I went to study in the United States in the 1980s in the time of what was to me the inexplicable presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was an enigmatic presidency for me for two reasons. First, at my university and amongst the mostly left-leaning circles that I hang out with, I never came across anybody who had voted for him. The second reason was that, for me, Reagan was clearly challenged on the intellectual front. I could not believe that a nation with all that maendeleo, all that development we in Africa so covet, would tolerate some folksy guy who might have come from a darker and more ignorant century. Certainly, the cool left-leaning students at C University had no time for Reagan.
In my two years in the US the only person I came across who would publicly admit to having voted for Reagan was a 65-year-old black man in Albany, Georgia, my cousin’s father-in-law. Pops, as his children called him in that quintessential African American manner, would routinely loudly proclaim his love for President Reagan to people in the presence of his children. He showed me his Republican Party membership card, much to the mortification of his children who muttered that the old man was finally going senile. When he whipped out the letter from Reagan, they teased him saying that he had only received it because he was special, being the only black Republican on the planet.
Pops challenged two beliefs I had had held about voting patterns in America. First, that black people were not members of the Republican Party and, second, that they always voted for the Democratic Party.
War and America’s presidents
Eight months into America, I had imbibed the paranoid conspiracy theories of my Marxist circle and lost my African ease. Late one night I turned on the television to find President Reagan ranting and raving in the most alarming manner about the “evil empire”. He was referring to the former Soviet Union, America’s mortal enemy of the Cold War days. And you thought “Axis of evil” was original? Do you see a pattern here? This is clearly the language of America’s dumb dumb presidents.
There is a moment in the deep night when reality becomes suspended and we become susceptible to our original lurking primeval selves. In this night moment, assorted distorted demons and night creatures with names like Linani, banshees, ghosts and ghouls rule as reality twists and turns, changing shape and resonance. The howl of a dog conjures up a werewolf. On the Kenyan coast, that night moment brings with it all manner of djins and mermaids, prowling in their woman-shape to steal the souls of victim men. Mating cats evoke the screams of damned souls burning in a Christian hell. It is easy to believe the bizarre. (I am setting up my excuse for what happened next.)
It was at such a moment in the night that I found Reagan’s ranting so aggressive that as I listened I became convinced that I had only missed the first part of his speech, in which he had finally gone over the edge and declared war on the Soviet Union. That night I went to bed terrified, in the grip of my imaginary world war. Before I fell into erratic sleep, I obsessed about how I would not be able to get out of the US before the actual war started and that I would die alone in a foreign land. The next morning I was relieved and abashed to find that all was normal and there was no sign of impeding war.
Twenty years later, as I watched the elections that brought another dumb dumb, unfathomable US president to power, George W. Bush, I realised that my vantage point, with its emphasis on linear “development” or maendeleo, had warped my thinking. Until that instant, I had thought development also brings with it highly enlightened people who would not lie about the presence of weapons of mass destruction to bring pain and destruction to innocent women and children many miles away in another country. For what? For oil (I can’t believe that), to get revenge for daddy (that’s too weird), to get their way (what way, the American way in Baghdad?), to be right about a perspective? (Probably the only right answer, outrageous as it may seem).
For us in this part of the world, things like technological advancement, elimination of hunger, industrial development, foreign vacations, microwaves, one doctor per 100 people, four-lane highways, $30,000 per capita income, a new car every two years, pensions, social security, all of which come with development, also lead to progress, to maendeleo. And ultimately to enlightment, the cherry on top of the development cake. We think, surely in America or Europe there must be such enlightenment that people, ordinary people everywhere, must have become immune to the baser human urgings like fear, malice, jealousy, racism, intolerance, corruption, violence, the need to declare war for dubious reasons, religious fanaticism?
It is easy to believe that if we were to invent a machine that would test our level of enlightenment we would find that those with more development have more enlightenment. This would render them immune from making decisions driven by those unenlightened aspects of being human like uncertainty and fear of tomorrow, fear of the other, the dictates of their religion, what the Bible says, what the Koran says, what the mullahs say, what the priest says. But finally I understand that this is not the case; just because you have more stuff doesn’t mean you are more enlightened.
I now realise of course that although human beings may have made huge technological advances such that they can send men to the moon or invent the Internet, they will still rely on some form of magic, juju or alchemy to manage their lives. The advances have not created certainty. In fact, they create even more uncertainty which can drive people deeper into the bosom of their juju side.
From Nairobi to America
Before I went to America, I was a student of the biological sciences at the University of Nairobi. Someone had put the University of Nairobi on the then outskirts of town. But this had not been far enough. By the 1970s, the outskirts were already part of the central business district and students would make their grievances felt by literally pelting the central business district with sticks and stones. It was a rioting student’s paradise. During my time, there were numerous riots, demonstrations and campaigns, many with echoes of Marxism or some left-leaning ideology with students shouting slogans like “Down with the bourgeoisie! The proletariat rules!!!” as they battled the police in the streets.
Somehow, throughout these riots I was able to remain largely free of any ideological infection. Which is incredibly surprising because we were sent home on at least four occasions over three years because of some issue with ideological overtones. In total, we spent about seven months at home. The male students had to report to their local chief every week but the women were not perceived to be a threat so we did not have to.
The only time I was absolutely certain about what we were striking for was the time we went on strike over food. We were all tired of the strange cuisine. The final provocation came when even the minced meat had weevils in it. Weevils will infest beans, legumes, rice, maize, but none feed on meat. So I could never get it; how did the weevils get into the minced meat? We half-joked that they must have used them as seasoning.
It was always those unserious arts students at main campus who started the riots. With our 36 hours a week schedule, we science students had no time for such frivolous pursuits. Also, we had no ideology to spur us to action and were so out of touch with current issues that we had no idea that our politicians were up to no good and that we should care. No science lecturer was ever caught in the political crosshairs, at least not during my time.
With their 8 hours a week lecture schedule which we sneered at, the arts students had plenty of time for ideologies such as Marxism and for the political issues they cared about, and they had lecturers with a death wish to egg them on. To get us to join their strike the arts students had to use threat and force; when a strike started we would be the first target and rather than face the wrath of our fellow students we joined in. Soon we were caught up in the excitement of the moment and forgot our original reluctance.
We ran around town in our jeans and sneakers being chased by the police, stoning unsuspecting motorists in an orgy of anarchy that was surprisingly heady even when the consequences could be a beating or rape by the police and the paramilitary (at the time they did not use live ammunition) and expulsion from university. I took part in the running around town but I didn’t want to take part in the stoning of motorists in case one of those motorists was my mother or father or one of their friends.
Twenty years later, I almost became one of the nameless motorists we used to talk so casually about, the one who lost her eye, (“Oh, how sad”), the one who died (uncomfortable silence), the one whose car was set ablaze and had her leg broken when she tried to jump over a six-foot fence hotly pursued by angry students shouting “down with the bourgeoisie, workers unite!” (loud laughter at the image of the heavyset woman trying to jump a six-foot fence).
That scene from a long time ago came to me as I came face to face with a young man about to hurl a stone at my windscreen. Time stood still. I had driven into the midst of rioting university students. Have you ever had one of those moments of danger when your life hangs in the balance under the specter of deadly violence? I live in Africa so I have had several. For me these moments always come with a loud metallic screeching/whistling sound. A sound that crystallises danger itself.
From nowhere the moment was interrupted; a student stepped in and stopped the young man at the last possible moment, for no reason that I can fathom, except that my day had not yet come. “Drive away!” he shouted urgently at me. I reversed and drove like the devil escaping my moment.
Being cold in America
I arrived in America in the dead of winter never having experienced winter in my life. I also went to a Marxist university only having been vaguely aware of this ideology or the concept of ideologies for that matter, so I was green on many fronts. If my father had known, and then been able to believe, that he was sending me to America to a Marxist university, would he have so happily taken me to the airport with such pride, giving me one of his gems to take with me? I repeated it later to my new boyfriend, starry-eyed, in a “behold the wisdom of my father, I want to share it with you” moment, only to find that it was Confucius who originated it. You can guess the one: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. I remember laughing and not being embarrassed by the busting of my father’s “original” gem. You must understand that I had once believed that my father could speak Russian.
It was the cold that almost got me first. It was February, the dead of winter. On my sixth day there, I looked out of the window and the sun was shining off the pristine snow. I felt joyful at the prospect of warm sunshine on my skin. I dressed and walked the one kilometre to the university campus. Only I got colder and colder. Sunshine did not equal warmth here. The light coat and sweater I had put on were no defense against the bitter winter cold. Twenty minutes later I was sitting in the reception room of the University admission block, feeling sorry for myself, trying not to cry as my ears, toes and fingers painfully thawed. I would have gone back home that second if my ticket had not been one-way.
A party in America
I eventually settled in, made some friends and was soon invited to my first party. The word “party” should mean the same thing wherever you are, right? For me at that time it meant dressing up in something sexy and provocative, make-up, jewelry (I still secretly believe that it was I who introduced the whole bling concept to the US), high heels and looking forward to dancing and meeting gorgeous and dateable guys. I marvel today at how many eligible men there were to choose from back then at any party, I was always spoilt for choice.
So of course I arrive at the party Kenyan style, dressed to the nines and fashionably late, to make my entrance and to envelope myself in the “whose that girl” factor. The cachet in being remembered translated directly into the attention of at least three of the hottest guys at the party. And then the routine. Open the door of the crowded room, stop, framed by the door, hold pose as if looking for someone while what you are actually doing is allowing them to look at you, and then step into the room sure of the impression you have created.
I went into routine mode and nearly gagged as I realised just what an overdressed spectacle I was. One woman was still in the droopy old t-shirt that she had used when we went jogging that morning. The only difference now was that the widening sweat marks under her armpits were not because of the jogging but because of the heat in the room. I couldn’t believe it! The other students were similarly dressed in old jeans, t-shirts, sweats and ill-fitting sweaters. I was now embarrassed as all eyes turned on me just as I had intended but retreat would only have made me even more conspicuous. I held my head up and, deciding to brazen it, walked into the room. This was only the beginning of my introduction to party etiquette in America.
Did I mention that I was a geek from University of Nairobi? I soon learned a new definition of geek because a Nairobi University geek took time out to party and one of our rules was that you never talked about anything remotely related to the courses you were taking during party time. I don’t remember what we talked about but what we did at parties was dance like mad, and tune and be tuned. But here at university in the US life was one continuous seminar without end.
I joined a group of friends and my face lit up in a smile anticipating delicious banter with that cute guy I had the hots for. As I stood there awhile, I realised that I needed to quickly disappear the smile; it was clearly inappropriate during a discussion about historical materialism, Hegel, Marx, Gramsci… After 15 minutes looking for an opportunity to make an impression I gave up. I knew the language. English. But if you had held a gun to my head and asked, “Tell me what they are talking about or I shoot,” I would have had to let you shoot my brains out. I had no idea. I moved to another group of my friends and found them similarly engaged in what can only be referred to as deep intellectual discourse and again I could not understand them. My frustration was growing; you can understand what this was like for a loud and voluble person. This is my only point in mitigation for what happened next. The third group held some promise. There was a word I found familiar, and as I write what I said, my toes still curl up in embarrassment twenty years on. The word was “reactionary”. I had to seize the moment and make my intellectual mark. “Oh!” I said, “President Moi is a reactionary, he always reacts to everything.” I looked around at the upturned faces with pride at this insight.
And then I launched into a story about President Moi and his reactions, by way of illustration you understand. “One time when we were at the university, President Moi had gone to India on a state visit. By the time he returned it was a week before JM Day, the day on which a populist member of parliament called J.M. Kariuki had been assassinated 10 years before. The students always marked the day with demonstrations which soon deteriorated into riots and running battles with the police. The university was always closed after the fracas. This year though, we students had gone against the grain and decided that we would mark the day by doing good in the community. We had decided to establish a J.M. Kariuki Foundation and to clean up slum areas and donate to poor people. So when we heard the president’s declaration even before he set foot on Kenyan soil that all third-year students would be expelled and ‘the nation would feel nothing if we dared riot on this year’s J.M. Kariuki Day’, we were so outraged that we were simply provoked into action. We rioted. And funnily enough, for the first time he did not react for the first week. We then decided that we would riot until he sent us all home. So we did.”
Many years down the road, I am still grateful that they did not burst out laughing. Instead, someone politely said one word “yes, that’s an interesting perspective to the word reactionary, you are quite right President Moi is a reactionary”, and the conversation continued seamlessly.
Going home a feminist
I soon got used to the American party style, so much so that when I came back home I had a hard time adjusting to the Kenyan approach. More so because I had come back with a head full of ideologies that did not mix well with the oglefest that is the Kenyan party. I took years to get back on track, spending time at parties skulking in corners with one or two other like-minded people, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, both habits picked up in America and now used to camouflage my despair at the lack of opportunity for rigorous intellectual discourse at these Kenyan affairs.
Of all the ideologies I picked up abroad, the most incompatible with my country was my hardcore feminism. It was not just any ordinary feminism, but one that looked for converts with the fanaticism of a born-again Christian from the American Bible Belt out to capture souls in Africa. And I never missed a chance to advance my mission. I was a one-woman missionary determined to be martyred at the altar of feminism.
Like red flags to a bull, statements that would spur me into action were endless. “Oh you know women are like that” or “Oh you know women are their own worst enemy.” Back then my country was still so innocent that it did not know that it should hide its chauvinism from view, at least in public. There were many sexist and misogynist statements made in my hearing by men and women on a daily basis.
Just so that there would be no room for speculation, I would declare my feminism openly on introduction. It wasn’t quite, “Hi my name is Sitawa and I am a rabid feminist who is vigilant and looking for opportunities to spring into action in defense of women everywhere by lecturing you into submission for any anti-woman statement that I may detect”. But it might as well have been. How I actually introduced myself was “Hello my name is Sitawa and I am a feminist”, I said, looking them straight in the eye, daring them to make a joke of my declaration.
Just in case you might be misled into thinking that there was any irony here and maybe laugh out loud because you found the introduction funny, the clothing and demeanor completed the picture. I wore a uniform of black jeans, shapeless t-shirts and sneakers, the drab universal uniform of feminists — in the US at least. “Appreciate my mind not my behind” is what I meant to say with my whole presentation to protect myself from another little trait I had picked up in the US, an aversion for unsolicited male attention.
All my friends were innocents. After I had lectured three or four of them for half an hour each on separate occasions I soon found myself alone. I wore my aloneness like a badge of honour, seeing it as the inevitable price paid by any champion of a cause who sticks their neck out. Thank goodness I had seen the film “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner”; I could use the image conjured by the title to console myself when I felt like giving up.
