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Kenyatta’s War on Corruption: Words Won’t Cut It, the Budget Is the Corruption

6 min read.

Corruption in Kenya isn’t about greedy procurement officers, fiddling civil servants, crooked businessmen, shady bankers, thieving politicians. These are merely creatures of an inherently corrupt political system. The current crisis was triggered by the capture of the public finance management system by what we call ‘cartels’. Now broke and in debt from all the looting, Treasury has officially turned against the people. By JOHN GITHONGO.

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Kenyatta’s War on Corruption: Words Won’t Cut It, the Budget Is the Corruption
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The three key issues Kenyans are talking about today when they survey the political scene are corruption; ‘the handshake’ between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta; and, the fate of Deputy President William Ruto as he prepares for a run at the presidency in 2022. For his part, Mr. Kenyatta came out of the handshake in March with a renewed push against the theft and plunder that has characterised his regime thus far. He has issued strong statements against corruption; announced that procurement officers would be asked to step aside and vetted before resuming their positions. Previously he’d even announced that lie detector machines would be introduced into the public service to promote integrity. Most recently, he pronounced public officials (starting with himself) would be subjected to lifestyle audits and that all major public procurements would see their details published in the media including the names of the companies winning the tenders complete with their beneficial owners. All strong stuff especially coming on the back of a series of breathless exposés in the mainstream press of the looting of a range of government bodies, the National Youth Service (NYS) merely being the most egregious and colourful. The scandals have exasperated Kenyans.

Oddly though, all the bold pronouncements are yet to capture the public imagination. Indeed, Kenyans seem sceptical about the President’s anti-corruption crusade. This is partly because he has historically been big on talk and small on action where this particular vice is concerned. Secondly, there is suspicion regarding its timing. Why do now what you were unwilling to do between 2013 and 2017? Thirdly, there is the rather scattershot character of the anti-corruption initiatives announced. This has led some to observe that a series of tactical moves are being employed without a coherent strategy. For example, it is self-defeating to attempt a serious anti-corruption campaign in a society as open as Kenya’s while alienating the media and civil society at the same time. Public opinion is mobilised by civil society, civic society (the churches, professions etc) and the media – not by politicians no matter how well-meaning.

This is partly because Kenyatta has historically been big on talk and small on action where this particular vice is concerned…There is suspicion regarding the timing of the latest war on corruption. Why do now what you were unwilling to do between 2013 and 2017?

The broad scepticism that has greeted Kenyatta’s efforts thus far was best articulated by one of the country’s most experienced progressive politicians, Senator Jim Orengo of Ugenya, speaking before the Senate on May 31st. He warned that the real corruption in Kenya was happening at the highest levels but we Kenyans were afraid to call it out. He essentially asked the president and other top leaders to look around themselves and they would find that the real rot sits in cabinet with them: “In the inner sanctum of power there are people sitting there who should not be sitting there.”

The truth of the matter is that 50 percent of the fight against corruption is related to perceptions. Despite extraordinary efforts to manage the media, the current campaign is yet to capture the public imagination. Until it does Mr. Kenyatta is rolling a stone uphill watched by a disbelieving population. As I said, part of the problem is that it’s clear he doesn’t have a coherent strategy, which makes even simple efforts all the more difficult. Secondly, Kenyatta and his colleagues are victims of an even more serious strategic misinterpretation.

Corruption in Kenya isn’t about greedy procurement officers, fiddling civil servants, crooked businessmen, shady bankers, thieving politicians. These are creatures found in all societies. The issue at hand in the Kenyan context is that these players are born of a system of politics and governance that is itself inherently corrupt; one in which the thieves and those who facilitate them thrive. Indeed, if one were looking at where the next scandals will come from one doesn’t need an army of technicians with polygraph machines. This week the Cabinet Secretary for Finance presented to parliament a Ksh.2.5 Trillion (US$25 billion) budget. The thieving in Kenya starts right here. It is built into the budget. When the budget of the NYS shot up from US$50 million to US$250 million in Jubilee’s last term it was clear that this wasn’t a measure of the NYS’s absorptive capacity or a vast upgrading of this programme but the creation of what was literally a slush fund created to be stolen. This ‘theft-ready’ budget is a product of our politics. Last week the Auditor General, Edward Ouko, told Reuters that corruption across all levels of government threatens the integrity and basic functioning of the state. He said that the corruption was ‘coordinated at a high level’.

