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Private U.S. Contractors Part of the ‘Kill Chain’ in East Africa Anti-Terrorist Operations

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A Cold War military procurement program, preferred private contractors, and escalating drone strikes in Somalia.

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Private U.S. Contractors Part of the ‘Kill Chain’ in East Africa Anti-Terrorist Operations
An armed U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone. Credit: U.S. Air Force
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It was early on a Sunday morning when Al-Shabab militants attacked the small airstrip next to a military base on Kenya’s north coast. Plumes of black smoke billowed into the sky as the militants destroyed six aircraft and killed three Americans, including two civilian contractors and one U.S. soldier.

In the wake of the January 5 attack, Fahim Twaha, the governor of Lamu County where Camp Simba is located, described the incident as “a foreign force attacking a foreign force on our soil.”

The U.S. military had been using the base, nestled in the normally sleepy Manda Bay, for East African operations for over a decade. The American presence, as well as the base, has expanded over the years, including the recent addition of new aircraft hangars, likely to protect sensitive technology installed on surveillance aircraft. In 2019, the U.S. mission at Camp Simba officially changed from “tactical” to “enduring operations.”

Now an investigation by OCCRP reveals that the U.S. military has been using the Kenyan base as a launchpad for surveillance aircraft supporting airstrikes in neighboring Somalia, with civilian contractors playing a pivotal role by providing intelligence on targets.

Flight data indicates a contractor-owned plane that was seen regularly in Manda Bay scouted sites for several drone strikes against Islamist militant group Al-Shabab that may have killed civilians in Somalia. Data collected by an antenna installed by OCCRP confirmed multiple privately owned surveillance planes operated from the base, often hidden behind a chain of limited liability companies that do not list their true owners.

Camp Simba conducts inaugural flag ceremony, Aug. 26, 2019. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lexie West

Camp Simba conducts inaugural flag ceremony, Aug. 26, 2019. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lexie West

Sean McFate, a former private military contractor now working with the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, said that in the past companies were brought in to help analyze U.S. military data, but not collect it.

“The ethical standard of who can pull the trigger has been slowly eroding over the last 30 years,” he said, explaining that even if private contractors are not involved in combat, they become “part of the kill chain” by providing intelligence for airstrikes.

“If they’re doing lethal operations, then I think we’ve crossed a threshold,” McFate said.

The U.S. military has confirmed to OCCRP that civilian contractors are also operating armed drones in East Africa.

“Contractors may operate an armed drone but they cannot make the decision to deploy the weapon system,” a public affairs officer for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)  said in an emailed statement, citing U.S. regulations and policy.

“At their core, decisions to fire on the enemy may only be made by lawful combatants under the law of armed conflict. Our uniform-wearing service members are lawful combatants; our contractor teammates are not. So, we do not allow our contractor teammates to assume a role that would be unlawful under international law. Decisions that require the exercise of substantial discretion or value judgments when applying DoD [Department of Defense] authority, such as the employment of kinetic effects or the decision to target a particular military objective, cannot be made by a contractor.

For example, Contractor personnel may make technical decisions related to collection and operation of an armed drone, such as routing the collection asset. However, decisions requiring an exercise of substantial discretion or value judgements when applying DoD authority, such as the employment of kinetic effects or the decision to target a particular military objective, must be taken by a military member.”

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said the use of contractor pilots for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions is legal under domestic and international law. The public affairs office declined to confirm details or comment on specific aircraft and companies identified by OCCRP, citing operational security.

The U.S. military ramped up airstrikes in Somalia following the attack at Manda Bay, carrying out 42 by mid-2020, compared to 63 recorded in all of 2019.

U.S. security services started to focus on Kenya following the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy by Al Qaeda in Nairobi that killed 213 people. It was around this time that early iterations of Al-Shabab were developing north of the border, in Somalia, where the group still aims to establish an independent Islamic state.

At the peak of its powers, from around 2007 to 2011, Al-Shabab controlled large parts of Somalia, including much of the capital, Mogadishu. It has targeted Kenya in major attacks since 2013, a self-proclaimed retaliation for the Kenyan military’s entrance into Somalia two years earlier to defeat the extremist group. Since then, hundreds of Kenyan civilians have been killed and injured in large-scale terrorist attacks attributed to Al-Shabab in Nairobi, Lamu, and Garissa counties.

Most U.S. operations against militant groups in Somalia are carried out from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the largest permanent U.S. military base in Africa. The tiny base in Kenya’s Manda Bay, where the January attack took place, didn’t even make the Pentagon’s official base lists. Government tenders seeking contractors sometimes mention the location as an offshoot of Camp Lemonnier. According to public statements, there were fewer than 150 U.S. military personnel before the January attack; between 50 and 100 U.S. troops were deployed to the base immediately after.

