which I openly admit guilt to, but that’s okay because I said so.”

With this last statement, the masses roared their approval. Signs were held aloft; chants of “FOUR MORE YEARS” began in earnest, only to be soon drowned out with chants of “LOCK HER UP!” aimed at the Democratic Speaker of the House.

Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life? For some reason, I thought of some dull-eyed American I’d met in a Nairobi bar back in 2013, asking me why Kenyans were so blind in their political loyalty to oligarchs who couldn’t care less if they died.

With that, as his speech rose and fell, with that awkward cadence of his, he took pause, within which a bearded hipster launched an emphatic “F*** YOU!’ from the mid-tier of the bleachers, only to be pushed slightly, and have cardboard TRUMP signs shoved into his chin. Two tired-eyed cops come and collect him by either elbow, pulling him out as he dragged his VANS sneakers along the polished concrete.

As the police were duck-walking him out, presumably to throw him headlong into a soiled snowbank, Trump paraded several of the top Wisconsin right wing establishment onto the stage; each were yanked back and forth with an extended and aggressive handshake, as though they were show dogs being broken in by their overzealous owner.

Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life?

Show of dominance. That’s what it was. I’d seen it before, when lions fight, the king has to put the lesser males in their place.

This was pure animalism in politics. Superiority had to be shown, teeth had to be bared and someone had to show the neck. The enemy had to be pointed out and shouted down. There can be no dissent in such circles – and within America, the dominant tend to have gun racks on their trucks.

While the first 30 minutes of the 87 minutes were utter lunacy, it was trackable insanity, the kind that you expect to see during a monster truck rally, a rodeo, a semi-professional wrestling title bout or a ladder match during a hailstorm in Florida. Utterly bonkers, but not unexpected.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the left turns during the middle section of the speech. The political “monster truck” that is Donald J. Trump went off script and was the campaign rally equivalent of watching a giant machine of metal and air-brushed flame patterns veer off into the crowd. There was simply no predicting where Trump’s verbal tirades would take us next.

I tried to keep track. I swear I did. I was regrettably entirely sober, wide awake, and pumped full of the adrenaline that can only come with the temptation of taking off my shoe and throwing it at Mike Pence to find out if he was in fact a mere hologram.

THE WATER!”

Trump shouted it into the microphone and let the words hang out in space, the crowd screaming, his orange tanned hands held up into the air.

“It’s terrible. The water comes down from the north, into California, but Gavin Newsom, that horrible governor, he takes the water. He doesn’t know what to do with the water. He sends the water out into the ocean!”

“The Ocean! The Pacific Ocean! Imagine that. And the fish, oh the fish, they don’t know what to do with it! Is it good water? We know, but they don’t care!”

“AND THE DISHES! Oh God, the dishes. You do the dishes once. It’s not enough. The dishwashers aren’t strong because they’re taking the water. You have to put them through one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten times! And the light bulbs! They’re toxic! You have to unscrew them? You have to unscrew them. And walk them into the dump and put them down?! Who will do that?! So we’re going to give you the water back. Through the sinks, through the showers, and through the other thing! The toilets! You’re getting the water back! And I will be the one to give it back to you!”

There was no hiding it; my jaw was agape. I truly had no idea what he was talking about. It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse. This man, rambling about sinks and light bulbs within millimetres of a full-blown war with Iran, a conflict with a people that he was truly incapable of reasoning with. They were brown after all.

F*** THOSE LIGHTBULBS!” The cry came from a bearded man, now beet-red in the face, flanked on either side by his teenage sons who stared at him, beaming.

Trump rambled onwards; all the while without any care, utterly gauche, to the extent it was damn near respectable. One thing was clear: that Trump was a total master of his craft, however bizarre and atrocious his craft might be.

As he went into his bombastic closing remarks, the thousands stayed with him, beat for beat, rising and falling, laughing on cue, cheering and booing with utter abandon – like the finale flourish of a fireworks display.

An ill-fated Bernie Bro pulled out a “Bernie Sanders for President 2020” sign. Trump looked down at him from the stage and the crowd pounced, viciously pulling at him, jostling him back and forth.