This week the Cabinet Secretary for Finance presented to parliament a Ksh.2.5 Trillion (US$25 billion) budget. The thieving in Kenya starts right here. It is built into the budget. When the budget of the NYS shot up from US$50 million to US$250 million in Jubilee’s last term it was clear that this wasn’t a measure of the NYS’s absorptive capacity or a vast upgrading of this programme, but the creation of what was literally a slush fund created to be stolen. This ‘theft-ready’ budget is a product of our politics.

It is time to accept that Kenya’s corruption crisis may in part be caused by the deliberate collapsing of our public finance management system – chunks of it are owned by what have come to be known as ‘cartels’. When this happens the challenge you face is not chasing bribe-soliciting cops on the beat but fixing a situation where the budget itself is the corruption. There are generally three types of corruption: petty corruption that is often extortion by public officials for small considerations to overlook minor infractions or expedite the delivery of services already paid for in your taxes. Grand corruption that typically involves senior officials conspiring with private sector players to skim off public works projects of one kind or the other. There is a third type of ‘corruption’ that I call looting or economic delinquency on the part of the elite. In this type of thieving the pretence of a project to skim off is set aside as elites raid public coffers with impunity and pocket billions. This causes the kind of macroeconomic effects we are seeing in Kenya as our foreign debt soars on account of the looting of a small elite.

It is time to accept that Kenya’s corruption crisis may in part be caused by the deliberate collapsing of our public finance management system – chunks of it are owned by what have come to be known as ‘cartels’. When this happens the challenge you face is not chasing bribe-soliciting cops on the beat but fixing a situation where the budget itself is the corruption.

*******

In 1998 the fight against corruption, which had been a global advocacy campaign since the early 1990s by organisations like Transparency International, entered the mainstream of the global development agenda. There was no development programme in any developing country that didn’t have an anti-corruption aspect; that didn’t say something about transparency, accountability, basic freedoms etc. Even the World Bank whose legal department had previously blocked its officials from mentioning ‘corruption’ broke with tradition and joined the bandwagon. Previously corruption was described as project ‘leakages’ and ‘slippages’.

What had actually happened is that with the fall of the Berlin wall the opening up of political space meant that corruption, bribery and other forms of skulduggery that had been essential to governance during the Cold War found themselves being reported in newly free media, by a public free to associate and speak their minds. Between 1998 and 2008 a series of corruption scandals shook governments across the world. From Kenya to Germany, Peru, South Korea etc. In Latin America alone between 1998 and 2008, 11 governments fell due to corruption scandals that morphed into political crises of one sort or the other. By the start of this century anti-corruption researchers such as the respected Chilean economist Dani Kauffmann (now of the Natural Resource Governance Institute), argued to Moises Naim in Foreign Policy that with regard to the fight against corruption “Much was done, but not much was accomplished. What we are doing is not working.”

Indeed, corruption was increasingly blamed for all societal ills. More recently we’ve seen corruption scandals cause political shakeups in India, Mexico, Brazil, Bulgaria, Thailand, Guatemala, South Koreas etc. In Kenya we face a crisis in the health and education sectors; we are unable to create jobs for a majority of our youth. Unsurprisingly, corruption is the easiest to blame for what are sometimes failures caused by incompetence, a lack of capacity and the inability of the ruling elite to define the national interest separate from their own commercial interests.

Between 1998 and 2008 a series of corruption scandals shook governments across the world. From Kenya to Germany, Peru, South Korea etc. In Latin America alone between 1998 and 2008, 11 governments fell due to corruption scandals that morphed into political crises of one sort of the other. By the start of this century anti-corruption researchers…argued…that with regard to the fight against corruption: “Much was done, but not much was accomplished. What we are doing is not working”.

In Kenya, a serious effort to delineate personal interests from national ones would go a long way to dealing with our corruption problem. Conflict of interest was entrenched in our public service by the infamous Ndegwa Commission report of 1972 and we’ve been paying for it ever since. Most recently it is the poor who are paying most for it. The budget this week saw a cash-strapped regime under the gun of the IMF increase taxes on basic commodities in part to pay for the cynical profligacy of the elite since 2013. Ironically, Kenya’s constitution has created a legal infrastructure that should make the kind of economic delinquency and looting that’s in evidence impossible. But breathing life into a constitution requires political will that still seems to be lacking. In the meantime anti-corruption campaigns will be embarked on full of drama, gimmicks, speeches and technical fixes to problems that have much to do with the fact that our elites refuse to let governance institutions work, as they should. As a result, they are struggling to engineer the public sympathy and support essential to make the changes that need to happen.