Kenya is not just a passive host to American military operations. It has received more money, training and equipment from Washington than any country in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s also one of the world’s top five recipients of U.S. counterterrorism aid.

‘Constant Fear’

Last year, Asha Hassan, a mother of seven, left her home in Lower Shabelle, the region in Somalia most targeted by U.S. airstrikes. She and her children are among 1,300 families that have settled in the makeshift Alla Futo camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Another 36,000 people fled the region in the first three months of 2020, nearly all because of the conflict, according to the UN’s refugee agency.

“We fled from the planes that were hovering over us every night. These planes can drop things any time,” Hassan said. “We could not live there. We fled due to those problems and the constant fear.”

The U.S. first launched airstrikes against Al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them significantly in 2016, according to data collected and analyzed by U.K.-based non-profit Airwars. They have ramped up again substantially since U.S. President Donald Trump loosened the rules of engagement three years ago.

Thousands of people have been killed by U.S. airstrikes in Somalia since 2007, including as many as 145 civilians, according to Airwars. The U.S. military only acknowledges five accidental civilian deaths since 2017. It’s unclear if there was a review of alleged civilian deaths over the previous decade.

Alla Futo camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Credit: Mohamed Ibrahim Bulbul

OCCRP’s investigation indicates that at least some of those drone strikes were based on intelligence gathered by private U.S. contractors operating out of Manda Bay.

OCCRP used flight tracking data and matched it to geo-coded airstrike data from Airwars, which also collects information on civilian casualties from official military statements, as well as media reports, NGOs and social media. The group cross-references claims of civilian casualties to try to confirm them, but notes that “we are often unable to follow up or to further verify such claims.”

On February 1 and 5, 2019, a contractor-owned Gulfstream jet flew repeatedly over a small area in Lower Shabelle, about 30 kilometers west of Mogadishu. It returned to the area on March 9. The plane had a particular flight pattern — near-perfect circles — and was likely collecting data with its specialized sensors, according to experts on the subject.

On February 6 and 11, and again on March 11, U.S. airstrikes hit areas the plane apparently surveyed. AFRICOM said 11 militants were killed in the first strike near the ancient seaside town of Gandarshe, which was directly below the Gulfstream’s flightpath.

Two more strikes were launched on Feb. 11 near Janaale, about 20 kilometers from the first drone attacks, again right under the Gulfstream’s flightpath. The U.S. military claimed that 12 militants were killed and no civilians — although reports collected by Airwars claim 13 civilians had died.

On March 9, the Gulfstream flew over a spot just kilometers northwest of Tuwaareey, which was hit by an air strike two days later. AFRICOM said eight militants were killed and that Al-Shabab was using the area to “direct terror attacks, steal humanitarian aid, extort the local populace to fund its operations, and shelter radical terrorists.” Information collected by Airwars, however, concluded that between one and seven civilians may have died.

A report released by AFRICOM this spring confirmed two civilian deaths in a separate strike that took place on February 23, 2019.

Visual of 2019 surveillance flights and airstrikes described in the story. Credit: Edin Pasovi

Visual of 2019 surveillance flights and airstrikes described in the story. Credit: Edin Pasovi

The Gulfstream aircraft that appears to have collected surveillance for these attacks was spotted near Manda Bay on several occasions. It’s registered to a company called AC-1425 LLC, a nod to the plane’s serial number. According to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration filings, it also belongs to Priority 1 Holdings LLC.

Incorporated in Delaware in 2017, Priority 1 has intimate links to the U.S. security establishment. Its former CEO, Andrew Palowitch, held two official postings at the Central Intelligence Agency and was director of the Space Protection Program, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. He also held executive positions at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), one of the most profitable contractors in the U.S. defense industry, and Tenax Aerospace Holdings, an intelligence and defense contractor that boasts a former CIA Director and a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command as board members.

Priority 1’s website says the company’s aviation operations are conducted through its subsidiary, AIRtec Inc., an “airborne services company” that had over US$10 million in government contracts in the past year. AIRtec lists the same model Gulfstream aircraft that may have gathered intelligence for the U.S. airstrikes in its fleet.

It’s unclear which U.S. government agency contracted Priority 1 or AIRtec for work in East Africa, or whether the aircraft was leased to another contractor.

FAA registration documents indicate a Florida condo as the address for Priority 1. Credit: Screenshot from Realtor.com

FAA registration documents indicate a Florida condo as the address for Priority 1. Credit: Screenshot from Realtor.com

When registering the plane, the company listed its address at a renovated $640,000 Florida condo with coastal views and quartz waterfall counters, and a phone number in Ireland.

