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State of the Nation: Corruption: A Brief History – 1997 to 2018

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By the twilight of the Moi era, the effects of economic plunder had restructured Kenyan society. 20 years on, under UhuRuto, corruption is better dressed, digitised and speaks finer English. No family is untouched by it. For the millennial generation, the social and economic effects of moral collapse have profound personal consequences. By JOHN GITHONGO

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State of the Nation: Corruption: A Brief History - 1997 to 2018
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My brief sojourn in government from 2002 until 2005 began on the wave of an anti-corruption agenda that Kenyans had bought into. The NARC coalition that swept into power at the end of 2002 was really no more than a collection of rebelling KANU politicians who had the backing of civil society and the religious fraternity fired up by wananchi utterly exhausted with 24 years of President Daniel arap Moi’s stagnating regime. NARC also had a solid economic plan and an anti-corruption platform. For some months in government part of my job in the Office of the President was helping to manage the contradictions caused by citizens arresting policemen and civil servants caught soliciting bribes. The Public Complaints Unit (PCU) that eventually became the Ombudsman’s office emerged out of this in 2003/4.

We were all excited at the possibilities of transformation. The administration was full of leading ‘reformers’, among them Kiraitu Murungi, Anyang Nyong’o and Raila Odinga. And those who were not in government were advising it: Makau Mutua, Maina Kiai, Gibson Kamau Kuria, David Ndii, Kivutha Kibwana to name only a few. They all occupied the same space in the State. Harris Mule, David Ndii and Caleb Opon put together the Economic Recovery Strategy.

However, we learnt quickly that while we were in office, we were not in power. While the anti-corruption push, led from the front by President Mwai Kibaki, started with a bang it faltered within eight months. From my vantage point in the Office of the President there were three immediate reasons for this.

First of all, the nexus of the Office of the President (which included all security and defense agencies) and the Ministry of finance was the fulcrum of corruption in Kenya. And it was from here that a gaggle of civil servants engineered a successful counter-reform effort. Through a series of circulars, directives, committees, commissions and endless meetings, the fight against corruption was bureaucratised, effectively reduced to an annual laundry list by the anti-corruption authority of what they mostly hadn’t achieved, and the odd court appearance by suspects wearing broad smiles and expensive suits. The public treated the emerging charade with deepening derision.

We learnt quickly that while we were in office we were not in power. While the anti-corruption push, led from the front by President Mwai Kibaki, started with a bang it faltered within eight months.

This bureaucratisation was sealed when Kenya ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2003 – a case of policy surrender if ever there was one. The expertise of the World Bank, IMF and other donors in this area was unchallenged, programmatised and affirmed. Our political class had outsourced anti-corruption. This was ironic given the improvements in economic management that gave the regime considerable leeway to define the fight against graft within our own particular African political reality.

Secondly, some of my own colleagues were essentially ‘bought off’ or overcome by greed, all rigorously and robustly justified. Some were refreshingly honest about it. One cabinet minister told me directly, “After 10 years in the opposition we have to eat, John, and if it means shaking down banyanis – sawa!” Others – much to my surprise, it was the ones who’d been most vocal against the ‘Moi dictatorship’ and were activists for good governance, transparency, human rights etc – degenerated into very basic ethnic chauvinists. One colleague, who has done very well for himself and his practice since 2003 to date – whispered to me one evening in Kikuyu: “We have arrived! This thing is ours John. We can never let it go.” He was as, as they say, a grown ass man, as excited as a child allowed into the cookie shop at night. For this lot ‘eating’ was a tribal right that had been earned by years in Moi’s political wilderness.

Much to my surprise, those who’d been most vocal against the ‘Moi dictatorship’ and were activists for good governance, transparency, human rights etc, deteriorated into very basic ethnic chauvinists. One colleague, who has done very well for himself and his practice since 2003 to date – whispered to me one evening in Kikuyu: “We have arrived! This thing is ours We can never let it go.”