In an act of rebellion against my society, I smoked openly even in front of my father. This particular statement was especially effective in establishing my rebel credentials to no one in particular. When my friends gasped and questioned this particular act as going too far, I had another lecture prepared for them. “My aunts,” I would say from my imaginary soapbox. “Upcountry, in the rural areas, women smoke and drink so why shouldn’t I?” In the western part of Kenya women can smoke cigarettes. Some of my aunts smoke cigarettes but with the lit end inside their mouths. I have never seen a man smoke in this fashion and I don’t know why. I have one particular aunt who is hard-smoking and hard-drinking, who has always gone drinking with her husband, so I just don’t understand the sanctions levied against the so-called modern African woman, the city woman.
I have long since quit all those habits I picked up in America. I gave up picking on everybody around me because I realised that I had mistaken being constantly angry and fighting with people who did not agree with my opinion with championing a cause. Besides, it was alienating and exhausting and no one wanted to hang out with me because I was so intense. When my friends could talk to me again they told me that they had run away from me because I was just plain boring.
Impressions of the American South
I went to visit my cousin’s in-laws in the American south in Albany, Georgia for a week and discovered I could not hear so I took to endless grinning and nodding my head. I left those people thinking I was simple in the head. But I couldn’t understand them and I soon got tired of asking them to repeat themselves so I withdrew into an African grin of protection and lost my reputation in the process. They speak English in the south so it wasn’t the language, but there was still a language barrier. The long dragged out words that go on seemingly forever lost my short attention span. I found that my mind had wondered before the end so I never heard the finish. “Caaaahhhn aaaaah speeeek to Eyyyyd Coooook” is what I thought I overheard a woman in a bank asking. It was shocking to hear, like somebody caricaturing an American. I tried not to laugh and asked my cousin-in-law what the woman was saying. And she translated, “Can I speak to Ed Cook?”
I visited my first flea market during that visit to the south. A large African-like market selling what we call mitumba in Kenya; old clothes and shoes, kitchenware, furniture, as well as more specialised things like vintage clothing (read very old mitumba) and stuff that was ordinary people’s artistic expressions of themselves. My cousin-in-law introduced me to a little old black woman at a stall selling miscellaneous mitumba as her cousin from Africa.
“What!” proclaimed the little old black woman, “But you real pretty, I thought Africans were dark black with kinky hair and big fat noses and mouths but you real fine,” she declared in amazement.
I was equally astonished at the casual black-on-black racist stereotype that she spewed, blithely unaware that she should hide it or at least not say it straight to my face. But she was simply the first of many to air such views. During my two-week sojourn in the south, I soon grew accustomed to hearing from black people similar guileless declarations about some African stereotype that I didn’t fit. From questions about where I learnt to dance like that (I can dance!), to where I had learnt to speak “so proper”, to my dress sense and on and on.
Virtual segregation in the American South
The other big thing that I experienced for the first time in the US was hardwired virtual segregation. There were no signs designating white and black zones anywhere in Albany that I saw. Indeed, on the surface all seemed well in terms of race relations. But even my cousin’s Republican father-in-law made sure he hid his de-segregated business to keep up appearances. He was in business with a white person because the partnership allowed him to get white business. But to keep that lucrative white business he had to keep his partnership hidden and so he passed himself off as a worker in the business. I realise the logic is challenging.
The two groups occupied the same physical spaces, they ate at the same restaurants, entered all buildings and transport from the same entrance, sat anywhere on buses. And yet my foreigner’s eyes quickly saw through this façade and identified the fault lines of virtual segregation. The new apartheid still did not allow the twain to commune freely even as they congregated. I could feel the barriers as soon as I stepped into those spaces. There was a sense of forced togetherness. If the gap between the two races could speak it would say, “Ok, we have to share this same physical space but we are not giving up our right to be separate. They can take away our right to segregation but they can’t take segregation out of our hearts”. It was in what was missing in the interaction between black and white. There was no ease, peacefulness, insignificance, silence, freedom, love.
What existed in that gap was tension, a hateful watchfulness and worst of all an embryonic violence that was always ready to grow into fully-fledged adulthood. You could feel it. This violence ebbed and flowed and hung around like a dark threat. When I was amongst black people everyone was relaxed, very laid back, but in the presence of a group of white people in the segregated spaces there was an all round tensing alertness, an expectation of something unpleasant.
Black and white people occupied those common public spaces differently too. White people seemed to strut and begrudge black people’s presence. It was white people who still seemed to be the bona fide owners of the space. Black people were the interlopers, but they had no choice, they had to occupy the spaces, otherwise they risked recreating segregation by their absence. But the sense of threat in those spaces implied that black people occupied those spaces at their peril. Desegregation had been about pulling down the limits placed on the existence of black people. It was not white people who were fighting to sit in the seats reserved for black people on buses or to use the blacks-only entrances. Desegregation demands that white people cede the space and privileges that define their superior place in society.
Race in the north
My experience of race in the American north was not one of absence but rather that the north was racially clandestine, a state I much preferred. It gave me freedom to spend many more hours in a day being just another human being. The colour of my skin was not a constant conscious presence foisted on me by open racial hostility. Thank you but I am not black, I really am just a person. I am an African living in Africa so although I have many identities, being black is not my premier identity. That is the advantage of growing up black in Africa.
When I brought this to the attention of my southern black relatives-in-law they made that claim that always bemuses me. “I like the south,” they said, “the boundaries are clear, people here are not hypocrites like in the north. I know where I stand with them here”.
“I know where I stand?” What the hell is that? What I understand from that telling statement is an admission on the part of black people that it’s OK for there to be limits on a black person’s existence. I never heard a white person say things like that, only black people. For a person to know where he or she could go and what he or she could expect from their world simply because of the hue of their skin. In other words there was a limit of possibility which means that there was no possibility at all. And it was fine for white people to have veto powers over the dreams, the scope of existence of black people. You can dream so much and no more. You can aspire so far and no further, these are the limits on your movement. And black people accepted this proscribed world and were happy that they knew their place in this controlled world. That world was a banned dream which they passed on to their children and this was done with the active connivance of black people.
I understand how dangerous the world in which black people live in the south is. I imbibed a small part of that fear many thousands of miles away from movies and media reports of the Ku Klux Klan. So much so that I arrived in America terrified. For four days I refused to leave my sister’s apartment because I was sure the Ku Klux Klan were going to gun me down. Living with that dreadful history can skew anyone and the wonder is that black people have lived to step out of the shadow of such terrors and nightmares. The journey has had its negative impact such that sometimes their ability to see beyond the boundaries of their terror has been compromised.
This is where Africans can lend their sight when dreams have been extinguished. We have the same racial reality because our existence in the world gives us the same reference points. Yet we live in our own homes largely amongst our own people. We are not vested only in a racial reality. Our human reality predominates. We can fly above “black person negatives” and separate fact from damaging fiction.
A person exposed to these negatives on a daily basis for most of their life will lose their perspective. Such an environment can beat down the most thick-skinned, sanguine, optimist man and woman and create an oversensitive “defensive human” who can no longer see the forest for the trees and perceives racism under every bush. Such an environment can leave people severely embattled and debilitated. The centuries of actual and virtual lynching that black people have been subjected to in the US will do that.
Psychologically I am rather sensitive. I found the race issue to be intrusive enough in the north where it was not so in-your-face.. I found myself engaged from time to time in what manifested as flash-back-filled bouts of mother-less-child weeping. The kind of crying that was inconsolable, with heaving and copious tears. The kind that is only done in hiding. The first time it happened I did not understand what was going on. From nowhere came floods of tears. At first they were quite frequent, every three months or so. Soon the stretch between one bout and another grew and they finally stopped. I had stopped expecting more out of this country.
What were they? They were silent tears of rage and despair at the seemingly unseen-with-the-naked-eye accumulation of incidents of racism that I encountered on a daily basis. My mother has always told me that I am too thin-skinned, I let things get too easily under my skin. And it’s true. I just let the incidents seep into my subconscious. I never could speak out at them. I had no skills to deal with them in the moment. The moment of action would be long past before I recognised what had happened. And some were subtle, only discernable in the pattern my subconscious registered as I remained preoccupied with the hunt for that cut price designer shoe that I desired and could afford on my student stipend only if I bought it in a bargain basement-type store. It wasn’t until it had long happened, again and again, from store to store, in a single day, that I finally recognised what had been going on. The only black person in the group of friends being singled out for kindly help, again and again.
So what about the Marxism?
So what about the Marxism itself? I know that many people will find it surprising that I became a Marxist in America but it was common knowledge back then that you were likely to become Marxist, or at the very least end up leaning way to the left ,if you did your studies in the US. The reverse held true if you went to study in the USSR, you turned irrevocably capitalist and probably ended up holding some extreme rightwing perspectives. Certainly, I found many of my friends and relatives who went to study in the USSR ideologically bereft. For both groups it was shopping that did it. According to my friends who went to the USSR, the empty shelves turned them to the right.
In the US the shopping experience couldn’t have been more different. Walk into a supermarket, any old supermarket, not even some hypermarket, and there were shelves and shelves of different brands of detergents. Twenty different brands of dog food. Try buying toothpaste and you had to choose from a row of thirty brands. I was confused about what parameters to base my choice on, and offended at the waste. As a consumer, I had to ask myself why would I need thirty varieties of toothpaste to choose from? What’s funny is that back home the thought of such a long list of western goodies had always sounded delicious. Back then, western goodies were in short supply and some were not available in real time. You did not expect to keep up with trends in music or fashion in real time for example. There was a genuine difference between the third and first worlds largely based on time.
This time difference meant that at home there was a premium to being ahead of the pack. I still remember the cachet of being one of the first to own those skin-tight Jordache jeans that were not going to hit the Nairobi streets for another two years at least, the first to wear the latest lip gloss, the really glossy kind. This particular trend might become extinguished before it’s existence is even heard of in Nairobi, and there I was wearing it because I had made a trip to New York city. With some of these more transient trends there was always the danger that no one ever got to even hear about them and decide that they were a “must have” fashion item. The extreme third world trendoid ran the risk of simply looking strange and eccentric rather than enviably trendy. Sometimes I thought that it would have been useful to wear a T-shirt reading, “This thing that I am wearing really is the latest trend in London, New York, Milan.”
The road to my becoming a Marxist was littered with hardship though, and I almost didn’t make it. First, it was clear that I had a problem, I was the problem. When I stepped into the graduate class at C University, I was the first African for over ten years. And I was the first African woman in more years than that. I am Kenyan, which back then had a baffling specialness. I still remember the whispers as I walked past fellow students during the first few weeks. Later, when I made friends, I found out that my arrival had been announced and was anticipated, “Class we will have a real Kenyan woman”. I was used to being taken for granted much more at home. For a while I basked in this adulation. Soon enough it was rudely interrupted. Apparently it had come to everyone’s attention that I was bourgeois. This according to the Marxists made me a criminal. It was my political class in Africa that kept the peasants downtrodden while my economic class exploited the workers. I was held personally culpable for the ills of the continent. I kid you not; when the lecturers talked about the problem the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie presented in Africa, my fellow classmates turned round and looked at me with accusing eyes.
And it gets worse; I had servants. This particular thing was treated like some sort of character flaw. A friend of mine captures the dangers of being found out as an employer of servants by left-leaning elements in the US at that time. She was doing the bleeding-heart liberal thing, working in one of those poorly paid jobs while learning at the feet of some feminist guru. One day she was called into the boardroom where the head feminists were meeting. The interrogation revolved around questions of whether she had servants at home. She turned red (she is a Kenyan of a hue that can blush) and fidgeted violently, giving her discomfort away. She realised she was on the horns of a dilemma. What was she to do? If she admitted that she had servants she could be fired. But she realised her behaviour had given her away so an outright lie was out of the question. She chose to limit the potential damage by making a partial admission.
“Yes we have servants”, she admitted with her fingers crossed, “But only part-time.” Many years later we roared with laughter at how much we lay down at the feet of little tyrants just because they were supposed to be ideologically sound.
To be honest, although I would have chewed razorblades before I admitted this back then, the logic of my fellow students escaped me, but I was still intimidated into silence. This is what I would have told them had I been able to speak up. “Any African attending university is by definition no longer a peasant, a worker or a proletariat even if they are a direct descendent of any of these preferred classes. A real worker is out there being just that, a worker, not attending graduate school in the USA. Not all Africans are guilty of oppressing their brothers and sisters back home. Heck, Africans have the right to not be poor, peasants or workers. We can be anything.” This is what has always been so intriguing for me. The attitudes of my fellow students were not strange. Africans are allowed only to be poor. It seems to me that the logic that follows is that then they can be saved or rescued from their conditions by kindly Westerners. There is no place for Africans who can look after themselves in the psyche of the West. And interestingly, there appears to be no scenario for what happens when the “helping” has worked. The logic seems to suggest that for Africans there must be no rainbow.
News of a coup
In 1982 news of a coup in my country was met with all round gloating. A fellow student whom I considered a friend broke the news of the coup with words to this effect:
“You Kenyans have been the darlings of the West and now finally you have fallen!” he announced with glee.
He was not simply being mean, he was just being a Marxist. Others joined in, expressing joy at the collapse of this false citadel that was often touted as a capitalist success story by the West much to the chagrin of the leftist elements in the same West. Today that Kenya seems too good to be true. A few years earlier, in 1975, a World Bank report had noted that “Kenya is now in the second year of its second decade as an independent nation. Behind it lies a record of sustained growth in production and income that has rarely been surpassed by countries in Kenya’s stage of development”. These are some of the statistics that offended people: In 1975 27 per cent of Kenya’s population was living below the poverty line. GDP grew at a rate of 6.6 per cent. It is true that by 1982 things were beginning to collapse as the post-Kenyatta regime that we like to call the “Moi error” began to slash at the progress made in the first decade of the country’s independence.
Today Kenya is very different; World Bank statistics reveal a country deeply mired in poverty. Poverty levels are at 57 per cent and, between 1997 and 2002 GDP has reached a low of 1.1 per cent. Although it is doing much better now, it is literally digging itself out from a deep hole. Is Kenya today a Marxist’s wet dream? I don’t know, all I can say that it is uncomfortable to live in the midst of all this poverty. And now, many years later, we know that extreme poverty does not a revolution make. From examples everywhere, it can lead to a total implosion as a country sinks into civil war or worse.
My response to the coup
Whilst my fellow students celebrated back then, all I could think of was the safety and security of my family and friends. Beyond that I didn’t know what else to think. We Kenyans had grown used to the idea that we were special, not like other African countries which we saw as prone to coups and other forms of violent unrest and crazy despotic leaders. Our leaders were mild in comparison. With this mindset, I was simply unprepared. Over the next four days, my alarm grew when I was unable to get through to my parents when I tried to reach them by phone. I eventually got through and confirmed that all my family were safe. One of the symbols of our success was an efficient telephone system. I could always get through. What is amazing is the accuracy of some of the stories I heard about what happened to people I knew thousands of miles away. I heard about a guy whom I knew getting shot while looking at the unfolding coup through the window of a second-floor apartment and I came home to find this story to be true; he had indeed died in exactly the way it had been described to me.