Research by Juliet A. Attelah

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

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Land Title and Evictions in the Supreme Court of Kenya

Violent evictions of families from their homes are not exceptional events. They go to the heart of Kenya’s political economy and its long history of valorising the rights of those who hold private title.

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The Supreme Court of Kenya published its judgment in William Musembi v The Moi Educational Centre Co. Ltd. on the 16th July 2021. The case arose after fourteen families — the residents of two informal settlements, City Cotton and Upendo village in Nairobi — petitioned the High court following their evictions in 2013. They had lived on the land since 1968 when it was public land. The first respondent claimed that they had legitimately acquired title to the land by letters of allotment and that the land was therefore private land. According to Amnesty Kenya, the evictions began in the early morning, without warning. Groups of young men burst into homes. Four hundred homes were demolished and personal possessions were destroyed. Crowbars and sledgehammers were used. The police were present. They fired live ammunition and used teargas canisters during the operation.

In the High Court, Judge Mumbi Ngugi held that the petitioners’ rights to dignity, security, and adequate housing had been infringed. There had been a violation of the rights of children and elderly persons under the constitution. She awarded damages. At the Court of Appeal this judgment was partially set aside. While accepting that there had indeed been violations of the rights to dignity and security, the Court of Appeal nonetheless set aside the order of damages arguing that “there was no material before the court on the basis of which the orders for compensation were made” and that, because it was unable to work out how the damages had been quantified, “the only relief that should have commended itself to the trial Court was a declaration that the forced eviction and demolition of their houses without a Court order is a violation of their right to human dignity and security.” Following this, the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court.

Importance of the Supreme Court judgment

The importance of this case is, as Gautum Bhatia has written, that it raised the question whether “the right to accessible and adequate housing could be applied inter se between private parties”. It can thus be distinguished from the same Supreme Court’s Mitu-Bell Welfare Society v The Kenya Airports Authority, which ruled on evictions from public land.

Amongst several issues for determination, the petitioners in the present case asked the court to reach a determination of the question whether the letter of allotment held by the first respondent, the Moi Educational Centre, was issued lawfully or legally. Because that question had not been conclusively determined at the High Court or at the Court of Appeal, the petitioners sought “a declaration that the acquisition of the suit property was illegal and unlawful.”

The Supreme Court declined to do this. Arguing that in the High Court Judge Mumbi Ngugi had been right in holding that the question of the propriety of the first respondent’s title was a matter for the National Land Commission and that it is the Land and Environment Court that properly has jurisdiction over this question, the Supreme Court held in William Musembi that “the title of the first respondent remains unimpeached”. Instead, it held, the only question it ought to determine was whether, in evicting the petitioners, the respondents violated the petitioners’ rights to human dignity and security, as well as the rights to housing and health.

It is on the basis of the “unimpeached” title of the first respondent that the court goes on to make its landmark finding. For determination by the court was the question whether the first respondent, being a private party, could nonetheless be responsible for the violation of constitutional rights. Recognising that “the mandate to ensure the realization and protection of social and economic rights does not extend to the first respondent” because it is a private entity which is not under any obligation to ensure the progressive or immediate realisation of those rights, the court found that private parties do nonetheless have a “negative obligation to ensure that it does not violate the rights of the petitioners.”

For Bhatia, the judgment’s significance lies partly in its finding that “a negative obligation not to interfere with socio-economic rights (such as the right to housing), …applies to both public and private parties” although he argues persuasively that “the distinction between negative and positive obligations is doing a lot of work” and that the concrete practice of evictions significantly blurs the boundary between public and private actors. He rightly notes that “evictions invariably involve concert of action between State forces and private landowners, with the latter relying upon the former (either directly, or through forbearance) to accomplish physically removing people from land.”

Public and private

If the distinction between negative and positive obligations is somewhat artificial, I also want to suggest that Kenya’s history of land grabbing shows that so too is the distinction between the state and private landowners. More than just state forces doing the bidding of private landowners, wielding batons and using bullets to break into homes in the early morning, in Kenya the state/private distinction is a mirage. In William Musembi, the court does not elaborate on the important history of letters of allotment in Kenya and the process by which they enabled public land to morph into private land. Instead, it affirms the first respondent’s title – and proceeds to make an important ruling on the obligations of private actors. However, the history of land grabbing and the murky past of letters of allotment is a critical one to keep at the front of our minds.