“HIT HIM!” A woman’s voice from somewhere close to me.

Two heavies came from the back down onto the floor, closing in on this long-haired liberal getting shoved back and forth; a cork in the storm.

Despite their tattoos and Bill Goldberg haircuts; I ignorantly thought to myself, “At least security is here and will save him.”

But they grabbed him all the harder, ripping his sign downwards, tearing at it and pushing him out the back. How dare he have the audacity to support someone other than the great leader?

Trump peaked into crescendo, rambling on about the inevitability of winning this year and that the best people, the chosen people, the tough people were on his side. They would take no other result; and the scrum down on the floor bellowed their support. This wasn’t politics, it was a death roll, and the grip was tightening.

The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want began to play, and with much more glad-handing, waving, and awkward displays of faux-nationalistic pride, he was gone, little more than a thin wisp of a hair plug dissapearing behind a curtain.

It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse.

The spell held over the crowd, but started to dissipate. We began to file out, shuffling bashfully towards the exits, as if we were all leaving some truly horrific live sex show in Mtwapa. In such circumstances, don’t make eye contact.

There were several black Trump supporters amongst the crowd, and more than a dozen people caught their eye, giving a little fist pump of “unity”. The underlying sentiment was to return to their cohort and tell them, “No, no, I swear there were black people there who support Trump too! See he can’t be racist! It is a lie spun by liberal geeks, worried about their feelings!”

“HEY YOU!” A frat-boy was screaming into my face, thrusting his pointer finger. He looked animated, and surely, this would be the end of me. I had gone too far out on a limb here, and now I was to be “outed”.

He was motioning to my hat, which sported the insignia of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club. Without smiling, he gave me a thumbs up and walked sullenly away. I started to cut around people as I traversed the crowd towards the exit. I felt as though my welcome was overstayed and now it was mostly certainly past the hour of bouncing.

The cold was a shock to the system, like waking up suddenly after a long night of drinking. I found myself looking for my wallet several times, wondering, “Where was I?”

A feeling of unease had come over me, especially looking about at the grinning faces streaming past me as I paused to stuff the TRUMP 2020! sign deep into my sleeve. It was the same sense one would have waking up after a night out next to someone that you know you shouldn’t have called.

It was a kind of toxic satisfaction, exhilaration definitely, happiness of a sort – but all pervaded by a destitute hanging melancholy, of witnessing something truly bizarre, only to realise that you have to meander back to your schlubby life and under-sized apartment.

Could the people around me know just how wrong-headed almost everything that just happened had been? Looking around, I couldn’t see it; they’d bought into all of this a long time ago and had cast their lot.

“They’d bought in because he simply refuses to give in the way they did.” It struck me, to Trump supporters, he really was some kind of magical maverick, condemning the norm and doing it “his way”; the tax code and civility couldn’t stop him. “It doesn’t matter if our guy does it as long as he wins.”

A beating of drums suddenly struck up, the bass thumping dull within my chest. Streaming out into the cold, we were careening towards it, as the zip-tied metal-grate fences surrounded on all other sides kept us walled in.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city known for terminal dumbness at all levels of authority figures, had made another gangbusters decision: to line up six token cops in riot gear and let the exiting Trump contingent of thousands file straight into the waiting protesters; for Trump can go nowhere without an audience. I must admit, that while inside, I’d forgotten about them entirely; now it was unavoidable.

“YOU’RE A F***ING EMBARASSMENT!” One middle-aged white female Trump supporter screamed into the face of a young Latina girl, probably 16 years old, banging a cow bell while chanting, “NO FASCIST USA!”

I’d had enough, I tucked the sign in deep and crossed over the line. As I did, a cup full of ice came flying in and went over the shoulder of an old white-haired hippy man who was banging a tambourine slightly off-beat. The ice scattered on the concrete at our feet.

Megaphones and drums split the night and the wind howled around us. Some in the crowd held glow sticks, which, when mixed with the reddish tinge of police tail lights, gave the entire tableau a hue of a football riot about to break loose.