This meanness not withstanding, Marxism gave me a huge measure of freedom by giving my mind options to go beyond. It gave me alternatives to understanding how life works. I came to appreciate that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical and that there was a wider context for my existence. As for Ronald Reagan, he unwittingly played his part in expanding my mind and making sure that I had to step out of the shadow of ideas of America as the land of salvation for myself or my continent. For two years, I watched this man behave as if he had come from a village in the dark ages and I gave up all my notions of the West as the source of wisdom, hope and help for my continent.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Conservation: What Do John Muir’s Writings and Thoughts Mean Today?
Conservation practice today is based on settler colonialism because it is invariably led by the needs, sentiments and aspirations of outsiders. This is a fundamental flaw that began with European immigrants to North America.
John Muir is widely acknowledged as the “father” of conservation thinking, indeed considered by many to be a conservation hero whose standing straddles two centuries. Whether or not that is justified is a different issue, but the pinnacle of this adulation is probably the reference to him as the “Father of the National Parks”. A historical examination of the global network of protected areas shows that the original US National parks like Yellowstone were the inspiration behind the establishment of similar structures all over the world.
From a personal perspective, there are a number of different things that inspired my childhood fascination with wildlife and wild places, and a major one was the wonderful hardcover book “The American Wilderness” by John Muir, a somewhat unlikely read for the typical African child, but part of my experience spending part of my childhood in the United States. Others were the romanticized and shallow portrayals of African wildlife in films like “Born Free” and “Serengeti Shall Not Die” by Joy Adamson and Bernhard Grzimek, respectively, which were made in the 1960s, but really became staples in the 1970s. One theme that endured the test of time from the turn of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st century has been the dominance of white people in the global conservation narrative.
When we read the works of John Muir today, what stands out to critical observation is his gift of expression and passion for the wilderness he talks about. However, therein also lies the deep malaise that grew from charismatic men like him, and their gift for imparting their belief. Conservation practice around the world today is based loosely on the fortress conservation model developed in 19th Century North America. Reference to history books reveals to us portraits of a society that had little or no place for any human perspectives that weren’t Christian, Male, and white. These dominant perspectives were enforced by continuous violence, perpetrated on Native American nations, women, black slaves brought from Africa, and Hispanic people from further south.
One of Muir’s more famous works, Our National Parks, was published in 1901 and this caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. They corresponded regularly and in 1903, Roosevelt visited Muir and they undertook a camping trip in Yosemite. To this day, it is still considered the “most significant camping trip” in history. There, together, beneath the trees, they laid the foundation of Roosevelt’s expansive conservation programmes. This was the beginning of the global protected area network, driven largely by hubris and the need for self-actualization through the purported protection of “nature”. This convergence of ideas between these two famous men also conferred acceptability to the notion of “pristine wilderness” devoid of human presence. The seeds of racism in conservation practice were also sown during this time by Muir, who regarded Native Americans as “unclean” and something of a stain on the pristine wilderness that was Yosemite.
The perceptions of European colonists around the world determined what part of biodiversity was worth killing and what was worth saving, resulting in a strange situation where they simultaneously occupied the place of killers and that of “saviours”. Even today, where the intrinsic values of biodiversity seem to be indelibly stained by the needs of tourism, the desires and aspirations of white people continue to influence what in nature is to be eliminated as vermin, what is to be hunted for prestige as trophies, and what is precious enough to be protected through the use of force and violence.
In some cases, species like the African elephant are hunted by white hunters for prestige while being protected by white saviours from black “poachers”. Indeed, conservation practice is one of the few facets of human endeavour where duplicity is accepted as the norm, with endangered wildlife protected with military might, while those who are wealthy enough gladly pay for licences to kill them for fun. We have Muir’s contemporaries like Teddy Roosevelt who were extraordinarily proficient killers of wildlife celebrated as pioneers of conservation. To fully understand the true import of John Muir’s story and legacy, conservation scholars ought to delve into American history to understand the context within which he was living and marvelling about this “beautiful wilderness” within which he found himself.
Firstly was the creation of Yellowstone National Park in March 1872. This park is widely acknowledged to be the foundation upon which the development of protected areas as a conservation tool grew into the widely held paradigm that we see today. We know very well what Yellowstone is in the history of America as written by the European colonists, but what is Yellowstone on the ground? A two million acre expanse of land from which the ancestors of the Kiowa and Crow Nations were excluded in order to provide a recreation area for the settler colonists. Conservation was and still is an integral cog in the wheel that is colonialism, because it “erases” indigenous people from landscape and lexicon. Even today, the history of Yellowstone as detailed in the US National Parks’ service website does not have any account of the Native Americans’ role in the history of the park. The history of Yellowstone National Park is therefore resolutely “white”.
Species like the African elephant are hunted by white hunters for prestige while being protected by white saviours from black “poachers”.
The efficacy of terrestrial wildlife conservation is widely (and erroneously) stated by science to be proportional to the geographical size of the “protected area”. Conservation science knows, but never acknowledges that the geographical size of a protected area is also directly proportional to the degree of violence required to establish and maintain it. This thinking is also an inadvertent admission that present day conservation science is based on settler colonialism, primarily the notion that wildlife cannot sustainably share landscapes with humans. The sharing of habitats, landscapes and resources with wildlife is an ancient and present reality of indigenous populations all over the world. It is a widely accepted fact that human populations, consumption patterns, and carbon footprints have changed irreversibly over the centuries. However, humans are a unique species in that we are able to change the carrying capacity of their habitats through behaviour. When we examine this capacity for behaviour change through the prism of natural resource use, it is conservation practice in its purest form, the very essence of civilization.
From their own historical accounts, the settler society in North America was still a very primitive and violent society in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the gun becoming an essential part of everyday life for people everywhere, in farms, in the wild, and even in urban settings. The Hobbesian nature of North American settler society of the period gave rise to the second amendment to the US constitution giving every citizen the right to bear arms. This was a self-justifying law, because the right to bear arms, in itself gave rise to the overarching “self-defence” justification for bearing arms.
This is the world in which John Muir distinguished himself through his appreciation of wilderness and natural spaces. Through his appreciation for wild spaces and his gift for writing, he managed to bring nature “home” for the white settler population, gathering a vast following in the process. The amount of interest in nature that Muir managed to garner was also a reflection of the entitlement to it that was felt by the European settler population. The settler population’s admiration for nature made no reference to the Native American nations that they found living with, and using these resources. The universal admiration for National Parks also reveals ignorance or tacit acceptance of the fact that protected areas are almost universally created through acts of violence and disenfranchisement. The peace and tranquillity that protected areas represent, is actually a result of areas being “cleansed” of the indigenous people that used them, an act that in itself reduces the owners of resources to the level of a nuisance that needs to be removed, or otherwise dealt with.
Racism is very difficult to deny or escape in conservation literature over the generations and Muir wasn’t immune to this difficulty. His writings revealed a grudging admiration for the ways in which the native Americans lived off the land on naturally available resources while leaving a very light footprint on the landscape. Muir’s own limitations in this regard were brought into sharp relief by his inability to find sufficient food during his forays into the wilds of Yosemite, the main limitation that curtailed the amount of time he could spend out in the wild. He was conflicted in the manner in which he regarded nature as clean and pristine, while regarding the natives who blended so well into it as “unclean”.
Conservation was and still is an integral cog in the wheel that is colonialism, because it ‘erases’ indigenous people from landscape and lexicon.
Despite being a typically detailed and expressive writer, Muir’s work studiously avoids mentioning any positive interactions with, or assistance from the Native Americans, although he does describe interactions and conversations with Chinese immigrants. This starkly illustrates conservation’s greatest prejudice—the disregard for indigenous peoples. It does not stand to reason that Muir could have spent so much time exploring, sketching, painting and describing Yosemite without regularly encountering its original residents. This was a deliberate effort to erase them from the Yosemite narrative and it is a sad testament to the culture of conservation that this erasure was accepted without question for over a century.
Once we understand the attitudes of John Muir and European settler colonialism, the pall of racism that stains his writings becomes more visible, for instance in the way he refers to the Natives’ knowledge of their environment as “instinctive behaviour”, a description commonly used in zoology to describe the behaviour of various wildlife species. In addition, there is the conflicted manner in which one who considers himself a naturalist grudgingly admires indigenous knowledge, while stating that it is beyond the remit of what he describes as “civilized whites”.
Another vital lesson that contemporary conservation scholars should draw from Muir’s descriptions of his experiences is the nexus between western Christianity and conservation’s attendant prejudices. Muir grew up in a staunch Christian family and the spiritual tone is very “audible” in his writing, particularly when describing beautiful features and landscapes. More telling, are the repeated references to the Native Americans as “unclean”. He expressly refers to “dirt” on their faces, but it is a well-known fact that face painting is an integral part of the culture of many Native American nations. Moreover, personal hygiene was never an important attribute of 19th century “civilized white” outdoorsmen. This was more a reference to “heathen” in the biblical sense—recognizing them as human, but unable to attain the imagined level of “cleanliness” upon which he placed “civilized whites” and nature.
Once we understand the attitudes of John Muir and European settler colonialism, the pall of racism that stains his writings becomes more visible
In order to understand the impact (or lack thereof) that John Muir had on the behaviour of the “civilized whites” of his time, we need to examine the state of biodiversity in North America at the time. His lifetime (1838-1914) straddled a period of precipitous decline in wildlife species that had astounded settlers by their sheer abundance. The Bison roamed the prairies in the tens of millions until the early 19th century, but were hunted down to less than a hundred animals in 1880. They were killed for their tongues and hides, with the rest of the animal left out to rot. Even by contemporary standards, the sheer destructiveness and bloodlust defy belief. Some heroes like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody are still celebrated today for having single-handedly killed thousands of Bison.
Two notable declines of avifauna in North America also occurred during Muir’s years, namely the Ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon—species that neither posed any danger to, nor had direct conflict with human populations. The passenger pigeon’s decline was far more precipitous and it finally went extinct when the last specimen died in captivity in 1914. To put this into context, the passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at around 5 billion birds. They were hunted by the Native Americans for food, but the precipitous decline and eventual extinction was driven by the arrival of Europeans and hunting for food on a commercial scale. The ivory-billed woodpecker was also decimated by hunting, probably driven by the fact that it was a large, brightly coloured and highly visible bird.
Protected areas are almost universally created through acts of violence and disenfranchisement.
The casual destruction is starkly illustrated by reports that in the late 1940s when the bird was critically endangered some hunters and fishermen were still using ivory-billed woodpecker flesh to bait traps and fishing hooks. Given the low level of technological advancement at the time, these extirpations demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to killing, which indigenous populations around the world are neither psychologically equipped to understand nor to perpetrate.
The unique neurosis of conservation interests and naturalists is notable in the fact that the final precipitous decline of both these species was driven by collectors who went out to shoot specimens for private and institutional collections. The inexplicable pride that collectors have in writing scientific papers about the “last collected” specimen is a feature that excludes indigenous people from extirpating species, because even where they are hunters, an animal that is reduced to a few specimens is no longer worth the energy and time required to hunt and kill it. For a “conservation scientist” however, when there are only two left, there is an irresistible compulsion to find them, kill them and collect them. The reward is fame through media coverage, scientific publications, promotion in academia, and bizarrely, conservation grants to help “prevent extinction ever happening again”.
The hundreds of skins of these decimated species that remain in the collections of universities and museums bear silent witness to the wanton destruction done in the name of conservation “science”. So the most important question of our times is, if we claim that John Muir inspires our conservation work more than a century after his passing, why wasn’t he able to stop the mass extinctions precipitated by the destructive nature of his fellow “civilized whites” in North America during his lifetime? It is very difficult to find any records of his trying to do so, despite all his lofty social connections. The lack of concern from conservationists over the actions of white people obviously isn’t a new phenomenon.
Conservation being a “noble obligation, therefore, set the stage for the exclusion of the proletariat, and the celebration of the nobles, regardless of what they actually do. Our state of knowledge in 2021 needs to acknowledge that sustainable use of natural resource is the cornerstone and a necessary preoccupation of indigenous civilizations all over the world. This is uncontestable because the indigenous societies that didn’t have this culture died out, leaving only ruins as evidence of their past existence. The fact that wildlife and biodiversity still exist side by side with these societies implies that conservation was, and still is part and parcel of their cultures and livelihoods. In over 20 years of research and practice in wildlife conservation policy and practice, I still haven’t encountered a word for “conservation” in any African language because it was simply a principle governing how people lived their lives. The word used most often in Kiswahili, for example, is uhifadhi, which translates more accurately to “keep”, more akin to an item kept on a shelf than a living system with producers and consumers.
Therefore, conservation as a structured, abstract and discrete concept is a creation of destructive people, those who need to create barriers to their own consumption, which extends far beyond the remit of their needs and into the realm of wanton destruction. It is a concept that lives very comfortably with contradictions and duplicity, for example, the protection of wildlife not for its intrinsic value but in order to satisfy the desires of those who seek dominion over it. This fundamental flaw is the reason why wildlife conservation in Africa still remains and has been unable to escape from racism and violence to this day. Its mind-set grew from the thoughts, imaginations and deeds of Theodore Roosevelt and his bloodthirsty harvest of wildlife during his 1909 Kenya safari. The animals he brutally killed for his self-actualization are still displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (which sponsored his trip and still celebrates this slaughter to this day).
Many euphemisms have been used to describe his trip, including high-brow terms like “expedition” and “scientific collection”, but the truth is that he was neither a scientist nor and an explorer. He was a wealthy American seeking self-actualization and to demonstrate dominance through the slaughter of African wildlife. This is still the profile of westerners’ involvement in African conservation even in the 21st century, with the only notable difference being that some of them are now women and some come to “save” rather than slaughter our natural heritage.
Looking at the story of John Muir, there is so much importance attached to his association and closeness to Theodore Roosevelt, which of course is perceived as a significant bolster to his already considerable credentials as a conservationist. So who was “Teddy” Roosevelt and what does he mean to those of us seeking harmony with our natural heritage today? He was a picture of the self-interested need to possess and dominate nature that so often masquerades as love for nature and wildlife. This sentiment is also a very comfortable redoubt for racism, because it instantly places indigenous people living in situ in the position of “obstacles” to conservation and the survival of ecosystems. Roosevelt was an unabashed racist, and conservation will continue to suffer, until it can escape from the intellectual clutches of its prejudiced icons.
The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at around 5 billion birds.