For determination by the court was the question whether the first respondent, being a private party, could nonetheless be responsible for the violation of constitutional rights.

The report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/ Irregular Allocation of Public Land established in 2003 set out in forensic detail the illegal and irregular land awards made over the years using the mechanism of the letter of allotment. Awards of land were made to the families of Presidents Kenyatta and Moi, numerous former ministers, members of parliament and civil servants, as well as to individuals in the military and the judiciary. The report sets out how out of proximity to the state, private property owners were created. Public land – land set aside for the building of public health clinics or schools for example – mysteriously turned into private land on which malls, private residences, and diplomatic headquarters appeared. No doubt some individuals acquired perfectly legitimate letters of allotment. But from the 1970s onwards, a thriving market in improper letters of allotment developed. They came to be treated as tradable land documents. Widely but mistakenly used as land titles (with the collusion of lawyers), they changed hands quickly in sales of grabbed land. This was done in order to get the benefit of the principle that an innocent third party for value without notice takes good title. The full extent of this practice is unknown: the Ndung’u Commission warned that its report provided only a snapshot of the illegal/irregular land allocations that had taken place over the years.

I have written elsewhere that land grabbing is sedimented in Kenya’s political economy such that we can describe it as a “grabbed state”. The “normal” economy is founded on accumulation by dispossession. It is not possible to understand Kenya’s political economy without an understanding of how the normal and the supposedly abnormal are pervasively linked. Far from land grabbing being an aberrant phenomenon that can be sharply distinguished from normal business practice, the illegal and irregular appropriation of land structures Kenya’s economy.

Widely but mistakenly used as land titles (with the collusion of lawyers), they changed hands quickly in sales of grabbed land.

There is no operative distinction between the public and the private in Kenya. This makes the judgment in the present case even more consequential: given the history of these murky conversions in title, the judgment’s finding that negative constitutional obligations can attach to private actors is likely to cover a great many potential eviction scenarios. Indeed, I would argue that given the history of land described above, the court should have gone further. Grounding its reasoning in Kenya’s history of land grabbing and the dispossession and discrimination that resulted, it could have held that positive socio-economic obligations (such as providing alternative accommodation) should extend to private parties. Or it might have held that given the extent of land grabbing — which is a matter of public record — the state should not agree to enforce a court order for eviction until it is satisfied that alternative accommodation has been provided.

Entrenching private property

Welcoming the Supreme Court’s judgment, Bhatia has noted that it “continues the welcome trend of judicial scepticism towards entrenched property rights.” The court demonstrated this scepticism by extending negative constitutional obligations to private actors. However, to do so, the Supreme Court moved to confirm the respondent’s title. That title it described as “unimpeached”. The court used this as the basis for setting out the first respondent’s obligations as a private owner. The extension of constitutional obligations to private actors is to be welcomed. But it is important to recognise also that by refusing jurisdiction to question the first respondent’s title – and ruling that this is a matter for another forum – the Supreme Court effectively sanctioned the enclosure of what the appellants claimed was unalienated public land and potentially legitimated the grabbing of public land.

The court does not elaborate on the important history of letters of allotment in Kenya and the process by which they enabled public land to morph into private land.

Instead, the Supreme Court might have used Art. 23 which provides for the authority of courts to uphold and enforce the Bill of Rights, to try to fashion a remedy. It could have expressly referred the question of the integrity of the first respondent’s title to the National Land Commission rather than state as unequivocally as it did that it is unimpeached. At the very least, given the importance of a letter of allotment and the question of title in the case, the court should have rehearsed Kenya’s history of land grabbing and corruption as revealed by the Ndung’u report so as to give it judicial notice and provide a starting point for the wider task of challenging ill-gotten titles by those who might seek to do so.

Reinstating Judge Mumbi Ngugi judgment in the High Court and in particular her finding that damages should be paid to those evicted, the Supreme Court ordered the first respondents, the Moi Educational Centre, to pay fourteen families KSh150,000 (just over 1000 euros) each in damages. The government will also pay each family KSh100,000. In return, unless the National Land Commission or the Land and Environment Court are asked to rule on the propriety of the first respondent’s title and find against them, the Moi Educational Centre now hold unimpeached title to very valuable land in Nairobi. That is quite a windfall.

Violent evictions of families from their homes are not episodic and exceptional events. They go to the heart of Kenya’s political economy and its long history of valorising the rights of those who hold private title, however acquired. How far can the courts be relied upon to undo accumulation by dispossession?