Shit, it was a Tuesday in January, in bitter cold Wisconsin. The campaign hadn’t even really cracked off yet. The scene looked to spin downwards, liquored up left versus just-incited right. And in all of this, it was clear, despite it all, the man in the over-sized suits was certain to win again.

There are no consequences for such men in history. They will continue to ensure their victory because they know a dark truth that their foes never could grasp: that politics is just a game of monopoly, and if you’re not cheating, then you’re just not trying.

Avatar
By

Alex is a journalist and social media expert based in Nairobi, Kenya

Long Reads

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

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

Published

on

Post-Gaddafi Libya and the Unleashing of Anarchy in the Sahel
Download PDFPrint Article

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse B. Awalt/Released

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Long Reads

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

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

Published

on

By

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

Since the devastating explosion of a store of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port on August 4, Lebanese citizens have taken to the streets in shock, outrage, and grief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rhosus’ True Ownership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mozambique Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Middleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Long Reads

Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa

Colonialism in the age of Artificial Intelligence takes the form of “state-of-the-art algorithms” and “AI driven solutions” unsuited to African problems, and hinders the development of local products, leaving the continent dependent on Western software and infrastructure.

Published

on

Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa
Download PDFPrint Article

Traditional colonial power seeks unilateral power and domination over colonised people. It declares control of the social, economic, and political sphere by reordering and reinventing the social order in a manner that benefits it. In the age of algorithms, this control and domination occurs not through brute physical force but rather through invisible and nuanced mechanisms such as control of digital ecosystems and infrastructure.

Common to both traditional and algorithmic colonialism is the desire to dominate, monitor, and influence the social, political, and cultural discourse through the control of core communication and infrastructure mediums. While traditional colonialism is often spearheaded by political and government forces, digital colonialism is driven by corporate tech monopolies—both of which are in search of wealth accumulation.

The line between these forces is fuzzy as they intermesh and depend on one another. Political, economic, and ideological domination in the age of AI takes the form of “technological innovation”, “state-of-the-art algorithms”, and “AI solutions” to social problems. Algorithmic colonialism, driven by profit maximisation at any cost, assumes that the human soul, behaviour, and action is raw material free for the taking. Knowledge, authority, and power to sort, categorise, and order human activity rests with the technologist, for whom we are merely data-producing “human natural resources”, observes Shoshana Zuboff in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Zuboff remarks that “conquest patterns” unfold in three phases. First, the colonial power invents legal measures to provide justification for invasion. Then declarations of territorial claims are asserted. These declarations are then legitimised and institutionalised, as they serve as tools for conquering by imposing a new reality. These invaders do not seek permission as they build ecosystems of commerce, politics, and culture and declare legitimacy and inevitability. Conquests by declaration are invasive and sometimes serve as a subtle way to impose new facts on the social world and, for the declarers, they are a way to get others to agree with those facts.

Algorithmic colonialism, driven by profit maximisation at any cost, assumes that the human soul, behaviour, and action is raw material free for the taking

For technology monopolies, such processes allow them to take things that live outside the market sphere and declare them as new market commodities. In 2016, Facebook declared that it is creating a population density map of most of Africa using computer vision techniques, population data, and high-resolution satellite imagery. In the process, Facebook arrogated to itself the authority for mapping, controlling, and creating population knowledge of the continent.

In doing so, not only did Facebook assume that the continent (its people, movement, and activities) are up for grabs for the purpose of data extraction and profit maximisation, but Facebook also assumed authority over what is perceived as legitimate knowledge of the continent’s population. Statements such as “creating knowledge about Africa’s population distribution”, “connecting the unconnected”, and “providing humanitarian aid” served as justification for Facebook’s project. For many Africans this echoes old colonial rhetoric; “we know what these people need, and we are coming to save them. They should be grateful”.

Currently, much of Africa’s digital infrastructure and ecosystem is controlled and managed by Western monopoly powers such as Facebook, Google, Uber, and Netflix. These tech monopolies present such exploitations as efforts to “liberate the bottom billion”, help the “unbanked bank, or connect the “unconnected”—the same colonial tale but now under the guise of technology. “I find it hard to reconcile a group of American corporations, far removed from the realities of Africans, machinating a grand plan on how to save the unbanked women of Africa. Especially when you consider their recent history of data privacy breaches (Facebook) and worker exploitation (Uber)”, writes Michael Kimani. Nonetheless, algorithmic colonialism dressed in “technological solutions for the developing world” receives applause and rarely faces resistance and scrutiny.