The company bought the Gulfstream aircraft in 2018, and AIRtec promptly modified it to perform specialized missions, equipping the plane with camera and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. They included a radar system that “can peer through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery, anytime it is needed, day or night,” according to a brochure from the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.

Priority 1’s Gulfstream jet at Florida’s Opa Locka Executive Airport. Credit: Lee Barton

Priority 1’s Gulfstream jet at Florida’s Opa Locka Executive Airport. Credit: Lee Barton

Palowitch and Priority 1 declined to respond to detailed questions for this article, including whether the aircraft has conducted target surveillance over Somalia. Greg Kahn, general counsel for Priority 1, said the “questions are not appropriate for our company to be discussing.”

“This subject matter, as I am sure you are aware, is highly confidential,” Kahn said in an email.

OCCRP obtained a photo from the cockpit of a surveillance plane operated by contractors based at Manda Bay, then used Google Earth satellite imagery to identify the aircraft's location on the Somali coast. Credit: Samir

The Big Safari

Some of the companies operating in Manda Bay are contracted under the auspices of the secretive U.S. Air Force program named Big Safari, which was started to fast-track Cold War surveillance technology in 1952.

Critics say Big Safari’s opaque contracting process, which has awarded almost $158 billion to private companies since 2008, is vulnerable to corruption as it bypasses normal procurement procedures. They say contracts have been awarded to companies run by well-connected executives, including former military and intelligence officials, rather than dispensed through a competitive bidding process.

“The Air Force remains satisfied that the acquisition practices utilized by Big Safari are in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, Department of Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement, applicable Department of Defense Instructions, and Air Force guidance governing acquisition programs,” a public affairs officer said in an email.

One company that has faced accusations is L3Harris Technologies, which employed the two contractors killed in January and operated a surveillance plane that was destroyed in the attack. It is the top vendor of the Big Safari program, and government data shows that L3Harris won $4 billion in federal government contracts during the last U.S. federal fiscal year, which ended on September 30, 2019.

In 2017, before L3 merged with Harris Corporation, two Republican congressmen published an open letter alleging there was a “revolving door” of people moving between the military and L3. The representatives from North Carolina, Ted Budd and Walter Jones, said the company used “improper influence” over the contracting process to sell aircraft for use by the government of Yemen in the country’s ongoing civil war, with no competitive bidding process. They argued more cost-effective planes were available (including some made by a company in Budd’s district) and the Big Safari official in charge of steering the deal later resigned and went to work for L3. The Washington-based Project On Government Oversight notes in its Pentagon Revolving Door Database that L3 has hired several senior defense officials.

The company also made headlines that year, when prominent Kenyan anti-corruption advocate John Githongo and Congressman Budd called for an investigation into its role in a deal to sell armed surveillance aircraft to Kenya. They accused Kenyan officials of corruption, though a U.S. government investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the Air Force program.

L3Harris continues to be a favored U.S. contractor. In a May 5 call with investors, executives said the firm had been buoyed by its close relationship with Big Safari at a time when many companies have been struggling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One highlight was over $800 million in award activity from our leading position on the Big Safari programs,” said COO Chris Kubasik.

No one on the call mentioned L3Harris contractor Bruce Triplett, 64, or pilot Duston Harrisson, 47, who were killed during the attack in Manda Bay, when militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the plane they were taxiing along the air strip. Another contractor was badly injured but crawled to safety, the New York Times reported, while Army Specialist Henry Mayfield Jr., 23, was also killed.

Stephen Townsend, head of AFRICOM, told the U.S. Senate that Triplett and Harrisson “died while protecting the American people from the very real threat of Al Qaeda and Al-Shabab terrorist groups.”

But McFate noted the difference in response to the attack and the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, when the deaths of 19 American soldiers prompted the U.S. to withdraw from the country.

“Americans do not care about dead contractors,” McFate said. “They care about dead soldiers, like Black Hawk Down, but nobody cares at all about a dead contractor.”

Another Big Safari contractor that had a prominent presence at the base in Manda Bay is AEVEX Aerospace, a company that operates contractor-owned planes in Africa for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

Formed in 2018 from three smaller defense companies and led by a former U.S. Special Operations Command officer, the firm won federal contracts worth $44 million in 2019. It also recently landed a classified contract to provide civilian pilots for operations in West Africa, according to the Paris-based news site Africa Intelligence. The pilots will operate MQ-9 Reaper drones and other intelligence-gathering aircraft.

AEVEX has advertised positions that would “interface with intelligence and operations elements” in Africa and operate surveillance equipment. In one ad, the company said its analysts are expected to build “patterns of life” and target descriptions, as well as conduct battle damage assessment.