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South Africa Has to Heal Its Troubled Past – and the Time Is Now

If there is no material justice and investment in healing the generations of harm enacted onto South Africans, the rot in the country’s wounds will overcome them.

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South Africa Has to Heal Its Troubled Past – and the Time Is Now
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Social unrest”—though others may prefer “riots and looting,” “food riots,” or “insurrection”—have swept South Africa since Monday. It’s unsettled an already unsettled nation. And as with all South Africa’s heightened moments, our historic fault lines have been re-exposed. Racial and ethnic divisions, class antagonisms, xenophobia, questions of violence and its use. These are some of our wounds that have never been treated. Over the last decades we’ve covered them with patriotic bandages, unity slogans and surface-level performances of a shared national consciousness. But the wounds have opened again now, and as the country bleeds, the rot is open for all to see. Flashing moments tell an incomplete but tragic story of the reality unfolding in our country.

Impoverished communities with limited prospects, rejoice as they leave megastores with stolen food and essential resources. Elderly women are seen taking medication that they otherwise could not afford. A father exits a store with nappies (diapers) for his child. Families that have struggled with eating daily meals suddenly have food for a month.

Elsewhere, in the historically Indian community of Phoenix, an elderly man is surrounded by people from a nearby  informal settlement. He is commanded that he needs to hand over his home, or otherwise will face attacks on his family in the dead of night. In the night, drive-by shootings claim lives as stray bullets shatter family homes.

Armed Indian and white “vigilantes” drive around shooting African people they assume are looters. Hunting them down while recording vicious videos, beating them with sjamboks as the person begs for their lives.

These videos are shared and watched repeatedly across social media, racially charged viewers salivate with a carnal sense of pleasure as one racial group watches the other suffer and bleed.

At least 15 people are killed by armed community members of Phoenix. They blockade roads entering the community, racially profiling people, preventing them from access to functioning supermarkets. Bodies are found in the night. #PhoenixMassacre trends on twitter echoing disgust and outrage at the anti-black sentiment within the South African Indian community.

The home of Thapelo Mohapi, the spokesperson of Abahlali BaseMjondolo, the shack dwellers movement in KwaZulu-Natal that safeguards working-class interests, has his home burnt down on Wednesday morning. Mohapi, like most in Abahlali, is outspoken against ANC corruption and political violence in the country, with Abahlali members often the targets for political killings.

Shacks burnt down in response to the looting. Reports of xenophobic attacks by the rioters. Families terrified as gunshots break their windows. Small community stores torched. Blood banks and clinics ransacked. Essential foods become scarce, gas stations close.

The excitement of people getting access to expensive TVs, furniture, alcohol, and commodities they would not be able to access otherwise. Because in South Africa we know that nice things are reserved for a minority—and you either have to be crazy lucky and gifted, or crazy devious and connected, to escape the poverty cycle.

This is the status quo of our neocolonial, violent and divided country. Every snapshot from the riots reveals a new layer of a tragedy we’re all too familiar with but have made no substantial material effort to address to this point. And now the rot in our open wound has become septic.

In the midst of all this mess and complexity, many are now left trying to make sense of where they stand regarding these riots—with the mask of a shared national consciousness being ruthlessly peeled back — some who thought they understood their political standings are having to rethink their position after being thrust into a violent situation where racial and class perceptions pre-determine their position for them.

Orchestrated or Inevitable?

Acentral question on people’s minds is who is responsible for the unfolding events. How much of it is orchestrated as part of the #FreeZuma campaign that sparked this moment with former President Zuma’s arrest, and how much is simply an overflow from the desperate situation a majority of South Africans find themselves in. The reality is, of course, complex. Reports from activists on the ground and observers indicate the riots are likely made up of multiple forces.

Some are believed to be political agents of the pro-Zuma faction of the African National Congress ANC, using chaos to fight their battle against President Cyril Ramaphosa. These agents are known to have organized the initial demonstrations and are believed by some commentators to continue funding transport for rioters and operating in the background to hamstring the local economy. Some now attribute this orchestrated terror with the targeted burning of key distribution centers, factories, network towers, and trucks.

Others involved are not politically linked to a factional ANC agenda or desire to destabilize the country. They are there because the moment has presented families with access to food under dire circumstances and the opportunity for temporary relief from the dredges of poverty. One may say that their situation is being purposefully manipulated by political agendas, but the material reality of their situation is no less real. Individuals from well-known working class organizations that are strongly anti-ANC in all forms have reported taking part in looting as the moment allowed for sorely needed aid to struggling communities.