I remember one group of senior colleagues who’d been given an all-expenses paid trip to Asia. They returned with new clothes, expensive watches and their skins glowing from massages and other ‘treatments’ that had been laid on. Before long if you wanted to chat with a senior colleague about something urgent it was easier to catch them at the building site of a house that was being expanded or built from scratch. Or even better, at the home of a second wife or concubine, where the mood was far more relaxed.

Thirdly, there were those for whom state power had always been about business – ‘reforms’ were an after-thought. Many of them were former bureaucrats who’d gone into politics. Some of them were old-school types – bright, well educated, experienced and systematic in the affairs of government. It was utterly fascinating watching them slip and slide. At first everyone tried to be at all the important policy meetings, to contribute to the great changes underway. Among these were some of the key players around the President – the so-called Mount Kenya mafia. Within months though, they started to spin away. The amount of time dedicated to official business declined. They stopped picking up their phones. They would eventually be tracked down at country clubs, or meeting bankers, architects, lawyers – transacting.

 

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Earlier this week President Kenyatta, while addressing the 8th Presidential Roundtable Forum hosted by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA), railed against corruption condemning the vice and noting accurately that it had the potential to undermine his Big Four agenda ‘and completely destroy the country’.

Of all Kenya’s heads of state, Kenyatta has been by far the most articulate against graft – and the least successful in fighting it. Painfully aware of this stark dichotomy, he has sometimes launched angry tirades and, at other times, defeated proclamations with regard to the rampant theft and plunder his regime has overseen.

These failures were never more apparent than when Kenyatta delivered his fifth State of Nation address to parliament earlier this month: Watching his speech, I was struck by the extent to which despite his proclamations and purported actions with regard to graft since 2013, the Kenyatta regime is stuck in a situation and condition very similar to that of Moi in 1997 despite vastly different circumstances.

By the late 1990s the Moi regime had literally emptied the public coffers. The giant Nyayo Era patronage machine was operating under the constraints of the IMF and World Bank’s stringent fiscal policy supervision. Teams of technocrats sent from Bretton Woods were drafting policy, dictating budgets and keeping a watchful eye on the till. But somehow the Nyayo Machine found a way. Taking advantage of the Bretton Woods’ prescribed massive offloading of public assets – especially land, houses and other assets owned by parastatals, the railways, universities, etc – they literally dished these out to themselves. Some of these assets were disposed of and quickly entered the bloodstream of the banking sector. The building boom in Nairobi’s Upper Hill harks back to this time. Many of the current shenanigans in the NSSF, NHIF, telecoms and power sector were seeded in the ‘liberalisation’ and ‘privatisation’ processes that were pushed through back then. It’s worth noting that the current anti-corruption agency was itself a creature of this IMF-Nyayo compromise.

The giant Nyayo Era patronage machine was operating under the constraints of the IMF and World Bank’s stringent fiscal policy regime. But somehow it found a way. Taking advantage of the Bretton Woods’ prescribed massive offloading of public assets – especially land, houses and other assets owned by parastatals, the railways, police etc – cronies literally dished these out to themselves. Some of these assets were disposed of and quickly entered the bloodstream of the banking sector. The building boom in Nairobi’s Upper Hill harks back to this time.

The impact of the regime’s plunder back then was to restructure society in ways reminiscent of what’s happening today. While newspapers regularly carry headlines on the latest scandals Kenyans have become numb to them. Economist David Ndii recently observed that ‘the Uhuruto kleptocracy has plundered Ksh. 350 billion (US$3.5 billion) since 2013, ranking fifth in the world kleptocracy league table, right behind Mobutu and Abacha  (US$5 billion), Ferdinand Marcos (US$10 billion) and Indonesia’s Suharto at US$35 billion’.