Racism amongst individuals wasn’t remarkable in early 20th century America, but scholars of conservation today must pause for thought at the manner in which racists are accepted and celebrated by individuals and institutions in our field. The American Museum of Natural History in New York features a larger than life bronze statue of Roosevelt at the front entrance. He is astride a magnificent horse and flanked by two people on foot: a Native American, and a black man. The location of the statue implies appreciation of Roosevelt as a conservationist, but the statue itself portrays Roosevelt as a conqueror of sorts, giving a nod to white supremacy. We in conservation accepted it and never once questioned its message. It took the social upheavals and racial tensions of 2019 to commence discussions around its removal, almost 80 years after it was erected.
There are many cases in history where racists escaped odium because their prejudices were closeted. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t of that ilk. He described Native Americans as “squalid savages” and justified the taking of their lands to spread white European “civilization”. It isn’t difficult to imagine that this sentiment played an important part in his affinity for John Muir, especially since the creation of national parks was a faster and more effective way to appropriate lands belonging to indigenous people. It still is, all over the world. The following are excerpts from his spoken and written words. One of the most starkly racist statements from a world leader was probably Roosevelt’s expressed opinion on the lengthy genocide perpetrated by European settlers on the Native American population. “The most righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman . . . A sad and evil feature of such warfare is that whites, the representatives of civilization, speedily sink almost to the level of their barbarous foes.”
It isn’t a stretch of imagination to perceive the possible part this sentiment played in the mutual admiration between Muir and Roosevelt. Muir’s regard of Native Americans as “unclean” would have been bolstered by the unequivocal support of a racist president. This in turn, would have greatly enhanced the moral acceptability of the violent eviction of Native Americans to make room for the National Parks that are so celebrated today.
Roosevelt’s racism wasn’t restricted to the natives and this was his opinion on the annexation of Texas in 1845: “It was of course ultimately to the great advantage of civilization that the Anglo-American should supplant the Indo-Spaniard.” His opinions on black people probably give us the most pause for thought when we examine the spread of fortress conservation around the world’ On slavery, Roosevelt said: “I know what a good side there was to slavery, but I know also what a hideous side there was to it, and this was the important side.” He also believed that the “average Negro” was not fit to take care of himself, and this was the cause of what he referred to as “the Negro problem”.
It isn’t debatable that Theodore Roosevelt was racist, and racism isn’t a new malaise afflicting societies around the world, but it is imperative that we ask ourselves why conservation is the one field that can make a racist acceptable and even celebrated around the world. Judging from the views he aired in the public domain, Roosevelt’s bigotry borders on white supremacy, but he was a much admired figure during and after his presidential tenure, receiving many accolades, including the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. In the 100 years since his death in 1919, he has been relentlessly celebrated as a champion of nature with a slavish devotion that only conservation and religious cults are able to inspire. He is praised for “setting aside” land for National Parks, even though it didn’t belong to him, and the process was in violation of Native Americans’ rights.
In over 20 years of research and practice in wildlife conservation policy and practice, I still haven’t encountered a word for “conservation” in any African language.
Conservationists even celebrate the centenary of his slaughter of Kenyan wildlife, somehow seeing it as the inspiration for their conservation work. It was meticulously documented in photographs and journals, but through it all, Africans were conspicuous by their absence from the narrative. Photos therein depict hundreds of black porters carrying heavy loads on foot, while Roosevelt and his white companions rode on horseback. The inspiration for the bronze statue outside the American Museum of Natural History is obvious. His detailed journals narrating his direct bloodthirsty interaction with African wildlife without “interference” from indigenous populations helped give rise to the myth of an untrammelled African “wilderness” devoid of human presence or influence.
Sadly, this still remains the cornerstone of what western tourists aspire to experience. It is ludicrous that conservation science even extends this fallacy to the rangelands of East Africa, which archaeology acknowledges to be the cradle of mankind, having developed in the presence of humans for over a million years. Indigenous peoples have been vilified by conservationists for generations as “primitive”’, “unclean” and “uncivilized”, but it is now time for us to acknowledge the truth and confront the fact that those dubious distinctions are actually features of conservationists and their chosen profession.
As we evolve into more intellectually astute or “civilized” practitioners of conservation, we will have to look at how attitudes have been shaped by Christianity, in nations where the settler colonialists included Christian missionaries. Dominion of man over other creatures is a well-known Christian tenet and dominion over the same in foreign lands is an expression of expansionism and imperialism over lands and peoples. An examination of the fortress conservation model and how it has been practiced around the world, its perceived successes and failures is basically a walk along the path trodden by European colonists in partnership with Western Christian missionaries.
The fortress conservation model has either died, or had to remodel itself radically in those societies where Christian missionaries and colonialists found strong and structured religious traditions that preceded them. Knowledge of this history is vital in the understanding of contemporary conservation narratives. China and India are the world’s two most populous nations. They are also home to a magnificent array of biodiversity, including iconic endangered species like the giant panda and the tiger, respectively. A common narrative in the conservation arena today is the claim that human populations are compromising the space available for wildlife and space needs to be “secured” for wildlife in one way or another. We have known for some time now that this is a racially biased concern because it is never said in reference to any country whose indigenous inhabitants are white, despite the fact that some like the UK have relatively high population densities and hardly any biodiversity worth speaking of. Countries like my homeland (Kenya) that have a well-developed tourism industry have the added intellectual burden of selling a spurious product which presumes to place indigenous people in the position of bystanders and props. Terms like “winning space for wildlife” are de rigueur in conservation circles with the attendant loss of resource rights remaining unsaid.
Closer scrutiny of all the noise surrounding human population as a challenge to conservation will reveal that China and India are prominent by their absence from this discussion. You are unlikely to hear of China’s human population being described on global platforms as a threat to the survival of the giant panda, or India’s population as a threat to survival of tigers. A similar argument could be extended to Indonesia on the nexus of population density, coexistence with biodiversity and low penetration of Christianity, which has now been replaced by conservation as the most effective vehicle of Caucasian hegemony in the world today.
Conservation will continue to suffer, until it can escape from the intellectual clutches of its prejudiced icons.
Conservation practice today is based on settler colonialism because it is invariably led by the needs, sentiments and aspirations of outsiders. This is a fundamental flaw that began with European immigrants to North America like John Muir, who then presumed to claim ownership, concern and value for natural heritage beyond that of the Natives in whose presence this entire ecosystem had evolved. Today, it is incumbent upon conservation practitioners plying their trade away from their homelands to correct this by understanding and accepting local people’s aspirations. We need to accept that these aspirations could include the desire for us to go away and leave them alone. We in conservation need to read more into the social sciences and move away from the imagination that ours is a field of biology. The Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe accurately (if inadvertently) describes conservation’s neuroses in his 2006 paper entitled Settler Colonialism and The Elimination of the Native. We must realize that the challenges we are facing aren’t discrete events, but a flawed, cruel and unjust structure, that must be dismantled before it collapses on itself.
The foibles and faults of Individuals like John Muir, therefore, aren’t the problem as much as the structure that they and others created that removes humans from nature and worships the resultant falsehood as a fetish. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Serengeti, Kruger, Tsavo, Corbett, Kaziranga and all the other national parks around the world are monuments to this fetish. We must value them, not just for their ecosystem values, but for the memories of the brutalized populations who were victims of their creation and continue to be victims of their maintenance. Anything else is patently false. We in Africa are constantly under assault from “saviours” who love African wildlife but hate African people. We must temper our celebration of conservation “icons” with knowledge of their deeds and context. If we do this, we’ll understand that someone like John Muir was just a relatively sensible member of a brutal and primitive colonial settler class who appreciated nature and sought to take it away from its indigenous owners.
It is imperative that we ask ourselves why conservation is the one field that can make a racist acceptable and even celebrated around the world.
The relentless need that westerners have to impose the colonial model of conservation on indigenous peoples of other races is less about concern for biodiversity and more about the need to deny the existence of the civilizations that preceded them in these lands. In my experience, one of the highest forms of civilization is the capability of living with wildlife for millennia without destroying it, and for this alone, indigenous peoples deserve to be celebrated, and not vilified, displaced and occasionally killed. This regular injustice has been accepted and celebrated for the last 100 years, until completely unrelated events in 2019 gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Suddenly, global consciousness of racial injustice has been heightened, with calls for the removal of monuments to racists around the world, including Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History.
Things came full circle in July 2020, when the Sierra Club distanced itself from John Muir, its icon and founder, admitting that he was actually a racist. Is this new information? No it isn’t. John Muir was one of those people who achieved “icon” status in their lifetimes, so society has always been aware of what he said and his thoughts. Our acknowledgement today of his prejudices is simply a sign that the primitive conservation field is gradually becoming civilized. Ideally, we shouldn’t regard the legend of John Muir as an inspiration for anything we should do in the future, but as a prism through which we can view the false edifice we refer to as “conservation”. It is also a glimpse into conservation’s dark past—one that we should neither forget nor repeat. Through this prism of historical knowledge, “Yosemite” is an essential historical work for anyone who understands where conservation has come from, and where it should be aiming to go.
Fake Fight: The Quiet Jihadist Takeover of Somalia
The Federal Government of Somalia has spent the past four years waging a war on federalism, on political pluralism and on democratic norms, but not on Al-Shabaab.
On 26 October 2021, I was convicted of espionage by a Somali court and sentenced to five years in prison. The court also ruled that Sahan Research, a thinktank I co-founded and now advise, will be banned in perpetuity from Somalia. Fortunately, I wasn’t present at the time or I would have been manacled, taken away to a cell and probably prevented from writing this article on my well-worn MacBook. But then, I wasn’t meant to be present in court, let alone arrested and incarcerated: I’d been declared persona non grata and banned from entering Somalia three years earlier.
Relatively speaking, I was let off fairly easy. Somalis who cross the ruling cabal in the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, generally fare much worse. Since Mohamed Abdillahi Farmaajo took office as president in 2017, 12 journalists have been killed in Somalia, and in 2021 alone, dozens have been arrested, making the country one of the most dangerous places for media professionals across the globe. Prominent opposition politicians, including two former presidents, have been the targets of assassination attempts staged by government forces. Another has been detained since 2018 without charge or appearance before a court. The disappearance and alleged murder of a young female intelligence officer at the hands of her superiors ignited a national scandal that the government has aggressively quashed.
The shoddy episode of judicial theatre that resulted in my conviction was never about espionage, national security or any of the other charges put forward by the prosecution. It certainly wasn’t about justice. And it wasn’t even about me. Like so many other things about the Somali Federal Government (FGS) headed by President Farmaajo, it was an exercise in smoke and mirrors: a way of distracting, deflecting, and deterring anyone who might dare to question, or even contradict, Villa Somalia’s grotesque version of the “truth”.
For a start, there was virtually no attempt to create even the illusion of due process. The Attorney General filed charges with the Banaadir regional court, which has no jurisdiction to try cases involving federal crimes – crimes against the state – but which proved conveniently amenable to guidance from the presidency. Indictments were announced by press release and no summons were issued. When Sahan’s lawyer presented himself at the first hearing, he was asked to leave on the grounds that the court had already appointed defence counsel and his presence would only complicate things. The charges proffered by the prosecution alleged espionage and the revelation of state secrets, but in public the government insisted that Sahan published only lies – an assertion entirely at odds with the charge of revealing national secrets. Were we guilty of telling the truth (and too much of it) or lying? The government didn’t seem able to make up its mind. Either way, no evidence was presented in support of the charges, no witnesses were put forward, and no one ever bothered to record statements from the defendants. It was, in the truest sense of the term, a “show trial”.
State Capture, Farmaajo Style
The first lines in the script of this courtroom drama had been inked three years earlier during the lead up to elections in Somalia’s South West State (SWS), where a charismatic former Al-Shabaab leader, Mukhtar Roobow, had decided to run for president. Villa Somalia had thrown its weight behind a rival politician, Abdiaziz Laftagareen, and was incensed by Roobow’s candidacy: not because of his former jihadist affiliation, but because he commanded significant local support and would likely prove to be a strong and independent state leader. Farmaajo’s administration was in the early stages of a plan to dismantle Somalia’s nascent federal architecture and centralise all power in Mogadishu. To pursue that aim, he needed weak, pliable proxies in charge of each of Somalia’s Federal Member States (FMS). Villa Somalia made no secret of its opinion that Roobow didn’t fit the profile.
Farmaajo’s inner circle, led by his intelligence chief, Fahad Yasin, decided to nip Roobow’s ambitions in the bud through a simple, brutish ruse: they convinced the commander of the Ethiopian AMISOM contingent in SWS to invite all presidential candidates to a security briefing on 13 December 2018 where Roobow was forcibly abducted and transferred to the custody of Fahad’s bureau: the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in Mogadishu. He has since remained in NISA custody without charge or appearance before a court.
Roobow’s arrest triggered street protests for three days, which the police quelled with deadly force, killing 15 demonstrators, including a member of the state parliament. Some 300 more were arrested and detained without charge beyond the constitutional 48-hour limit. Baidoa’s police force was largely trained and paid for by international donors through a UN-supervised programme, for which Sahan served as third-party monitor. The police crackdown was widely reported in the media and by various monitoring groups, including Sahan, contributing to a decision by three of the programme’s donors to suspend their support. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG), a highly respected South African lawyer and diplomat named Nicholas Haysom, also expressed his concerns in the context of the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Programme, which governs support to security forces. Three days later the FGS declared him persona non grata (which, legally speaking, it cannot do to UN officials), and he was recalled from his post by UN headquarters.
Were we guilty of telling the truth (and too much of it) or lying? The government didn’t seem able to make up its mind. Either way, no evidence was presented in support of the charges, no witnesses were put forward, and no one ever bothered to record statements from the defendants. It was, in the truest sense of the term, a “show trial”.
Haysom’s expulsion achieved precisely what the FGS leadership had hoped it would: a chilling effect on much of the remaining diplomatic community in Mogadishu. If the SRSG could be sacked simply for doing his job, who else could possibly stand up to Villa Somalia and prevail? FGS officials, especially those involved in the security sector, from the president’s doltish National Security Advisor (NSA) all the way on down to dubiously qualified ‘technocrats’ in the Ministries of Internal Security and Defence (even those whose salaries were paid for by their donor counterparts) took the lesson to heart: browbeating and tantrums became their default behaviour in encounters with foreign colleagues.
Having fulfilled its obligation as a third-party monitor to report on police brutality, Sahan also felt compelled to flag a much broader strategic concern: Villa Somalia’s intensifying efforts to weaken Somalia’s FMS and to dismantle the federal structures mandated by the Provisional Constitution – especially FMS police forces. Few observers realised that the police crackdown in Baidoa had not been led by the SWS state police, but by a few dozen federal police officers operating under direct orders from Mogadishu. On 17 December 2018, following an interview I gave to the Washington Post about how Roobow’s arrest was symptomatic of Villa Somalia’s centralist, authoritarian tendencies, Sahan was banned from Somalia and I was declared persona non grata.