It is important, however, to note that this is not a rejection of AI technology in general, or even of AI that is originally developed in the West, but a rejection of a particular business model advanced by big technology monopolies that impose particular harmful values and interests while stifling approaches that do not conform to their values. When practiced cautiously, access to quality data and use of various technological and AI developments does indeed hold potential for benefits to the African continent and the Global South in general. Access to quality data and secure infrastructure to share and store data, for example, can help improve the healthcare and education sectors.

Gender inequalities which plague every social, political, and economic sphere in Ethiopia, for instance, have yet to be exposed and mapped through data. Such data is invaluable in informing long-term gender-balanced decision making which is an important first step towards making societal and structural changes. Such data also aids general societal-level awareness of gender disparities, which is central for grassroots change. Crucial issues across the continent surrounding healthcare and farming, for example, can be better understood and better solutions can be sought with the aid of locally developed technology. A primary example is a machine learning model that can diagnose early stages of disease in the cassava plant, which is developed by Charity Wayua, a Kenyan researcher and her team

Having said that, the marvelousness of technology and its benefits to the continent is not what this paper has set out to discuss. There already exist countless die-hard techno-enthusiasts, both within and outside the continent, some of whom are only too willing to blindly adopt anything “data-driven” or AI-based without a second thought to the possible harmful consequences. Mentions of “technology”, “innovation”, and “AI” continually and consistently bring with them evangelical advocacy, blind trust, and little, if any, critical engagement. They also bring with them invested parties that seek to monetise, quantify, and capitalise every aspect of human life, often at any cost.

Crucial issues across the continent surrounding healthcare and farming can be better understood and better solutions can be sought with the aid of locally developed technology

The atmosphere during a major technology conference in Tangier, Morocco in 2019 embodies this techevangelism. CyFyAfrica, The Conference on Technology, Innovation and Society, is one of Africa’s biggest annual conferences attended by various policy makers, UN delegates, ministers, governments, diplomats, media, tech corporations, and academics from over 65 (mostly African and Asian) nations.

Although these leaders want to place “the voice of the youth of Africa at the front and centre”, the atmosphere was one that can be summed up as a race to get the continent “teched-up”. Efforts to implement the latest, state-of-the-art machine learning tool or the next cutting-edge application were applauded and admired while the few voices that attempted to bring forth discussions of the harms that might emerge with such technology got buried under the excitement. Given that the technological future of the continent is overwhelmingly driven and dominated by such techno-optimists, it is crucial to pay attention to the cautions that need to be taken and the lessons that need to be learned from other parts of the world.

Context matters

One of the central questions that need attention in this regard is the relevance and appropriateness of AI software developed with values, norms, and interests of Western societies to users across the African continent. Value systems vary from culture to culture including what is considered a vital problem and a successful solution, what constitutes sensitive personal information, and opinions on prevalent health and socio-economic issues. Certain matters that are considered critical problems in some societies may not be considered so in other societies. Solutions devised in a one culture may not transfer well to another. In fact, the very problems that the solution is set out to solve may not be considered problems for other cultures.

The harmful consequences of lack of awareness to context is most stark in the health sector. In a comparative study that examined early breast cancer detection practices between Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and high-income countries, Eleanor Black and Robyn Richmond found that applying what has been “successful” in the West, i.e. mammograms, to SSA is not effective in reducing mortality from breast cancer. A combination of contextual factors, such as a lower age profile, presentation with advanced disease, and limited available treatment options all suggest that self-examination and clinical breast examination for early detection methods serve women in SSA better than medical practice designed for their counterparts in high-income countries. Throughout the continent, healthcare is one of the major areas where “AI solutions” are actively sought and Western-developed technological tools are imported. Without critical assessment of their relevance, the deployment of Western eHealth systems might bring more harm than benefit.