And of course, with any mass gathering, there are simply those criminal elements who use the moment with malicious intent, stirred by past and present grudges, looking to impose power and fear on those they see as “other.” Yet, these malicious sentiments exist on both the “sides” of the rioters and those responding to them. It is every person’s right and entitlement to defend themselves, their family, and personal property from harm against malicious forces. But much of this defence and protection of what is dear  has morphed into older desires to harm, dehumanize, and kill those considered “other.” How much of our violence in the name of defence is rooted in the historic rot we’ve left untreated from colonialism, apartheid, and a world that hates poor people?

Military intervention

Many are in support of the President Cyril Ramaphosa’s position that the army be deployed to quell the riots, looting, and violence. They argue for an armed, militant, and potentially lethal response.

Part of this rationale is in response to the signs of orchestration and mobilization by pro-Zuma political forces. As some of the actions show signs of being organized and targeted strikes, they will not subside organically and so the use of intelligence and organized force would be necessary to intervene. This tactical move acts in support of the President Cyril Ramaphosa and preserving the current status quo of South Africa.

The other reason is that the racial conflict between communities has reached such a heightened state that many fear an echo of the Durban Riots of 1949. With armed vigilantes enacting destruction, racial profiling, and vicious killing onto those they brand “looters”—  and the responsive revenge cycles this opens up—there can be no road that does not lead to further death. And right now there is no Steve Bantu Biko and his dear friend Strini Moodley to lead us back on the path towards a more human face.

However, even in the face of this leadership vacuum, military intervention is short sighted, ahistoric, and temporary at best. The wounds are all open now, the military cannot heal, only repress.

Ultimately the scale and intensity of these riots have very little to do with political infighting within the ANC and the tensions between communities could not be set alight if there was not already kindling of unresolved tensions. The material conditions of South Africa indicate that it’s been ripe for mass political uprising for years now. With grants cut under lockdown, youth unemployment over 70%, service delivery a mess or none existent, trust in government, media and political parties at record lows—there seems to be meagre hope for South Africans on the wrong side of the poverty line—and very little to lose.

Whether it’s an orchestrated plot by devious political agendas, a student throwing poop on a colonial statue or an increase in bread prices as was seen in South America—a spark is all that’s needed to set alight a desperate people.

The best case scenario with military intervention this time is further repression of people’s material frustrations. If people die, the situation becomes further inflamed. When the next spark goes off the riots will be more organized, with living memory of the injustices of this moment. And if not organized by our dysfunctional Left, it will be led by reactionary forces. Most dangerous of all is, as with other examples from history, as military forces play a greater role in a country’s internal policing, they become more used to enacting power over its populace, and ambitious autocrats rise up their ranks in military command.

With military intervention, we admit that the violence and death that will be enacted on the working class populace is worth a return to South Africa’s abnormal normal. The violence of this moment simply transferred back to those who held it silently a week ago.

Repression and military enforcement of a violent status quo is not the answer. Material conditions need to change, people need to be fed, grants need to be returned and our septic wounds that have laid open for centuries need urgent attention.

If there is no material justice and investment in healing the generations of harm enacted onto us—and by us—the rot in our wounds will overcome us. And we will become the rot.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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They Are Watching You: Israeli-Made Spyware Used to Monitor Journalists and Activists Worldwide

The use of spyware to surveil, harass, and intimidate journalists and activists — and those close to them has become a key activity for many governments worldwide.

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They Are Watching You: Israeli-Made Spyware Used to Monitor Journalists and Activists Worldwide
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In Hungary, Szabolcs Panyi exposed spy intrigue and murky arms deals. In India, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta probed the ties between business and political interests. In Azerbaijan, Sevinj Vaqifqizi caught vote-rigging on tape.

Separated by thousands of miles, these journalists have one thing in common: their governments considered them a threat.

All three were among dozens of journalists and activists around the world whose smartphones were infected by Pegasus: spyware made by Israeli firm NSO Group that is able to secretly steal personal data, read conversations, and switch on microphones and cameras at will.

The attacks were revealed by The Pegasus Project, an international collaboration of more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations, including OCCRP, and coordinated by Forbidden Stories.

What Does ‘Selected for Targeting’ Mean?