Villa Somalia was not to be deterred by a little bad publicity: in August 2019, the FGS attempted to hijack elections in Jubaland, unsuccessfully financing rival candidates and ultimately declaring the re-election of state president Ahmed Madoobe null-and-void. Later the same month, in collusion with Villa Somalia, the Ethiopian army secretly attempted to airlift several hundred commandos from Baidoa to Kismayo, with a view to ousting Madoobe from office. This ended in a tense standoff between Ethiopian and Kenyan troops at Kismayo airport that could have easily ended in armed clashes between the two erstwhile allies. While Madoobe, with the support of AMISOM’s Kenyan contingent, continued to dig in and defend his seat, Villa Somalia deployed troops to Jubaland’s northern Gedo region, wresting most of it from Madoobe’s control (with Ethiopian help) and arresting Jubaland’s Minister of Internal Security.
Galmudug’s election was stolen in February 2020 and Hirshabelle’s followed suit in November the same year. In both cases, federal financing backed by the deployment of loyalist, Turkish-trained special forces and paramilitary police helped to ensure that Villa Somalia’s candidates emerged victorious. But, as in SWS, these were hollow victories: weak, proxy leaders proved unable to consolidate their wins and largely incapable of exercising state authority, ceding territory to Al-Shabaab. Through its electoral machinations, Villa Somalia had succeeded in exerting greater and greater control over less and less of the country.
Somalia’s Security Sector: Reinforcing Failure
While Villa Somalia’s brazen theft of elections and suppression of dissent served to weaken the autonomy of the FMS and enfeeble the federal checks and balances built into the Provisional Constitution, the deployment of security forces for the same purposes illustrated another, equally troubling development: the FGS had abandoned the fight against Somalia’s single greatest security threat – Al-Shabaab.
On paper, Somalia’s 2017 National Security Architecture and New Policing Model assign primary responsibility for domestic security, including counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, to the FMS. But in May 2018, the FGS issued a new Somalia Transition Plan (STP), effectively tearing up those previous agreements and clawing back all security functions to the federal level. Under the STP, Villa Somalia systematically obstructed security assistance to the FMS and funnelled resources almost exclusively to the alarmingly dysfunctional federal forces.
The STP also made promises upon which it utterly failed to deliver – with just two exceptions: Mogadishu stadium and the Jaalle Siyaad military training academy were both ceremonially transferred from AMISOM’s control to the Somali authorities. These accomplishments were, to be generous, ‘low-hanging fruit’.
More importantly, the STP promised to secure the main supply routes (MSRs) between Mogadishu and three strategic towns in neighbouring FMS: Baidoa, Baraawe and Beledweyne. At the time of writing, this pledge had spectacularly failed. For example, Leego, in Lower Shabelle region, lies just a little more than 100 kilometres from the capital and was specifically cited in the STP as a key objective in opening the road to Baidoa. Leego is also a vital Al-Shabaab financial hub, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars each month in road taxes. More than two years since the STP was first announced, no operation has ever been staged to seize it and the road to Baidoa remains, for government purposes, closed.
In 2019, a much-vaunted offensive to clear Al-Shabaab from Lower Shabelle region and open the MSR to Baraawe, nicknamed Operation Badbaado, ultimately fizzled out and was quietly abandoned. The offensive’s greatest achievement was the recapture, in early 2020, of Janaale, which had been abandoned after Al-Shabaab overran a Ugandan Forward Operating Base there in 2015. But between Mogadishu and Janaale, Operation Badbaado succeeded only in establishing a string of disconnected outposts, isolated from one another by large rural spaces controlled by the jihadists. The MSR to Baraawe remained closed.
The STP’s pledge to open the MSR from Mogadishu to Beledweyne was especially poignant. Until 2017, the section of road between the capital and Jowhar had been safe to travel, but less than a year after Farmaajo took office, it had become too hazardous for non-military traffic, forcing government officials, aid workers and civilians to make the 90-kilometre journey by air. In May-June 2021, Somalia’s boyish Chief of Defence Forces, General Odowaa Yusuf Rageh, personally led a flurry of aimless and uncoordinated raids into Middle Shabelle. The gesture amounted to little more than a series of chaotic skirmishes, producing nothing but unnecessary casualties and bad blood between the Somali National Army (SNA) and AMISOM, which claimed that Odowaa had failed to coordinate his amateurish expedition with the AU Force Headquarters. The road to Jowhar remained effectively impassable, as did the stretch between Jowhar and Beledweyne.
Whereas the shambolic state of the federal security forces might be explained by a combination of incompetence, inexperience, and a mediocre monocracy, the unchallenged expansion of Al-Shabaab’s influence on Farmaajo’s watch suggests a far more sinister explanation: tacit collusion between Villa Somalia and its putative adversaries. Indeed, the jihadists are possibly the only authority in Somalia that the FGS hasn’t chosen to pick a fight with.
Al-Shabaab is steadily extending its influence, not only in the interior, but even in territories nominally under some form of government control – including Mogadishu. As Farmaajo entered the latter half of his four-year term, a consensus was emerging that the terror group taxed more efficiently, raised more money, provided greater security, and dispensed higher quality justice than the FGS did. Major businesses in the capital readily acknowledged that they paid taxes to Al-Shabaab because the government could not shield them from the consequences of disobedience. Some of the country’s largest telecoms and financial institutions were found non-compliant with due diligence standards and even minimal anti-money laundering/countering terrorist financing best practices, enabling Al-Shabaab to make routine use of their services – including highly irregular transactions that should have raised red flags. The FGS, for its part, makes little or no effort to enforce its own regulations in this regard. The more Farmaajo’s social media legions huff and puff about his government’s successes, the more obvious it becomes that the war against Al-Shabaab is being lost.
These were hollow victories: weak, proxy leaders proved unable to consolidate their wins and largely incapable of exercising state authority, ceding territory to Al-Shabaab. Through its electoral machinations, Villa Somalia had succeeded in exerting greater and greater control over less and less of the country.
While the STP produced one military debacle after another, other FGS security initiatives demonstrated comparatively high levels of capability, competence, and determination in quashing Villa Somalia’s enemies: not Al-Shabaab, but rather the political opposition and recalcitrant leaders of insubordinate FMS. For this purpose, Villa Somalia relied not on forces trained, supported, and monitored by Western security partners, but rather upon those established and equipped by its more steadfast political allies: Qatar, Turkey, and Eritrea. In other words, the FGS is fighting two different wars using two very different armies.
The cornerstone of Villa Somalia’s parallel security policy was NISA under the direction Fahad Yasin. Having initially served as Farmaajo’s Chief of Staff, Fahad was appointed Deputy Director General of NISA in August 2018 and effectively ran the organisation until his official promotion to NISA chief the following year. With financial and technical support from Qatar, Fahad has transformed NISA from a decrepit, thuggish secret police force into a modern, capable intelligence service and the secretive core of Villa Somalia’s power. From behind the walls of NISA’s sleek, opulent new headquarters, he has overseen the formation of an entirely parallel security establishment.
Some elements of these forces were highly visible. In early 2018, Turkey began training the first batch of army special forces known as Gorgor (Eagle); later the same year Ankara expanded its training programme to include a new paramilitary special police unit named Haram’ad (Cheetah). Both units have since been equipped with modern weapons, equipment, and armoured vehicles of Turkish manufacture. As their numbers have expanded, Fahad has deftly manoeuvred to bring them discreetly under Villa Somalia’s direct control – and NISA’s in particular.
In 2019, plans were set in motion for another paramilitary force to be stood up, this time as an integral part of NISA. As many as 7,000 Somali youth were recruited on the promise of training and employment in Qatar, but secretly transferred instead to Eritrea. Those that subsequently returned to Somalia became known as Duufaan (Hurricane), while an indeterminate number remained trapped in Eritrea, largely incommunicado, sparking a blistering scandal back in Somalia, where their parents demanded information about their whereabouts and well-being. By some accounts, hundreds, possibly thousands, of these Somali trainees may have been dispatched to fight in Ethiopia in November 2000 against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, but a communications blackout on the conflict zone has made such reports difficult to verify.
Thousands more trainees were enlisted into the Xoogga Wadaniyiinta (Popular Forces), a largely unarmed youth militia apparently inspired by the Guulwadayaal (Victory Pioneers) of Siyaad Barre’s ruling party. And perhaps the smallest NISA unit, known as Ruuxaan (Ghosts), operates in hit squads, conducting political assassinations mainly in Mogadishu. NISA also possesses two armed units trained and mentored (and quaintly misnamed) by the US government: Waran (Spear), which protects NISA facilities and Gaashaan (Shield), which serves as a counterterrorism commando unit. But since the Americans keep an eye on them, they don’t suit Fahad’s purposes.
Fahad’s strategy for the use of these politicised units progressively took shape in 2019 during the course of interventions in Jubaland and Galmudug. Following Ahmed Madoobe’s re-election in August 2019, and Villa Somalia’s humiliating failure to have him ousted by Ethiopian commandos, Fahad formulated a new course of action to destabilise Jubaland and undermine Madoobe’s authority. The FGS surged federal forces into Gedo region, whose Marehan clan elites were divided in their loyalties between Madoobe (and his Marehan political appointees) and their kinsman, Farmaajo. Villa Somalia counted on the combination of force and finance to wrest Gedo from Jubaland’s tenuous control.
To reinforce the SNA units stationed in Gedo, which were mainly drawn from local Marehan militias, the FGS airlifted a combination of NISA’s Duufaan and paramilitary Haram’ad police from Mogadishu to change the balance of forces on the ground. More importantly, Fahad took direct control of the joint operation, dispatching his trusted NISA deputy, Abdullahi Adan Kulane ‘Jiis’, himself a member of the Marehan clan, to supervise their operations. Official military and police chains of command were short-circuited.
Violence in Gedo escalated, and casualties mounted through early 2020, threatening to draw Ethiopian and Kenyan troops into a confrontation on behalf of their local allies. In February 2020, as the situation threatened to deteriorate even further, the US government expressed its concern in a statement to the UN Security Council, describing the deployment of federal forces to Gedo region as an unacceptable “politically motivated offensive” that diverted resources away from the common fight against Al-Shabaab. But of course, that had always been the point.
Indeed, Al-Shabaab was the principal beneficiary of Villa Somalia’s hijinks. While federal forces focused on wresting control of Doolow and Buulo Hawa away from Jubaland, they made no move towards Al-Shabaab’s nearby base at El Adde, which at least 150 Kenyan soldiers had died defending in 2016, and which has since served as a critical operational and bomb-making hub for the jihadists. Other parts of Gedo region previously under Jubaland control also fell steadily under the influence of the jihadists. Today, Al-Shabaab controls more of Gedo than it had before Farmaajo took office.
Meanwhile, since late 2019, Villa Somalia had been plotting to take full control of Galmudug, dismantling its incumbent administration and engineering a rigged election to install a political proxy as state president the next year. The dynamics in Galmudug were very different from those in Gedo, but the FGS playbook was much the same. Loyalist federal forces were surged into Galmudug to achieve local security dominance and the cash followed in suitcases.
The unchallenged expansion of Al-Shabaab’s influence on Farmaajo’s watch suggests a far more sinister explanation: tacit collusion between Villa Somalia and its putative adversaries. Indeed, the jihadists are possibly the only authority in Somalia that the FGS hasn’t chosen to pick a fight with.
Roughly 120 troops from the 2nd Battalion, Gorgor Commando Brigade were airlifted to the regional capital, Dhuusamareeb, together with about 100 Haram’ad paramilitary police and 120 officers from the Banaadir Police Force, who had originally been part of NISA. Their commander, Sadiq Joon, had previously served as NISA commander in Banaadir. Villa Somalia also tried to involve US-trained and -mentored Danab (Lightning) special forces in its conspiracy, but this was quickly detected and shut down.
Like in Gedo, Villa Somalia established a discreet, informal chain of command that reported directly to NISA, with Sadiq Joon directly supervising the SNA and Haram’ad operations, in addition to his own Banaadir Police contingent. In parallel, Fahad entrusted a close aide named Ali Wardheere (or Ali ‘Yare’) with the financial arrangements, which involved bribing local politicians, clan elders, and leaders of the powerful Sufi militia, Ahlu Sunna wal Jama’a (ASWJ) to acquiesce in the FGS’ scheme.
Ironically, the principal threat to Villa Somalia’s plans came from then Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, who tried to outmanoeuvre Fahad using his own ‘fixers’ to influence the Galmudug electoral process – a reckless overreach that ultimately cost him his job. But Fahad prevailed and his chosen flunky, Ahmed Abdi Kariye ‘Qoorqoor’, was duly installed as Galmudug’s president in February 2020
As in Gedo, Farmaajo and Fahad had employed loyalist federal forces to subvert the autonomy of an FMS – not to fight Al-Shabaab, which controlled the entire southern part of Galmudug. On the contrary, by installing a feckless political proxy and dismantling the vehemently anti-Shabaab ASWJ, Fahad prepared the ground for aggressive Al-Shabaab expansion the following year, followed by the most significant offensive by federal forces for over a decade – in support of the jihadists.
The Return of Al-Itihaad Al-Islaam
Al-Shabaab was not the only Islamist group to benefit during Farmaajo’s term of office. A little-known, like-minded affiliate known as Al-I’tisaam b’il Kitaab wa Sunna had also been growing from strength to strength – mainly thanks to the influence of its powerful representative in Villa Somalia: Fahad Yasin. Widely credited with having engineered Farmaajo’s 2017 electoral victory, Fahad had initially been rewarded with the post of Chief of Staff at the Presidency, followed by the leadership of NISA. With generous support from Qatar, he was able to refurbish NISA, not only as the most powerful instrument of FGS political authority, but also as a de facto secretariat for Al-I’tisaam.
Al-I’tisaam and Al-Shabaab share a common ancestor: the jihadist movement Al-Itihaad Al-Islaam, which first revealed itself following the collapse of the Siyaad Barre regime in 1991. Like Al-Qa’ida, Al-Itihaad was an offshoot of the militant Al-Sahwa (Awakening) movement that had been forged in the crucible of the Afghan jihad and which espoused an extreme, intolerant, and explicitly violent version of Islam. Al-Sahwa’s hostility to the Saudi establishment saw its proponents, including Osama bin Ladin, imprisoned or exiled. But Bin Ladin was welcomed by the ascendant Islamist government in Sudan in 1991, and he soon found an eager ally in Somalia’s Al-Itihaad.