Mentions of “technology”, “innovation”, and “AI” continually and consistently bring with them evangelical advocacy, blind trust, and little, if any, critical engagement

The importing of AI tools made in the West by Western technologists may not only be irrelevant and harmful due to lack of transferability from one context to another but is also an obstacle that hinders the development of local products. For example, “Nigeria, one of the more technically developed countries in Africa, imports 90% of all software used in the country. The local production of software is reduced to add-ons or extensions creation for mainstream packaged software”. The West’s algorithmic invasion simultaneously impoverishes development of local products while also leaving the continent dependent on its software and infrastructure.

Data are people

The African equivalents of Silicon Valley’s tech start-ups can be found in every possible sphere of life around all corners of the continent—in “Sheba Valley” in Addis Abeba, “Yabacon Valley” in Lagos, and “Silicon Savannah” in Nairobi, to name a few—all pursuing “cutting-edge innovations” in sectors like banking, finance, healthcare, and education. They are headed by technologists and those in finance from both within and outside the continent who seemingly want to “solve” society’s problems, using data and AI to provide quick “solutions”.

As a result, the attempt to “solve” social problems with technology is exactly where problems arise. Complex cultural, moral, and political problems that are inherently embedded in history and context are reduced to problems that can be measured and quantified—matters that can be “fixed” with the latest algorithm. As dynamic and interactive human activities and processes are automated, they are inherently simplified to the engineers’ and tech corporations’ subjective notions of what they mean. The reduction of complex social problems to a matter that can be “solved” by technology also treats people as passive objects for manipulation. Humans, however, far from being passive objects, are active meaning-seekers embedded in dynamic social, cultural, and historical backgrounds.

The discourse around “data mining”, “abundance of data”, and “data-rich continent” shows the extent to which the individual behind each data point is disregarded. This muting of the individual—a person with fears, emotions, dreams, and hopes—is symptomatic of how little attention is given to matters such as people’s well-being and consent, which should be the primary concerns if the goal is indeed to “help” those in need. Furthermore, this discourse of “mining” people for data is reminiscent of the coloniser’s attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking.

Complex cultural, moral, and political problems that are inherently embedded in history and context are reduced to problems that can be measured and quantified

Data is necessarily always about something and never about an abstract entity. The collection, analysis, and manipulation of data potentially entails monitoring, tracking, and surveilling people. This necessarily impacts people directly or indirectly whether it manifests as change in their insurance premiums or refusal of services. The erasure of the person behind each data point makes it easy to “manipulate behavior” or “nudge” users, often towards profitable outcomes for companies. Considerations around the wellbeing and welfare of the individual user, the long-term social impacts, and the unintended consequences of these systems on society’s most vulnerable are pushed aside, if they enter the equation at all.

For companies that develop and deploy AI, at the top of the agenda is the collection of more data to develop profitable AI systems rather than the welfare of individual people or communities. This is most evident in the FinTech sector, one of the prominent digital markets in Africa. People’s digital footprints, from their interactions with others to how much they spend on their mobile top ups, are continually surveyed and monitored to form data for making loan assessments. Smartphone data from browsing history, likes, and locations is recorded forming the basis for a borrower’s creditworthiness.

Artificial Intelligence technologies that aid decision-making in the social sphere are, for the most part, developed and implemented by the private sector whose primary aim is to maximise profit. Protecting individual privacy rights and cultivating a fair society is therefore the least of their concerns, especially if such practice gets in the way of “mining” data, building predictive models, and pushing products to customers. As decision-making of social outcomes is handed over to predictive systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives, we are also allowing moral questions to be dictated by corporate interest.

“Digital nudges”, behaviour modifications developed to suit commercial interests, are a prime example. As “nudging” mechanisms become the norm for “correcting” individuals’ behaviour, eating habits, or exercise routines, those developing predictive models are bestowed with the power to decide what “correct” is. In the process, individuals that do not fit our stereotypical ideas of a “fit body”, “good health”, and “good eating habits” end up being punished, outcast, and pushed further to the margins. When these models are imported as state-of-the-art technology that will save money and “leapfrog” the continent into development, Western values and ideals are enforced, either deliberately or intentionally.