The logic of the looting since 2013 has been different, however. It is driven by a Faustian pact between the Kikuyu elite led by Uhuru Kenyatta and the Kalenjin elite organised around Deputy President William Ruto. It was a pact forged out of the 2007/8 Post-Election Violence and the subsequent International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments. It has turned out to be the most expensive political coalition in Kenya’s history and one that has liberalised corrupt activity to an extent that for a generation of millennials it has been normalised

 As I said, the 1990s was a similar time in terms of theft and plunder in Kenya. The regime deliberately ensured it was so pervasive – that everyone was touched by it. As a result, many Kenyans were gripped by a moral paralysis. Today, the elite has gorged so wildly and widely that there is no one who isn’t affected by it in very practical ways. This is especially true of the urban middle class, historically the primary articulators of the country’s governance-related aspirations. Because, almost every family today has a wheeler-dealer flashing rapidly accumulated wealth while being reticent about discussing its sources. We all have a cousin with a ‘ka-contract’ of the NYS, Kenya Power & Lighting variety; a nephew who’s paying the odd kickback to keep business going and justifying it with persuasive arguments. Many of us have a relative or a friend sleeping with so-and-so for this and that, in these deeply unequal times where a weekly sexual escapade, no matter how distasteful, can totally transform one’s life and that of their family.

Today, the elite has gorged so wildly and widely there is no one who isn’t affected by it. This is especially true of the urban middle class…[A]lmost every family today has a wheeler-dealer flashing rapidly accumulated wealth while being reticent about discussing its sources. We all have a cousin with a ‘ka-contract’ of the NYS, Kenya Power & Lighting variety; a nephew who’s paying the odd kickback to keep business going and justifying it with persuasive arguments.

We all have Harambees for medical bills, school fees and other domestic crisis where the preferred guests of honour are those closest to the plunder. And so, a toxic cloud hangs over even the best of us. Many single malts are downed justifying why things have to be the way they are while simultaneously decrying the situation.

Part of the genius of crony capitalism and theft-fed plunder is to ensure as many people are touched by it as possible even if all it means is owing a favour.

The real difference between the present and the 1990s is that the normalisation of plunder is better educated, better dressed, speaks finer English, is digitised and has aspirations equivalent to their metropolitan counterparts in the West. The architecture of theft is conceived not by whispering bureaucrats and politicians in drinking dens but well coiffured lawyers, accountants, bankers, lawyers and the exotic breed of ‘investment advisors’ with MBAs who invest in the arts, join wine tasting clubs and are as impressive when discussing the Kenyan Stock Exchange as they are holding forth on Brexit. Corruption smells better in 2018, it is better dressed and better read. That said, there is still a vicious model of extortion for corrupt purposes that has become prevalent at top levels of the regime.

Ultimately, the plunder Jubilee has unleashed is constructed on a bed of conflict of interest that necessarily involves rotting the public services sector, acquiring publicly-owned bodies on the cheap via privatisation exercises, and then corporatising the new private outfits through mergers and partnerships with global multinationals. This is best exemplified by the binge on foreign debt and the international cast of suspects that attend to it.

Just as the Arab Spring terrified authoritarians around the world closer to home, impatient millennials are pressuring the politics. They are at once cynical about change and desperate for it. Their university degrees are increasingly meaningless. They realize that you only get ahead if you are part of a racket or in the neighbourhood of one.

And yet one gets the distinct feeling that the elite realises the game cannot continue forever. Just as the Arab Spring terrified authoritarians around the world, closer home, impatient millennials are pressuring the politics. They are at once cynical about change and desperate for it. Their university degrees are increasingly meaningless. They realise that you only get ahead if you are part of a racket, or in the neighbourhood of one. For them inequality has never been more personally consequential. The Nigerian election in 2015 that saw Muhammadu Buhari ousting Goodluck Jonathan was in part a revolt driven by these forces. We’ve seen a former head of state imprisoned for corruption in South Korea. A couple of weeks ago former South African president Jacob Zuma was in the dock for corruption. This week the Malaysians, for the first time ever, voted the opposition into power led by a 92-year old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. One can’t help the thought that the giant Malaysian 1MDB scandal in that country had something to do with these extraordinary political developments. Elites here too will have to duck and dive to stay ahead.

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John Githongo is one of Kenya’s leading anti-graft campaigners and former anti-corruption czar.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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