Together, between 1992 and 1994, they strove to confront US military intervention in Somalia. But AIAI’s ambitions exceeded the narrow military goals of Al-Qa’ida and, against Bin Ladin’s advice, the movement sought to establish an Islamic ‘emirate’ on Somali territory. Their harsh attempts to pursue this objective found little purchase amongst the Somali population and backfired. Their ideology particularly alienated Somalia’s majority Sufi population by blaming Sufism for all the nation’s ills, including the collapse of the state. In 1996, following Bin Ladin’s expulsion from Sudan and relocation to Afghanistan, a much-deflated AIAI suffered successive defeats at the hands of the Ethiopian military and, in early 1997, made its calamitous last stand in Somalia’s southwestern Gedo region.
Among the young militants who survived Al-Itihaad’s final battle and escaped to neighbouring Kenya was Fahad Yasin. Born in 1977 or 1978 (his Somali and Kenyan passports contain different dates of birth and different names), his parents separated when he was young and he was raised by his mother and his stepfather, receiving a religious education in Mogadishu. When the Barre regime collapsed in 1991, Fahad and his family fled to Kenya as refugees, but he soon returned to Somalia under the wing of his stepfather, who had joined Al-Itihaad. Al-Itihaad’s military leader at the time was Hassan Dahir Aweys: an unrepentant extremist with whom Fahad would develop an almost filial relationship over the coming decades. Fahad’s stepfather was killed in battle against the Ethiopians in 1997, and when Al-Itihaad’s surviving leaders dispersed, the young Fahad found himself adrift.
After a couple of years searching for a new cause, Fahad eventually tried his hand at journalism, blogging for a provocative website called Somalitalk, where he mainly posted political commentary. A supporter of interim president Abdiqasim Salaad Hassam, who notionally held office as head of the then Transitional National Government between 2000 and 2004, Fahad was reportedly discouraged when Abdiqasim was ousted by Ethiopian-backed warlords through a skewed regional ‘peace process.’ Telling friends that he wanted to study Arabic, he travelled to Yemen, where regional intelligence sources say he enrolled at El Iman University: a sort of international finishing school for jihadists founded by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a close spiritual adviser to Osama bin Ladin and a specially designated global terrorist (by both the US and UN) in his own right.
By some accounts, hundreds, possibly thousands, of these Somali trainees may have been dispatched to fight in Ethiopia in November 2000 against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, but a communications blackout on the conflict zone has made such reports difficult to verify.
While Fahad was carving out a career for himself in the aftermath of Al-Itihaad’s 1997 defeat, the movement’s other alumni had divided into two wings: one, asserting that Somalia was not yet ripe for jihad, pursued political and economic interests, while advancing the core tenets of Al-Sahwa’s radical ideology by establishing an underground organisation (tanzim) and by preaching (da’wa). They called themselves Al-I’tisaam. The other faction, unwilling to abandon the path of jihad, sought out foreign fields of battle on which to hone their beliefs and skills: notably Afghanistan, where they renewed their allegiance to Bin Ladin and Al-Qa’ida. Following America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, veterans of these foreign battles would return to Somalia – their allegiance to Al-Qa’ida firmly intact – to establish the terror group that eventually became known as Al-Shabaab.
In the late 2000s, as Al-Shabaab emerged from the shadows to become a household name, Fahad Yasin found a job as a correspondent in Somalia for Qatar’s Al-Jazeera news network. Not surprisingly, given his jihadist credentials, he enjoyed unique access to Al-Shabaab’s senior leaders, apparently having no difficulty in obtaining exclusive interviews with reclusive ‘high value individuals’ or ‘HVIs’ whom Western intelligence agencies were desperately seeking to locate and, one way or another, remove from the battlefield.
During the course of his relationship with Al-Jazeera, Fahad apparently forged close ties with Qatar’s intelligence services, becoming a valued asset and, ultimately, an agent of influence. By 2011, he was back in the Somali political arena, working in the entourage of President Hassan Sheikh, who was elected to office in 2012. There was not much room in Hassan’s administration for Fahad to shine: although no Islamist himself, Hassan’s kitchen cabinet was dominated by members of Dam ul-Jadiid, an activist offshoot of Harakaat Al-Islaax (Somalia’s chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood), whose progressive ideals had little in common philosophically with Fahad’s conservative, militant upbringing. Moreover, Fahad was politically overshadowed by a close relative, Farah Abdulqadir, who outranked him within the clan hierarchy and served as Hassan Sheikh’s closest advisor.
By this time, Fahad had also apparently forged a close relationship with Farmaajo, a dull bureaucrat from Buffalo, New York, who he lobbied Hassan Sheikh to appoint as prime minister. Farmaajo had previously served a 6-month stint as prime minister under the previous president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Hassan sagely ignored Fahad’s advice, offering him instead the Ministry of Ports and Maritime Transport. By then, Fahad already had his sights set on NISA or, as a consolation prize, the Ministry of Internal Security, and he refused the position on offer. Some members of Hassan Sheikh’s entourage, however, aver that a profound clash of ideologies contributed to this parting of the ways.
Fahad returned to Qatar where, around 2014, he was assigned to Al-Jazeera’s Centre for Studies, an independent research institution that has earned a reputation for being, inter alia, a forum for reflection and exchange between various international Islamist movements. But by 2016 Fahad was back in the maelstrom of Somali politics, this time managing Farmaajo’s presidential campaign. Fahad not only shared his candidate’s authoritarian instincts, but he also treated Farmaajo like a kinsman, since his late stepfather had also been a member of Farmaajo’s Marehan clan. Farmaajo was not an Islamist, but from Fahad’s perspective, this rendered his candidate even more useful. During his studies abroad and exposure to members of other Islamist groups, Fahad had apparently internalised a practice more commonly associated with Shi’a Islam: taqqiya – the use of deception and dissimulation in defence of the faith, which Sunni jihadists have pragmatically appropriated in recent decades. Farmaajo’s secular profile, his ultranationalist populism, and his American passport, complemented by an entourage of technocratic cabinet ministers from the diaspora with Western accents and stylish suits, would help to camouflage Fahad’s real ambition: an Islamist coup.
In February 2017, through a combination of shrewd electioneering and injections of cash from Doha, Fahad helped steer Farmaajo to victory and was rewarded with the post of Chief of Staff at the Presidency. Having finally ascended to the apex of national power, Fahad wasted no time in impelling the appointment of former Al-Itihaad militants – now re-branded as Al-I’tisaam – to key positions, both formal and informal, in government. Since the FGS had virtually no revenue and Fahad held Qatar’s purse strings, Farmaajo acquiesced to his recommendations.
Over the next few years, Fahad succeeded in placing dozens of erstwhile jihadists in key positions throughout the federal administration and security services. Among them were the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Presidency, the Minister of Agriculture, a state minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, the State Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Finance, and at least five senior officials at NISA: a Chief of Staff, Deputy DG, and the directors of Cybersecurity, Counterintelligence, and Foreign Intelligence (subsequently appointed Deputy Ambassador to Qatar). Other members of the group served unofficially, both inside and outside Somalia, as promoters, couriers, financiers, online activists, and informal emissaries.
At the same time, Fahad began mobilising Al-I’tisaam networks across the region, including a powerful lobby of Salafi imams and businessmen in neighbouring Kenya. Many of these religious leaders were based in the largely Somali-inhabited enclave of Eastleigh in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and had been active supporters of Al-Itihaad in the 1990s. Congregating mainly at a prominent mosque on 6th street, they held regular fund raisers for the jihadists and some of their most prominent activists were killed or captured fighting alongside Al-Itihaad in Somalia.
In October 2017, an Al-Shabaab suicide bombing in Mogadishu left more than five hundred people dead and thousands wounded. The disaster prompted an outpouring of sympathy and support from Somali communities worldwide, including the well-established and increasingly influential Salafi constituency in Kenya that had previously invested in Al-Itihaad. A high-level delegation was dispatched from Nairobi to Mogadishu to deliver their contribution for victims of the bombing.
Fahad seized upon the arrival of such prominent Kenyan-Somali imams and Al-Itihaad alumni for his own, ulterior motives: since the late 2000s, relations between Al-Itihaad’s two main successors – Al-I’tisaam and Al-Shabaab – had been strained nearly to the breaking point by public spats and mutual betrayal. Fahad saw not just an opportunity for reconciliation, but also to establish himself as an Islamist kingpin, and reportedly arranged a meeting between them. The initial encounter was successful, and a follow-up conference was convened in early 2018 in Kismayo.
During his studies abroad and exposure to members of other Islamist groups, Fahad had apparently internalised a practice more commonly associated with Shi’a Islam: taqqiya – the use of deception and dissimulation in defence of the faith, which Sunni jihadists have pragmatically appropriated in recent decades.
According to Somali media reports at the time, the meetings produced plans for the two groups to infiltrate Somali government institutions on a large scale, especially the security sector and judiciary. Al-Shabaab sought the integration of Al-Shabaab forces into FGS security forces, together with their weapons, and the departure of AMISOM. An as interim measure, they proposed that forces from Turkey and other Muslim countries could be deployed to supervise the process of integration. A committee was duly established to oversee the recruitment of former militants for training and insertion into the SNA and NISA.
The meetings also supported the establishment of ‘Popular Defence Forces’ (Ciidanka Difaaca Shacbiga ah), or PDF, to absorb urban youth and low-level Al-Shabaab fighters. Upon completion of training, these units would initially reinforce security at Villa Somalia and then gradually be expanded across in Mogadishu. However, the PDF never officially got off the ground and was eventually subsumed by Villa Somalia’s Xoogga Wadaniyiinta youth militia.
Beyond these security arrangements, Fahad briefed the participants that he had arranged an agreement between the FGS and an Islamic university in Kenya, bankrolled by Qatar, to train the Somali judiciary and Ulema (Islamic scholars). Not coincidentally, the university’s chancellor was a prominent Salafi scholar, businessman and former spokesman for Al-Itihaad.
Fahad’s aspirations for the consolidation of Al-Itihaad’s alumni under the umbrella of the FGS were gaining momentum. But in November 2019, he overplayed his hand, triggering a backlash from Somali Sufis. Somalis have traditionally followed the Shafi’i school of Islamic law, guided by several dominant Sufi turuuq, or sects. Despite the aggressive encroachment of exogenous Salafi movements, many Somalis still treasure their Sufi beliefs and practices. Fahad had invited to Mogadishu Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Umal, a prominent Kenyan cleric and businessman whom many consider to be Al-I’tisaam’s spiritual guide. The purpose of Umal’s visit was to donate some US$330,000 that he and his followers had raised for victims of flooding in Hiiraan region, and Fahad planned a lavish ceremony in his honour.
No one disputed the worthiness of the cause for which Sheikh Umal had raised the funds, but the high-profile reception planned for him by Villa Somalia did not sit well with Somali Sufis, who seized the moment to protest what they perceived as an alliance between Villa Somalia and Al-I’tisaam. The militant Sufi ASWJ interpreted Villa Somalia’s public embrace of a prominent Salafi imam as confirmation of Al-I’tisaam’s status as the de facto ruling party in Villa Somalia and, by extension, as undeclared custodian of the state religion. Sheikh Abdulqadir Soomow, a leader of the ASWJ and spokesman for the national Ulema Council, angrily charged Umal with inciting hatred against Sufis and their beliefs, promoting the rise of the “Kharijites” (a pejorative term for extremists like Al-Shabaab), and of “killing many people with his words.” Umal defended himself against the allegations, but his visit was hastily downgraded to a low-key affair, hosted in a hotel conference room near Mogadishu’s airport.
A serious clash between Sufis and Salafis had been avoided, but the episode foreshadowed a much bloodier reckoning between ASWJ and Villa Somalia less than two years later.
Farmaajo’s Extension, Fahad’s Second Term
In February 2021, having successfully stolen the elections in SWS, Hirshabelle and Galmudug, Farmaajo plotted another coup: stealing his own re-election. Despite having had four years to prepare the ground for federal elections, the Nabad iyo Nolol (‘Peace and Life’) government reached the end of its term – by design – utterly unprepared. For more than three years, Farmaajo had promised Somalis and international partners alike that he would deliver one-person one-vote (OPOV) elections for the next parliament, which would in turn elect the next president.
OPOV had always been a pipe dream, albeit one that Western diplomats enthusiastically subscribed to and, in many cases, oversold to their respective capitals. Not only did insecurity prohibit such an exercise and the federal government manifestly lacked the capacity to pull it off, but even more problematic was the fact that with less than one year remaining in Farmaajo’s term, there was no consensus between political stakeholders, including the FMS and the political opposition, on the electoral model that Villa Somalia was proposing.
Moreover, rushing into a hastily concocted, profoundly contested electoral process would be extremely dangerous: by scrapping the longstanding “4.5 formula” of clan-based power sharing, it would create winners and losers across the country. No one had bothered to do the math about which clan constituencies stood to win or lose most, or by how much. The risk of large parts of the population rejecting the electoral results, either because they distrusted an opaque process or because they felt unfairly deprived of representation, was extremely high.
The cabal in Villa Somalia was well aware of these considerations and was counting on the collapse of electoral preparations to buy them a term extension of at least two years to deliver on their OPOV commitment. But when they finally showed their hand and tabled the proposed extension in parliament in early April 2021, the opposition was infuriated and fighting erupted in the streets of Mogadishu. More than a hundred thousand people were displaced by the fighting, as the army fragmented along clan lines and opposition forces swiftly gained the upper hand. Faced by the prospect of being evicted from the presidency at gunpoint, Farmaajo reluctantly abandoned the scheme.
Seven months later, Farmaajo is nevertheless comfortably ensconced in Villa Somalia and Fahad’s plan to hijack the election is inching forward through iterative bargaining over excruciatingly esoteric electoral procedures. Although an “election” of some kind will almost certainly take place before Farmaajo reaches the benchmark of his coveted two-year extension, there is a clear and present danger that the Islamist ecosystem nurtured by Fahad Yasin will return to power in Villa Somalia – whether under Farmaajo’s leadership or another candidate of Fahad’s choosing.
The Talibanisation of Somalia
Any continuity of Fahad’s influence in Villa Somalia, with or without Farmaajo, would be disastrous for Somalia. It is increasingly clear what Fahad, his party and his patrons intend for the country: a process of staged negotiations between the federal government and Al-Shabaab, facilitated largely by Qatar and culminating in the ‘Talibanisation’ of Somalia. Notwithstanding the significant cultural and ideological differences between the Taliban and Al-Itihaad, the cynical abandonment of Somali aspirations for some form of liberal democracy in favour of an autocratic, absolutist theocracy would be no less treacherous or traumatic than it was for Kabul.