Blind trust in AI hurts the most vulnerable

The use of technology within the social sphere often, intentionally, or accidentally, focuses on punitive practices, whether it is to predict who will commit the next crime or who may fail to repay their loan. Constructive and rehabilitative questions such as why people commit crimes in the first place or what can be done to rehabilitate and support those that have come out of prison are rarely asked. Technology designed and applied with the aim of delivering security and order necessarily brings cruel, discriminatory, and inhumane practices to some.

The cruel treatment of the Uighurs in China and the unfair disadvantaging of the poor are examples in this regard. Similarly, as cities like Harare, Kampala, and Johannesburg introduce the use of facial recognition technology, the question of their accuracy (given they are trained on unrepresentative demographic datasets) and relevance should be of primary concern—not to mention the erosion of privacy and the surveillance state that emerges with these technologies.

Not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives, we are also allowing moral questions to be dictated by corporate interest

With the automation of the social comes the automation and perpetuation of historical bias, discrimination, and injustice. As technological solutions are increasingly deployed and integrated into the social, economic, and political spheres, so are the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life. Consequently, the harmful effects of digitisation and “technological solutions” affect individuals and communities that are already at the margins of society. For example, as Kenya embarks on the project of national biometric IDs for its citizens, it risks excluding racial, ethnic, and religious minorities that have historically been discriminated.

Enrolling on the national biometric ID requires documents such as a national ID card and birth certificate. However, these minorities have historically faced challenges acquiring such documents. If the national biometric system comes into effect, these minority groups may be rendered stateless and face challenges registering a business, getting a job, or travelling. Furthermore, sensitive information about individuals is extracted which raises questions such as where this information will be stored, how it will be used, and who has access.

FinTech and the digitisation of lending have come to dominate the “Africa rising” narrative, a narrative which supposedly will “lift many out of poverty”. Since its arrival in the continent in the 1990s, FinTech has largely been portrayed as a technological revolution that will “leap-frog” Africa into development. The typical narrative preaches the microfinance industry as a service that exists to accommodate the underserved and a system that creates opportunities for the “unbanked” who have no access to a formal banking system. Through its microcredit system, the narrative goes, Africans living in poverty can borrow money to establish and expand their microenterprise ventures.

However, a closer critical look reveals that the very idea of FinTech microfinancing is a reincarnation of colonialist-era rhetoric that works for Western multinational shareholders. These stakeholders get wealthier by leaving Africa’s poor communities in perpetual debt. In Milford Bateman’s words: “like the colonial era mining operations that exploited Africa’s mineral wealth, the microcredit industry in Africa essentially exists today for no other reason than to extract value from the poorest communities”.

Far from being a tool that “lifts many out of poverty”, FinTech is a capitalist market premised upon the profitability of the perpetual debt of the poorest. For instance, although Safaricom is 35% owned by the Kenyan government, 40% of the shares are controlled by Vodafone—a UK multinational corporation—while the other 25%, are held mainly by wealthy foreign investors. According to Nicholas Loubere, Safaricom reported an annual profit of $US 620 million in 2019, which was directed into dividend payments for investors.

A closer critical look reveals that the very idea of FinTech microfinancing is a reincarnation of colonialist-era rhetoric that works for Western multinational shareholders

Like traditional colonialism, wealthy individuals and corporations in the Global North continue to profit from some of the poorest communities except that now it takes place under the guise of “revolutionary” and “state-of-the-art” technology. Despite the common discourse of paving a way out of poverty, FinTech actually profits from poverty. It is an endeavour engaged in the expansion of its financial empire through indebting Africa’s poorest.

Loose regulations and lack of transparency and accountability under which the microfinance industry operates, as well as overhyping the promise of technology, makes it difficult to challenge and interrogate its harmful impacts. Like traditional colonialism, those that benefit from FinTech, microfinancing, and from various lending apps operate from a distance. For example, Branch and Tala, two of the most prominent FinTech apps in Kenya, operate from their California headquarters and export “Silicon Valley’s curious nexus of technology, finance, and developmentalism”. Furthermore, the expansion of Western-led digital financing systems brings with it a negative knock-on effect on existing local traditional banking and borrowing systems that have long existed and functioned in harmony with locally established norms and mutual compassion.