The phones of Panyi, Thakurta, and Vaqifqizi were analyzed by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and found to be infected after their numbers appeared on a list of over 50,000 numbers that were allegedly selected for targeting by governments using NSO software. Reporters were able to identify the owners of hundreds of those numbers, and Amnesty conducted forensic analysis on as many of their phones as possible, confirming infection in dozens of cases. The reporting was backed up with interviews, documents, and other materials.

The strongest evidence that the list really does represent Pegasus targets came through forensic analysis.

Amnesty International’s Security Lab examined data from 67 phones whose numbers were in the list. Thirty-seven phones showed traces of Pegasus activity: 23 phones were successfully infected, and 14 showed signs of attempted targeting. For the remaining 30 phones, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the phones had been replaced.

Fifteen of the phones in the data were Android devices. Unlike iPhones, Androids do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. However, three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

In a subset of 27 analyzed phones, Amnesty International researchers found 84 separate traces of Pegasus activity that closely corresponded to the numbers’ appearance on the leaked list. In 59 of these cases, the Pegasus traces appeared within 20 minutes of selection. In 15 cases, the trace appeared within one minute of selection.

The strongest evidence that the list really does represent Pegasus targets came through forensic analysis.

Amnesty International’s Security Lab examined data from 67 phones whose numbers were in the list. Thirty-seven phones showed traces of Pegasus activity: 23 phones were successfully infected, and 14 showed signs of attempted targeting. For the remaining 30 phones, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the phones had been replaced.

Fifteen of the phones in the data were Android devices. Unlike iPhones, Androids do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. However, three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

In a subset of 27 analyzed phones, Amnesty International researchers found 84 separate traces of Pegasus activity that closely corresponded to the numbers’ appearance on the leaked list. In 59 of these cases, the Pegasus traces appeared within 20 minutes of selection. In 15 cases, the trace appeared within one minute of selection.

In a series of responses, NSO Group denied that its spyware was systematically misused and challenged the validity of data obtained by reporters. It argued that Pegasus is sold to governments to go after criminals and terrorists, and has saved many lives. The company, which enjoys close ties to Israel’s security services, says it implements stringent controls to prevent misuse. NSO Group also specifically denies that it created or could create this type of list.

But instead of targeting only criminals, governments in more than 10 countries appear to have also selected political opponents, academics, reporters, human rights defenders, doctors, and religious leaders. NSO clients may have also used the company’s software to conduct espionage by targeting foreign officials, diplomats, and even heads of state.

Based on the geographical clustering of the numbers on the leaked list, reporters identified potential NSO Group clients from more than 10 countries, including: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates.

Journalists and Activists in the Crosshairs

In the coming days, OCCRP and other Pegasus Project partners will release stories highlighting the threat of surveillance through misuse of NSO Group software around the world. But to start with, we will focus on some of the most egregious cases: the use of spyware to surveil, harass, and intimidate journalists and activists — and those close to them.

Among those on the list were multiple close relations of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered and dismembered by Saudi operatives in the country’s Istanbul consulate. Forensic analyses show that Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and other loved ones and colleagues were successfully compromised with NSO Group software both before and after Khashoggi’s 2018 killing. (NSO Group said that it has investigated this claim and has denied its software was used in connection with the Khashoggi case.)

Sandra Nogales, the assistant of star Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui, was also targeted with Pegasus through a malicious text message, according to a forensic analysis of her phone.

Aristegui had already known that she was a Pegasus target. Her case was featured in a 2017 report by Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory at the University of Toronto. Still, “it was a huge shock to see others close to me on the list,” Aristegui told The Pegasus Project.

“My assistant, Sandra Nogales, who knew everything about me — who had access to my schedule, all of my contacts, my day-to-day, my hour-to-hour — was also entered into the system.”

Several reporters in OCCRP’s network were among the at least 188 journalists on the list of potential targets. They include Khadija Ismayilova, an OCCRP investigative journalist whose uncompromising reporting has made her a target of the kleptocratic regime of the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev. Independent forensic analysis of Ismayilova’s Apple iPhone shows that Pegasus was used consistently from 2019 to 2021 to penetrate her device, primarily by using an exploit in the iMessage app.

Ismayilova is no stranger to government surveillance. Roughly a decade ago, her reporting led her to be threatened with compromising videos that she learned to her horror had been shot with hidden cameras installed in her home. She refused to back down, and as a result had the footage broadcast across the internet.

But even after this, Ismayilova was shocked by the all-consuming nature of her surveillance by Pegasus.