For several years, Qatar has been promoting the notion of dialogue between the FGS and Al-Shabaab as a way of winding down the insurgency. This would likely entail the opening of an Al-Shabaab office in Qatar, some preliminary proximity talks between the parties, followed by eventual face-to-face negotiations. Many Western governments are keenly interested in this possibility: the fight against Al-Shabaab will soon enter its third decade and the jihadists are stronger than ever. As every security analyst is taught, the dismantling of insurgencies and terrorist groups inevitably involves some form of negotiation. Force alone cannot prevail.
Villa Somalia has disingenuously reinforced that argument under Farmaajo’s leadership, not by trying to fight and failing, but by not really trying at all. The FGS has spent the past four years waging a war on federalism, on political pluralism and on democratic norms, but not on Al-Shabaab. The largest single offensive military operation undertaken since 2017 was an all-out assault against ASWJ, at Guri’el in Galmudug region in October 2021 that left at least 120 people dead and hundreds more wounded. Al-Shabaab’s nearby stronghold at Eel Buur, to the southeast, was, as ever, left in peace.
Guri’el was arguably the bloodiest battle in Somalia since Kenyan troops were overrun at El Adde, only it wasn’t waged against the jihadists. On the contrary, Al-I’tisaam clerics rushed to defend the government’s onslaught against Al-Shabaab’s sworn Sufi enemies: Sheikh Bashir Salaad, Al-I’tisaam’s senior cleric in Mogadishu and Chairman of the Ulema Council, equivocally equated ASWJ with Al-Shabaab, while Fahad’s old mentor, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys (under comfortable “house arrest” in Villa Somalia) praised Al-Shabaab for being monotheists, in contrast with ASWJ’s “polytheist idolaters”.
Such sectarian hyperbole also helps to explain why Villa Somalia has been loath to share external support, and especially security assistance, with the FMS. Jubaland and Puntland would, for certain, have put such resources to good use combating Al-Shabaab. Even the other FMS, despite their political affiliations with the FGS, would have found it hard to prevent locally recruited Daraawiish forces from taking the fight to Al-Shabaab on their home turf. Even Galmudug’s own Daraawiish, operating essentially as a community defence force, engaged in several pitched battles against Al-Shabaab in the months prior to Guri’el– without the support of the FGS. Villa Somalia declines to devolve combat capabilities to the FMS, not – as FGS leaders like to repeat – simply because they might turn against Mogadishu, but because they would almost certainly employ them against Al-Shabaab.
By the same token, Farmaajo’s deliberate failure to advance the constitutional review process, and stunting of the development of a functional federation, as well as forsaking of any pretext of an electoral system, all serve to strengthen Al-Shabaab’s hand at a future bargaining table. Prior agreement between the FGS and FMS on these vital issues, enshrining them in a completed constitution and complementary legislation, would leave little space to accommodate Al-Shabaab’s demands. Entering a dialogue with these matters unresolved would award Al-Shabaab carte blanche to re-negotiate all aspects of the state building process.
Bringing Al-Shabaab into government would also solve another wicked problem that many Western governments feel strongly about: AMISOM. Integrating jihadist fighters into the Somali security sector would obviate the need for an international peace enforcement operation. Bilateral train-and-equip missions for Somali security forces might continue far into the future, but the enormous cost and commitment required to sustain the AU mission would finally come to an end.
Since the late 2000s, relations between Al-Itihaad’s two main successors – Al-I’tisaam and Al-Shabaab – had been strained nearly to the breaking point by public spats and mutual betrayal. Fahad saw not just an opportunity for reconciliation, but also to establish himself as an Islamist kingpin
As long as Fahad holds the reins of power in Villa Somalia, negotiations with Al-Shabaab would consign Somalia to one-party rule under a reunified Al-Itihaad: a post-jihadist state in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan on the Gulf of Aden. That might sit well with some donor nations, but it is far less clear how it would be received by the Somali population. Although many have adopted Salafi beliefs and practices in the private and social spheres, the prospect of a totalitarian political system underpinned by ideological intolerance and policed by religious zealots is another proposition entirely.
Even more importantly, from the callow perspective of those who advocate stability as an end in itself, is whether such a dispensation would in fact bring enduring stability to Somalia and the region. None of Somalia’s neighbours is likely to be at ease sharing borders with a post-jihadist government that espouses radically different geopolitical perspectives and priorities. The level of discomfort would likely be even higher in those nations that host well-established chapters of Al-I’tisaam, chiefly Kenya and Ethiopia.
More distant foreign powers would likely share such concerns: the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are all deeply hostile to Islamist political movements and especially to those that carry Al-Sahwa’s DNA. Cosy relations between Mogadishu, Doha, and Ankara would only heighten apprehension in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo – at least as long as the two camps remain strategic competitors across north Africa and much of the Middle East.
Conviction Not for Crime, but for Heresy
I’m not entirely sure what my FGS accusers were hoping to achieve, but life has changed little since I became a convicted felon. I’m still at liberty, my assets haven’t been frozen, and I face no travel ban. My family hasn’t spurned me, and I’ve been allowed to keep my old job. My colleagues and friends are sympathetic, and I’ve gained a few new ones on social media. The support and solidarity I’ve received from unexpected quarters has given me a small taste of that special kind of sympathy usually reserved for political prisoners — mercifully without actually having to go to prison.
If prosecution was intended to muzzle me or my colleagues, it has clearly backfired: the preceding pages offer a foretaste of the story that Villa Somalia had hoped would never be told. None of this information constitutes a national secret or is otherwise protected by law. Much of it has already been reported – albeit in disparate, disconnected fragments – by reputable Somali and international media houses. Few politically conscious Somalis, whether they support or oppose the FGS, will find any of it new or surprising. As an analyst, my only crime has been to arrange these pixels of information into what I hope is a consistent and compelling portrait: to organise the facts and present them in a way that is relevant to policy makers, both Somali and foreign, and that helps to ensure that decisions on the way forward – especially with respect to engaging Al-Shabaab — are based on evidence and reason – not sloth and expediency.
Like any other members of my audience, the current leaders of Somalia’s federal government – whether they hold those positions legitimately or not — may choose not to read what I have written. They may read it and disagree, and they might even decide to respond. They may try to sue me, under applicable laws and in an independent court. But to concoct a show trial, to lay charges without evidence or right of reply, and to convict me in absentia and ultra vires? These are the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime with a hidden agenda.
Such intrigues say far more about the cabal currently squatting in Villa Somalia than they do about me or the organisation I work with. And they appear to confirm, no doubt inadvertently, the conclusions I have reached in this article: that Somalia’s state building process has been hijacked by an ideological faction well practised in the arts of deceit and dissimulation – taqqiya.
The only threat to Somalia’s national security at issue here is the one that Farmaajo, Fahad, their accomplices and enablers collectively pose to the nation’s future: a creeping coup orchestrated by an absolutist clique that brooks no dissent or opposition, and whose dystopian theological worldview construes the truth, when it is inconvenient or inconsistent with their narrative, to be not simply a crime, but heresy.
How a Zimbabwe Tycoon Made a Fortune From a Trafigura Partnership and Spiralling National Debt
Kudakwashe Tagwirei, who is close to Zimbabwe’s president and his inner circle, leveraged his privileged access to fuel and mining markets to strike a lucrative partnership with commodities giant Trafigura. Sanctioned by the U.S. and U.K. for corruption, Tagwirei continued to do business by relocating his network to Mauritius.
- Tagwirei has earned at least $100 million in fees from a partnership with Swiss-based Trafigura. Together, they have profited extensively by dominating Zimbabwe’s fuel market since 2013.
- Trafigura quietly extended $1 billion in loans to the Zimbabwean government, at exorbitant interest rates.
- As controversy grew, Tagwirei moved his business network offshore to Mauritius, where he secured a new near-monopoly fuel deal with the government. He is still active in mining and fuel deals in Zimbabwe.
- Government officials appear on key company records and Tagwirei’s own correspondence, indicating that there might be more powerful people behind the network
When Zimbabwe’s long-ruling strongman Robert Mugabe was forced to resign in 2017, his downfall was greeted by jubilant crowds hopeful that decades of misrule and corruption were finally coming to an end.
His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, set off on an international tour to declare Zimbabwe “open for business.” Sporting a scarf knitted in the five colors of the country’s flag, he assured world leaders that all that was needed to jumpstart Zimbabwe’s moribund economy was new leadership and an infusion of foreign investment.
Four years on, Mnangagwa’s promised “New Dawn” has not arrived. Instead, Zimbabwe’s economy remains in tatters. Public debt — much of it illegally accrued — has ballooned, a lack of foreign currency and fuel shortages continue to cripple the economy, and the value of Zimbabwe’s local currency has plummeted.
The turmoil has not been without its winners, though. One man in particular has prospered from the state’s largesse: Kudakwashe Tagwirei, a tycoon known locally as “Queen Bee” because of his vast economic influence.
Under Mnangagwa’s reign, the businessman came to dominate Zimbabwe’s fuel, platinum, and gold sectors. Benefitting from opaquely awarded government contracts worth billions of dollars and preferential access to minerals as well as scarce foreign currency, Tagwirei’s network also got huge state loans he used to enrich himself while indebting the Zimbabwean public.
Those came from a surprising source that proved a key player in Tagiwirei’s network: Zimbabwe’s central bank. At least $3 billion in treasury bills issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe — which may have had no legal authority to do so — were awarded to Tagwirei’s group between 2017 and 2019, a parliamentary report said, with the group then funneling the windfall into a massive expansion that included a mining acquisition spree at bargain bin prices. As the country’s currency crashed, Tagwirei’s fortunes soared.
But it’s not clear if Tagwirei is the sole, or even the main beneficiary of this largesse. The presence of a handful of state officials in some of the network structures imply he is also a proxy for others. Since 2019 the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s governor, John Mangudya, was even named in Tagwirei-connected corporate trusts. Insiders say Tagwirei is close both to President Manangagwa and his deputy General Constantino Chiwenga.
Besides the government, one foreign company also played a critical role in Tagwirei’s rise over nearly a decade: Swiss-headquartered commodity trader Trafigura Group Pte Ltd. Trafigura formed a joint venture with Tagwirei as far back as 2013 that gave the company priority access to the country’s fuel infrastructure and supply business through Tagwirei’s local influence. Tagwirei’s links to Trafigura, his business successes at home, and U.S. and U.K. sanctions against him have attracted critical press coverage in recent months.
Now, using contracts, invoices and email correspondence between Tagwirei’s network, former Trafigura officials involved in the joint venture, and government officials, OCCRP can reveal new details of how Trafigura and Tagwirei’s partnership worked.
OCCRP learned that Trafigura paid Tagwirei at least $100 million in fees through early 2018 for his help in creating a dominant position in the Zimbabwean fuel market. Their joint venture, initially called Sakunda Supplies and later renamed Trafigura Zimbabwe, would do this by advancing massive cash prepayments and fuel to the government in exchange for significant control over the Zimbabwean market and priority use of the state’s fuel pipelines.
“Only one set of interests controls the fuel: Trafigura and Tagwirei,” Zimbabwe’s former finance minister, Tendai Biti, told OCCRP.
The joint venture would last until December 2019, when Trafigura bought out the soon-to-be-sanctioned Tagwirei.
Only one set of interests controls the fuel: Trafigura and Tagwirei. ~ Tendai Biti, Former Zimbabwean Finance Minister
But the partnership may have been too lucrative to discontinue.
Instead, Trafigura sought to continue its relationship with Tagwirei via Sotic International Ltd., a new company that he had set up in Mauritius, and associated shell companies fronted by South Africa-based directors, several of whom were former Trafigura employees.
In an email to OCCRP, Tagwirei said, “Some of the questions you raise are an embarrassing demonstration of an apparent lack of understanding of the issues you purport to investigate … I unequivocally deny all the accusations and allegations you are making against me in your email.”
Wilfred Mutakeni, head of Zimbabwe’s National Oil Infrastructure Company, the regulatory agency that provided the joint venture its dominant rights, did not respond to a request for comment.
In a response to OCCRP, a Trafigura spokesperson said, “Trafigura exited our business relationships with Mr Tagwirei in December 2019, prior to US sanctions being imposed, through the purchase of [[Tagwirei’s stake]]. All commercial arrangements are conducted in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Trafigura is one of a number of suppliers to Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. There is no exclusivity or market dominance.”
Trafigura said OCCRP’s details were “factually inaccurate,” but declined to answer specific questions about advance payments, payments to Tagwirei, or the purchase price of his shares. The company said “commercial arrangements are commercially sensitive and as such, are confidential.”
On Harare’s bustling streets, where centuries-old churches compete for space with modern high-rises, one building stands above its neighbors. Century Towers, an imposing glass structure perched next to one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, houses the main office of Tagwirei’s holding company for his share of the joint venture, Sakunda Holdings Private Ltd, on several floors – including the 15th. One floor below are the offices of Zimbabwe’s energy regulator.
This proximity hints at the closeness critics say allowed Tagwirei to make a fortune from preferential government contracts.
Tagwirei originally signed a contract in 2011 with the National Oil Infrastructure Company of Zimbabwe (NOIC) that gave him many of the rights he would later share with Trafigura.
In July 2013, Tagwirei and his companies Sakunda Holdings and Sakunda Trading agreed to sell access to their existing petroleum contract with NOIC to Trafigura, affording it 49 percent of the shares of a new joint venture.
They agreed to form Sakunda Supplies, based in Zimbabwe, which would hand Trafigura a host of benefits, including preferential access to the crucial Beira pipeline from Mozambique. NOIC, which had initially awarded Sakunda Holdings the deal in 2011, confirmed in a 2018 letter that Trafigura was entitled to all the benefits enjoyed by Sakunda.
Trafigura’s Deals with Sakunda and Tagwirei
Contracts that Tagwirei and his company, Sakunda Holdings, signed with Trafigura.
In return, a service agreement between Trafigura and Tagwirei, ratified in 2014, granted a $12 million signing bonus and a further $12 million for Tagwirei when NOIC provided access to their pipeline and the project launched.
On paper, Tagwirei’s role in the new company was to provide his “significant market experience, network and contact base.” But an insider said Trafigura was simply paying for Tagwirei’s access to powerful figures in Zimbabwe.
“Trafigura provided everything: the capital, the fuel, the expertise,” said former Trafigura Zimbabwe director Christopher Fourie.
“Sakunda [Holdings] – by which I mean just a few front guys under Tagwirei – were the political connections to the reserve bank, the president. Their aim was to keep profits low in Zimbabwean operations and pay Tagwirei offshore,” said Fourie, who later served as CEO and shareholder of another one of Tagwirei’s companies.
“A Captive Market”
In November 2013, just a few months after the joint venture was formed, Trafigura made the first in a series of cash advances to the Zimbabwean government’s pipeline operator.
Confidential documents show that, over the course of the next six years, Trafigura and its joint venture came up with at least $1 billion in prepayments to NOIC.