Lessons from the Global North

Globally, there is an increasing awareness of the problems that arise with automating social affairs illustrated by ongoing attempts to integrate ethics into computer science programmes within academia, various “ethics boards” within industry, as well as various proposed policy guidelines. These approaches to develop, implement, and teach responsible and ethical AI take multiple forms, perspectives, directions, and present a plurality of views.

This plurality is not a weakness but rather a desirable strength which is necessary for accommodating a healthy, context-dependent remedy. Insisting on a single AI integration framework for ethical, social, and economic issues that arise in various contexts and cultures is not only unattainable but also imposes a one-size-fits-all, single worldview.

Despite the common discourse of paving a way out of poverty, FinTech actually profits from poverty

Companies like Facebook which enter African “markets” or embark on projects such as creating population density maps with little or no regard for local norms or cultures are in danger of enforcing a one-size-fits-all imperative. Similarly, for African developers, start-ups, and policy makers working to solve local problems with homegrown solutions, what is considered ethical and responsible needs to be seen as inherently tied to local contexts and experts.

Artificial Intelligence, like Big Data, is a buzzword that gets thrown around carelessly; what it refers to is notoriously contested across various disciplines, and oftentimes it is mere mathematical snake oil that rides on overhype. Researchers within the field, reporters in the media, and industries that benefit from it, all contribute to the overhype and exaggeration of the capabilities of AI. This makes it extremely difficult to challenge the deeply engrained attitude that “all Africa is lacking is data and AI”. The sheer enthusiasm with which data and AI are subscribed to as gateways out of poverty or disease would make one think that any social, economic, educational, and cultural problems are immutable unless Africa imports state-of-the-art technology.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when regulating, deploying, and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that invests AI with God-like power and as something that exists independent of those that create it. People create, control, and are responsible for any system. For the most part, such people are a homogeneous group of predominantly white, middle-class males from the Global North. Like any other tool, AI is one that reflects human inconsistencies, limitations, biases, and the political and emotional desires of the individuals behind it, and the social and cultural ecology that embed it. Just like a mirror, it reflects how society operates—unjust and prejudiced against some individuals and communities.

Artificial Intelligence tools that are deployed in various spheres are often presented as objective and value-free. In fact, some automated systems which are put forward in domains such as hiring and policing are put forward with the explicit claim that these tools eliminate human bias. Automated systems, after all, apply the same rules to everybody. Such a claim is in fact one of the single most erroneous and harmful misconceptions as far as automated systems are concerned. As Cathy O’Neil explains, “algorithms are opinions embedded in code”. This widespread misconception further prevents individuals from asking questions and demanding explanations. How we see the world and how we choose to represent the world is reflected in the algorithmic models of the world that we build. The tools we build necessarily embed, reflect, and perpetuate socially and culturally held stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions.

For example, during the CyFyAfrica 2019 conference, the Head of Mission, UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, addressed work that is being developed globally to combat online counterterrorism. Unfortunately, the Director focused explicitly on Islamic groups, portraying an unrealistic and harmful image of global online terrorism. For instance, contrary to such portrayal, more than 60 per cent of mass shootings in the United States in 2019 were carried out by white-nationalist extremists. In fact, white supremacist terrorists carried out more attacks than any other type of group in recent years in the US.

In Johannesburg, one of the most surveilled cities in Africa, “smart” CCTV networks provide a powerful tool to segregate, monitor, categorise, and punish individuals and communities that have historically been disadvantaged. Vumacam, an AI-powered surveillance company, is fast expanding throughout South Africa, normalising surveillance and erecting apartheid-era segregation and punishment under the guise of “neutral” technology and security. Vumacam currently provides a privately owned  video-management-as-a-service infrastructure, with a centralised repository of video data from CCTV. Kwet explains that in the apartheid era passbooks served as a means of segregating the population, inflicting mass violence, and incarcerating the black communities.