“It’s horrifying, because you think that this tool is encrypted, you can use it… but then you realize that no, the moment you are on the internet they [can] watch you,” Ismayilova said. “I’m angry with the governments who produce all of these tools and sell it to the bad guys like [the] Aliyev regime.”

Panyi and his colleague András Szabó, both OCCRP partner journalists in Hungary, also had their phones successfully hijacked by Pegasus, potentially granting their attackers access to sensitive data like encrypted chats and story drafts. As investigative journalists at one of the country’s few remaining independent outlets, Direkt36, they had spent years investigating corruption and intrigue as their country became increasingly authoritarian under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Now they found out that they were the story.

For Panyi, the descendant of Jewish Holocaust survivors, something stung in particular: that the software had been developed in Israel, and exported to a country whose leadership regularly flirts with antisemitism.

“According to my family memory, after surviving Auschwitz, my grandmother’s brother left to Israel, where he became a soldier and soon died during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948,” Panyi wrote in a first-person account of learning he had been hacked. “I know it is silly and makes no difference at all, but probably I would feel slightly different if it turned out that my surveillance was assisted by any other state, like Russia or China.”

The alleged surveillance list includes more than 15,000 potential targets in Mexico during the previous government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Many were journalists, like Alejandro Sicairos, a reporter from Sinaloa state who co-founded the journalism site RíoDoce. Data seen by The Pegasus Project show Sicairos’ phone was selected as a target for NSO Group’s software in 2017 shortly after his colleague, prominent journalist Javier Valdéz, was shot dead near RíoDoce’s office.

Others on the list were regular people thrust into activism by Mexico’s chaos and violence. Cristina Bautista is a poor farmer whose son, Benjamin Ascencio Bautista, was one of 43 students abducted in Iguala, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in 2014 and remains missing until this day. The case shook Mexican society to its core and prompted Bautista and other parents to take to the streets in protest, and to assist independent experts in their own investigations.

The vocal stance taken by Bautista and other parents put them directly in the sights of Mexican authorities and Peña Nieto, who denounced the protests as destabilizing the country.

“Oh yeah, they were watching us! Whenever we went, a patrol followed us,” she said.

“They were chasing us.”

A “Natural Tool” for Autocrats

While The Pegasus Project exposes clear cases of misuse of NSO Group’s software, the company is just one player in a global, multi-billion-dollar spyware industry.

Estimated by NSO managers to be worth approximately $12 billion, the mobile spyware market has democratized access to cutting-edge technology for intelligence agencies and police forces that, in years past, could only dream of having it.

“You’re giving lots more regimes an intelligence service,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab. “Like a foreign intelligence service in a box.”

Like many private spyware companies, NSO Group’s stock in trade is so-called “zero-day exploits” — previously undiscovered flaws in commercial software that can allow third parties to gain access to devices, such as mobile phones. Pegasus and other top tools enjoy a particular strength: They are often able to infect devices silently, without the user even having to click a link.

Such tools have given governments the edge amid the widespread adoption of encrypted messaging applications, such as WhatsApp and Signal, which otherwise supposedly allow for users to communicate beyond the reach of state surveillance. Once devices are successfully compromised, however, the contents of such apps become readily available, along with other sensitive data like messages, photographs, and calls. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and microphones means they can be easily accessed by spyware clients as remote recording devices.

While The Pegasus Project exposes clear cases of misuse of NSO Group’s software, the company is just one player in a global, multi-billion-dollar spyware industry.

“In order to bypass [encrypted messaging] you just need to get to the device at one or the other end of that communication,” said Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Pegasus does just that. “Pegasus can do more [with the device] than the owner can. If Signal, for example, encrypts the message… [an attacker] can just record using the microphone, or take screenshots of the phone so you can read [the conversation]. There is virtually nothing from an encryption standpoint to protect against this.”

In fact, there isn’t much anyone can do to protect themselves from a Pegasus attack. Guarnieri is skeptical of applications that claim they are completely secure, and instead recommends mitigating the risks of spyware by practicing good cybersecurity hygiene. “Make sure to compartmentalize things and divide your information in such a way that even if an attack is successful, the damage can be minimized.”

At its heart, The Pegasus Project reveals a disturbing truth: In a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, governments have a simple, commercial solution that allows them to spy on virtually whoever they want, wherever they want.

“I think it’s very clear: Autocrats fear the truth and autocrats fear criticism,” said Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab.

“They see journalists as a threat, and Pegasus is a natural tool for them to target their threats.”

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