In exchange, Trafigura Zimbabwe got priority access to Zimbabwe’s key oil pipeline. In 2018 the joint venture paid what appears to be a favorable price of $1.24 per barrel moved. It costs about $2.19 a barrel to transport oil through the Feruka pipeline from Beira in Mozambique to Harare. Meanwhile Trafigura Zimbabwe earned up to 40 percent gross profits for the supply of oil — all with sparse competition and all negotiated opaquely.
A December 2018 amendment of the joint venture agreement sets out credit facilities made available by Trafigura’s head office to the government of Zimbabwe, including loans of $50 million and $13.6 million.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe guaranteed NOIC’s repayments of the advances, which were to be made in foreign currency. The interest if NOIC were to fail to pay its monthly obligation was a hefty 16 percent, which was to be compounded against the full outstanding sum, repayable immediately and in full. Zimbabwe is chronically short of foreign currency and heavily in debt, and has struggled to repay its obligations.
“If these terms are correct, 16 percent is a very high interest rate,” said Natasha White, an oil researcher at U.K.-based advocacy group Global Witness. “High interest rates are usually conditions to buffer the risk of non-payment (and are where the traders make their money on these deals).”
Commodity trader prepayments to states and state-backed entities often feature deals based on political connections and lack a tender process, according to White. “This raises serious red flags regarding the government’s decision to enter into them,” she said.
The 2018 agreement specified a base monthly repayment of $5 million until April 2019 and $3.2 million from May 2019 until the total sum of $63.6 million was fully repaid. By the time of the December 2018 agreement, NOIC had received almost $400 million in advances from Trafigura itself, while the total advances of both Trafigura and the joint venture were close to $1 billion, according to an internal Trafigura Zimbabwe document.
Zimbabwe’s central bank governor John Mangudya denied this to OCCRP, claiming the “outstanding balance by 2018 was only $130 million.” He declined to provide term sheets, stating that loan agreements are confidential.
Internal Trafigura Zimbabwe communications underscored the value of the company’s pre-financing of Mnangagwa’s government: “[Trafigura Zimbabwe] expects to maintain its pre-financing arrangements going forward,” as these allowed for the company to maintain “its role as a price leader,” as well as its dominant market position.
According to an internal 2018 company report, Trafigura Zimbabwe was supplying up to 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s required monthly fuel imports. Tendai Biti, the former finance minister and head of the parliamentary committee investigating Tagwirei’s company Sakunda, said the joint venture has supplied more than 80 percent of the country’s total fuel supply. Trafigura Zimbabwe internally labeled their deal as a “captive market.”
In an email to OCCRP, Trafigura said “we do not recognise” OCCRP’s figures for the prepayments, but would not discuss pre-financing arrangements.
“From time to time, Trafigura has agreed credit terms related to the supply of fuel to customers in Zimbabwe and subject to usual commercial terms and confidentiality,” a Trafigura spokesperson said.
Mangudya told OCCRP, “All strategic imports are a priority to the Bank,” and that Trafigura provided “a $390 million fuel line of credit.”
A Potent Partnership
At the heart of the deal was the relationship between Trafigura and Tagwirei, who was paid over $100 million in fees through January 2018, with more than 40 percent of that money going directly to his Swiss and other offshore accounts, according to documents seen by OCCRP.
Tagwirei was paid over $100 million in fees by Trafigura, OCCRP has found. More than 40 percent of that money went directly to his Swiss and other offshore accounts.
The payments made to Tagwirei raise a red flag, according to Global Witness’s Natasha White.
“Red flags include the personal involvement of politically exposed individuals in such deals. It would be extremely concerning if payments have been made into a personal account of Tagwirei by Trafigura, whether or not he was sanctioned at the time,” she said.
Reporters obtained internal emails discussing Tagwirei’s finances, which referenced an offshore account in Switzerland. He opened an account at Geneva-based Pictet Bank on April 17, 2014, about the same time he began to earn fees from his deal with Trafigura, according to a document signed by a bank official.
In addition to fees, Tagwirei received funds from Trafigura for “pipeline gain,” mineral deals, and project management, according to invoices obtained by OCCRP. He was paid in U.S. dollars through Trafigura accounts, including some held at New York-based Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas.
Notably, Tagiwirei’s name may have been concealed from some payments based on invoices seen by OCCRP, due to correspondent banking practices. For transfers in the U.S., the recipient can be identified via the bank names and numbers of African banks where Tagwirei had an account, such as Zimbabwe’s Ecobank. These banks have correspondent links to U.S. banks to allow them to access U.S. dollars; Zimbabwe’s Ecobank, for example, is hosted by New York-based Standard Chartered Bank. By naming only the bank account number on the transfer rather than the account holder, Tagwirei’s name could have been omitted from compliance checks in the U.S.
Trafigura publicly cut ties with Tagwirei just before the businessman was sanctioned by the U.S. in August 2020. The U.S. said the move was made in response to the $3 billion allegedly misappropriated by his companies in connection with a flagship farming program called Command Agriculture.
Following years of hyperinflation and land grabs under Mugabe, then a devastating 2016 drought, Zimbabwe introduced the Command Agriculture program to bolster food security. The Central Bank funded the program using Treasury Bills — a form of short-dated, government-backed security — that ended up creating billions of dollars of debt and draining foreign exchange reserves. Taxpayers footed the bill.
Tagwirei’s Sakunda Holdings was awarded a $3 billion contract to supply fuel to the Command Agriculture scheme without tender, according to the U.S. government. In March 2020, the company submitted documents to a Zimbabwean parliamentary committee that showed it charged fees of more than 30 percent on a $1 billion contract.
Sakunda was granted so-called T-Bills as a kind of collateral in case farmers in the program failed to repay their credit lines. Tagwirei was then allowed to redeem the debt at a one-to-one ratio with the U.S. dollar rather than, as normal, against the lower value of Zimbabwean bond notes.
Rather than waiting to see how Command Agriculture played out, Sakunda quickly liquidated some Treasury Bills in Zimbabwe and sold others to Zimbabwean commercial banks at a discount. “Sakunda’s deal with the government crashed the currency in July 2019 when they cashed in some Treasury Bills directly with the central bank,” said Biti.
The International Monetary Fund confirmed that 99 percent of agricultural loans under the programme defaulted.
In August 2020 the U.S. sanctioned Tagwirei and Sakunda for corruption. The U.K. followed suit a year later, saying that Sakunda “redeemed Government of Zimbabwe Treasury Bills at up to ten times their official value.”
In December 2019, Trafigura announced it had bought out Sakunda’s 51 percent stake in Trafigura Zimbabwe without disclosing the amount it had paid for the shares. “This will bring improved clarity on Trafigura’s activities in the country,” the company said in a statement. Documents obtained by OCCRP indicate Tagwirei’s shares were worth “449 million” as of November 2018, but the currency is unclear.
Doing Business From Mauritius
Even before Tagwirei and Sakunda were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2020, plans were being laid to establish a new, clean corporate structure that could be used to continue the deal using the Mauritius-based Sotic International and other associated offshore companies.
Trafigura immediately started to do business with this new Mauritius network.
Excel sheets and invoices obtained by OCCRP show Trafigura contracted with and sold fuel to Sotic and its subsidiaries from 2018 onwards.
A 2019 deal between Sotic and NOIC signed by Mangudya, the central bank governor, as a guarantor for NOIC, allowed Sotic to effectively maintain control of the NOIC pipeline. The deal ensured the pipeline existed “solely at Sotic’s benefit” according to an internal email, and included “first rank priority pumping for all Sotic product.”
The Mauritius Connection
From 2018 onwards, Trafigura continued to do business with Tagwirei through Sotic International Ltd., a new company he had set up in Mauritius. Several shell companies associated with Sotic were fronted by former Trafigura employees.
In an email to OCCRP, Mangudya claimed the pre-financing arrangement “was never consummated” and therefore there was “nothing to publicise.” However, a document obtained by OCCRP dated September 2019 shows NOIC asking for the payment from Sotic it was owed based on the deal’s “prepayment facility” guaranteed by the central bank.
Business as Usual
The fuel deal with Tagwirei’s new Sotic company is similar to the arrangement that existed with Sakunda until it was sanctioned by the U.S.
Prepayments worth $1.2 billion were again offered to NOIC, according to a contract between Sotic and Zimbabwe’s central bank governor on behalf of NOIC. The agreement allowed Sotic to effectively maintain control of the NOIC pipeline, ensuring it got “first rank priority pumping,” according to the term sheet.
Under the Sotic-drafted contract terms, Sotic would source foreign exchange of up to $600 million on behalf of the Reserve Bank, with the rest in RTGS currency, a local pseudo-currency that doesn’t trade on international markets and whose exchange rate is artificially set by the government. Minutes of a meeting reveal that $100 to $200 million would be provided by traders like Trafigura over a period of eight years after the initial drawdown.
The guarantor of the agreement was the Reserve Bank, with bank governor Mangudya listed as the contact person.
However, Sotic appeared to shortchange the country once more. By July 3, 2019, a payment of just 814 million RTGS (worth about $2.2 million) had been deposited by Tagwirei’s team into the Reserve Bank’s account — far short of the huge sums of foreign exchange required by the contract. Almost immediately, Sotic began to default on monthly payments. However, the documents show none of this seems to have affected Sotic’s priority status.
A leaked internal Sotic email provides an insight into how the group of companies artificially inflated the prices of their products.
The email shows that a Sotic subsidiary sold a petroleum-based product to Sotic at $590 per metric tonne. Sotic then proposed to sell the product for $820 per metric tonne to Tagwirei’s Zimbabwean structure, Fossil. The January 2019 email notes: “got these numbers from [Tagwirei]…Think the plan is that Fossil sells to the end consumer at $877…”
By moving the product between companies in their group and increasing the price each time, Tagwirei’s network stood to make an estimated $460,000 extra profit on this deal alone.
Friends in High Places
While Tagwirei is often credited as being the mastermind behind his business successes, correspondence between him and others shows he might be a proxy for political interests.
Tagwirei’s businesses appeared to involve President Mnangagwa, or “HE” (His Excellency), as he was sometimes referred to and other government officials. In private WhatsApp correspondence obtained by OCCRP, Tagwirei claimed to beneficially own 35 percent of Sotic, saying the “government” owned the rest.
In email correspondence obtained by OCCRP about payment for a mining deal, Tagwirei seemed to reference Mnangagwa by saying, “HE wants that money to be paid after I show him the directors, owners of Sotic-Documents.”
By the time Sotic was formed, Tagwirei and his associates understood he was a liability and avoided formally linking the businessman to the new network. Documents show Tagwirei’s company formation agent and administrator of his Mauritius companies described how he had to use his pre-existing relationship with the CEO of Mauritian bank AfrAsia to open an account there for Sotic because of the negative press Tagwirei was getting. The new bank accounts allowed Sotic to hold accounts denominated in U.S. dollars and euros, despite the compliance risks associated with Tagwirei. These accounts allowed the company access to US banks through AfrAsia’s correspondent banking.
As the businesses were shuffled, so were the key figures in the network. Tagwirei took a back seat, at least nominally, and proxies including at least one political figure and several South Africans took up key roles.
As revealed by U.S. anti-corruption group The Sentry, and confirmed in documents and emails from May 2019, Zimbabwe’s central bank governor John Mangudya is named as the legal protector of Lighthouse Trust, a co-owner of Sotic at the time. Lighthouse Trust, in turn, was owned by four beneficiary trusts: Amphion (15%), Norfolk (15%), Leonidas (35%), and Alcaston (35%). Mangudya, once again, served as the protector in all of them.
A legal protector is a person appointed to direct or restrain trustees in relation to their administration of a trust. Neither the government nor the Central Bank have disclosed a business interest in Sotic, so it is not clear why Mangudya would play such a role in Sotic-related trusts.
In an email to OCCRP, Mangudya claimed he was not part of the trust structures and was not aware his name had been listed as their legal protector. When asked directly if Tagwirei fraudulently used his name, he declined to respond further. Sotic’s former CEO confirmed to OCCRP that the instruction to include Mangudya came from Tagwirei.
Ronelle Sinclair and Jozef Behr – Sotic’s former head of finance and Trafigura’s former head of Africa trading – were both trustees in the trusts that held part of Sotic.
Former Sotic CEO and shareholder Christopher Fourie said it was clear that Tagwirei retained control over Sotic. Whenever he raised legal or financial concerns, employees invoked Tagwirei.
In an email to OCCRP, former Sotic CEO David Brown claimed he had no involvement in transactions prior to June 2020 and therefore could not comment on irregularities pointed out by reporters. “These matters are largely driven by a disgruntled employee who is part of a history that might well have taken place,” he added.
He also denied knowledge of Tagwirei’s ownership of Sotic group assets prior to that date but added, “Mr Tagwirei is a very prominent business man in Zimbabwe and …an official advisor to Government and being as Government are shareholders in the mining assets, it is hard not to occasionally cross paths.”
OCCRP provided Brown with evidence, including several hundred emails beginning in 2019, and information on major mining deals. Despite stating in an email to other Sotic staff that “[Tagwirei] has asked that I take a greater role,” Brown denied this to OCCRP, saying, “I was not brought in by Mr Tagwirei.”
A representative for Sincler and Behr said they had resigned all duties and were off the board of Sotic International as of June 2020. “Since then, there has been no further association with the business of Kudukwashe Tagwerei.” She also confirmed Behr and Sinclair work for Suzako. A since-removed website for Suzako listed Behr, Sinclair, and Weber as the company’s executive team as recently as May this year.
Yet Suzako was part of Sotic’s network, according to court records. When Sotic CEO at the time David Brown filed an application in South Africa’s high court to stop his predecessor Fourie from talking to the press, he included the full structure of Sotic’s corporate network. The application was quickly withdrawn but not before the companies were disclosed. Sukako was clearly listed as a Sotic company.
While everyone seems to be working hard to separate themselves from Tagwirei and his companies, Fourie is a rare voice who acknowledges crimes were committed and has reported them to the South African reserve bank and others.
“They did not care about the law, about financial crimes being committed. All they cared about was seeing that [Tagwirei’s] orders were executed,” Fourie told OCCRP. “I spoke out against them and I am paying the price.”
This article was first published by our partner OCCRP.
Politics2 weeks ago
Vitu Kwa Ground ni Different! Anticipations, not Policy, Driving LAPSSET
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Fighting the Good Fight: Announcing the Progressive International Observatory
Culture1 week ago
The Politics of Street Names
Reflections1 week ago
The Hidden Lives of the Trees of Amsterdam
Op-Eds1 week ago
I Am Samuel
Culture1 week ago
The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities
Reflections1 week ago
Breast Cancer: The Weight of Waiting
Politics1 week ago
Born Cattle Bandits? Not Us