At least two aircraft owned by subsidiary limited liability companies, but ultimately traced to AEVEX, have been spotted in Manda Bay. One is a helicopter with specialised equipment; the other is a Pilatus plane that had medical beds installed and the flight data recorder removed in 2018. The Pilatus has made multiple trips over Somalia, flight data shows.

L3Harris and AEVEX did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

For the past decade, private equity firms have fed the U.S. military’s increasing appetite for private contractors to provide intelligence, surveillance, and combat support.

Demand “has kind of gone off the charts,” Ryan Murphy, founder of advisory firm KAL Capital, told a drone industry publication in 2019. KAL Capital advised on the recent sale of AEVEX between two private equity firms, Trive Capital and Madison Dearborn Partners.

Madison’s investors include eight pension funds — one being the public Teachers Retirement System of Texas — and four foundations, including the University of Iowa’s endowment fund.

Priority 1 Holdings LLC is owned by Douglas Brennan, who also owns investment firm Stellwagen Group, which manages over $1.1 billion in aviation assets through private equity pools.

L3Harris has three controlling shareholders, including BlackRock, the largest asset management firm in the world, which services pensions, endowments, and foundations; the second biggest investment management company, Vanguard Group, which boasts $6.2 trillion in managed assets and over 30 million investors worldwide; and T. Rowe Price Group, a large asset management firm specializing in retirement plans and other investment vehicles.

Directly or indirectly, millions of people around the globe are invested in, and profiting from, private U.S. military contractors

‘Addicted to Contractors’

The situation at Camp Simba in Manda Bay is a microcosm of conflicts around the world in which the U.S. has come to increasingly rely on contracting military and intelligence operations to private companies.

Experts say a lack of publicly available information makes it hard to count the number of contractors involved in military operations, but their roles have dramatically increased since the 1990s when such duties fell almost exclusively to military personnel.

“The U.S. government has become addicted to contractors, whether they are Republicans or Democrats in the White House, because contractors give you some degree of plausible deniability,” said McFate.

The military says contractors allow for greater flexibility. “Resource constraints, unique requirements, and military manpower caps are just some of the reasons that make it necessary to augment military forces via contract or federal hiring action in order to accomplish the mission,” an AFRICOM public affairs officer said in an emailed statement.

Last year, the Pentagon spent $370 billion — more than half the U.S. defense budget — on contractors, according to a study by Brown and Boston universities. The researchers concluded “military contracting is at least as expensive, and often more expensive” for the government. McFate even suggests that because profit is an incentive for private companies, the practice may prolong wars.

Analysts question whether the money pumped into America’s war in Somalia has improved, or worsened, security in the country.

Following the Manda Bay attack, Air Force Col. Christopher Karns said that airstrikes “don’t provide a long-term solution to the terror problem,” but they “create organizational confusion in the ranks of Al-Shabab and an effective punch.”

An Al-Shabab propaganda statement following the attack in Manda Bay. Credit: Al-Shabab

An Al-Shabab propaganda statement following the attack in Manda Bay. Credit: Al-Shabab

Hussein Sheikh Ali, chairman of Mogadishu-based think tank Hiraal Institute and a former national security adviser to the current Somali president, warned the drone attacks could be backfiring.

Rather than weakening Al-Shabab, he said, the tactic strengthens the militant group, as drone strikes alienate civilians by destroying property, lives, and livelihoods. The drone war also allows Al-Shabab to frame the conflict as a struggle against an invading foreign power.

“After Manda Bay, it’s looking like a conflict between Al-Shabab and America — and that’s actually what Al-Shabab wants,” Ali said. “Al-Shabab wants to be seen that they are fighting a global superpower.”

AFRICOM acknowledges that the airstrikes may be used against U.S. interests, but dismisses the concern.

“Al-Shabab has repeatedly shown that they are willing to lie and use false propaganda to further their goals in Somalia, regardless of what the U.S. does,” a public affairs officer said in an emailed statement.

“When assessing Somalia, it is important to understand incremental progress has been made over the last decade as the result of a truly international effort inside the country,” they added.

Margot Williams, Carolyn Thompson, Katarina Sabados, Maria Gargiulo, Abdalle Mumin, Will Swanson, Mohamed Ibrahim Bulbul, Carlo Muñoz, Jared Ferrie, Juliet Atellah, and others who wish to remain anonymous contributed reporting. This story was produced with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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Kira Zalan and Emmanuel Freudenthal are investigative journalists with OCCRP.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse B. Awalt/Released

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rhosus’ True Ownership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mozambique Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Middleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa
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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.

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