Similarly, “[s]mart surveillance solutions like Vumacam are explicitly built for profiling, and threaten to exacerbate these kinds of incidents”. Although the company claims its technology is neutral and unbiased, what it deems “abnormal” and “suspicious” behaviour disproportionally constitutes those that have historically been oppressed. What the Vumacam software flags as “unusual behaviour” tends to be dominated by the black demographic and most commonly those that do manual labour such as construction workers. According to Andy Clarno, “[t]he criminal in South Africa is always imagined as a black male”. Despite its claim to neutrality, Vumacam software perpetuates this harmful stereotype.

Stereotypically held views drive what is perceived as a problem and the types of technology we develop to “resolve” them. In the process we amplify and perpetuate those harmful stereotypes. We then interpret the findings through the looking-glass of technology as evidence that confirms our biased intuitions and further reinforces stereotypes. Any classification, clustering, or discrimination of human behaviours and characteristics that AI systems produce reflects socially and culturally held stereotypes, not an objective truth.

A robust body of research in the growing field of Algorithmic Injustice illustrates that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes. These discriminatory outcomes often affect individuals and groups that are already at the margins of society, those that are viewed as deviants and outliers—people who do not conform to the status quo. Given that the most vulnerable are affected by technology disproportionally, it is important that their voices are central in any design and implementation of any technology that is used on or around them.

However, on the contrary, many of the ethical principles applied to AI are firmly utilitarian; the underlying principle is the best outcome for the greatest number of people. This, by definition, means that solutions that centre minorities are never sought. Even when unfairness and discrimination in algorithmic decision-making processes are brought to the fore—for instance, upon discovering that women have been systematically excluded from entering the tech industry, minorities forced into inhumane treatment, and systematic biases have been embedded into predictive policing systems—the “solutions” sought do not often centre those that are disproportionally impacted. Mitigating proposals devised by corporate and academic ethics boards are often developed without the consultation and involvement of the people that are affected.

Stereotypically held views drive what is perceived as a problem and the types of technology we develop to “resolve” them

Prioritising the voice of those that are disproportionally impacted every step of the way, including in the design, development, and implementation of any technology, as well as in policymaking, requires actually consulting and involving vulnerable groups of society. This, of course, requires a considerable amount of time, money, effort, and genuine care for the welfare of the marginalised, which often goes against most corporates’ business models. Consulting those who are potentially likely to be negatively impacted might (at least as far as the West’s Silicon Valley is concerned) also seem beneath the “all knowing” engineers who seek to unilaterally provide a “technical fix” for any complex social problem.

As Africa grapples with digitising and automating various services and activities and protecting the consequential harm that technology causes, policy makers, governments, and firms that develop and apply various technologies to the social sphere need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want and what kind of society technology drives. Protecting and respecting the rights, freedoms, and privacy of the very youth that the leaders want to put at the front and centre should be prioritised. This can only happen if guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedoms are put in place, continually maintained, revised, and enforced. In the spirit of communal values that unifies such a diverse continent, “harnessing” technology to drive development means prioritising the welfare of the most vulnerable in society and the benefit of local communities, not distant Western start-ups or tech monopolies.

The question of technologisation and digitalisation of the continent is also a question of what kind of society we want to live in. The continent has plenty of techno-utopians but few that would stop and ask difficult and critical questions. African youth solving their own problems means deciding what we want to amplify and showing the rest of the world; shifting the tired portrayal of the continent (hunger and disease) by focusing attention on the positive vibrant culture (such as philosophy, art, and music) that the continent has to offer. It also means not importing the latest state-of-the-art machine learning systems or some other AI tools without questioning the underlying purpose and contextual relevance, who benefits from it, and who might be disadvantaged by the application of such tools. Moreover, African youth involvement in the AI field means creating programmes and databases that serve various local communities and not blindly importing Western AI systems founded upon individualistic and capitalist drives. In a continent where much of the Western narrative is hindered by negative images such as migration, drought, and poverty, using AI to solve our problems ourselves starts with a rejection of such stereotypical images. This means using AI as a tool that aids us in portraying how we want to be understood and perceived; a continent where community values triumph and nobody is left behind.

This article was first published by SCRIPTed.

Continue Reading

Trending