Connect with us

Op-Eds

A Question of Power: Why Ethiopia’s Economic Transformation Is a Cautionary African Tale

9 min read.

The arrival of reformist Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, may have only given the ruling EPRDF a stay of execution. At the heart of the political crisis is an old problem: a command economy reluctant to liberalise. State-led infrastructure expansion fuelled a decade of miraculous growth, producing five times more electricity than the country requires. The returns on this investment are not forthcoming. Exports are falling, the Birr has been devalued; a severe forex shortage is underway. Is Ethiopia’s future as Africa’s premier power exporter viable? By DAVID NDII.

Published

on

A Question of Power: Why Ethiopia’s Economic Transformation Is a Cautionary African Tale
Download PDFPrint Article

Something is stirring in Ethiopia. It began with the abrupt resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on February 15. After weeks of backroom dealmaking the EPRDF coalition which has governed Ethiopia with an iron fist since ousting the Derg, Mengistu Haire Mariam’s Marxist dictatorship in 1991, elevated youthful Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister. The new prime minister hit the ground running with a raft of political reforms.

Three years ago, students in the town of Ambo started a protest to oppose a metropolitan development plan that would have incorporated their town and seven others into the capital, Addis Ababa. Ambo is 120 kilometres west of Addis in the Oromia region. They accused the federal government of a top-down land grab that would deprive them of livelihoods and destabilize their communities and culture.

After the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopia adopted an ethno-federalist constitution that even provides for orderly secession. But the EPRDF has sought to run a command-and-control developmental state. The Addis Ababa expansion plan was a head-on-collision between the two—the constitution’s federalist ethno-regional political bargain and the centralizing ideology and power politics of the EPDRF. While the EPRDF is a consociational coalition, it’s the late strongman Meles Zenawi’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which led the liberation war, that wields most of the power in the coalition (and gets most of the spoils). The Tigrayans are a relatively small tribe (six percent of the population) from the north of the country.

The Addis expansion plan, which affected the Oromo and Amhara regions, ignited discontent whose depth the EPDRF clearly underestimated. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million-strong population, with strong grievances of historic marginalization. The Amhara, who constitute just over a quarter of the population, are the erstwhile politically dominant ethnic group. Both Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu were Amhara (his father, originally Oromo, was adopted by an Amhara nobleman). Repression, including massacres, mass incarcerations and a state of emergency, a feature of both Emperor Selassie’s late rule and Mengistu’s Red Terror, returned under a beleaguered EPRDF.

Though unexpected, Desalegn’s resignation was preceded by a softening of the regime, including the release of political prisoners, which Desalegn said was meant to “foster national reconciliation”. The new prime minister is Oromo. His elevation was no doubt intended as an olive branch to the restive region.

The Addis Expansion Plan, which affected the Oromo and Amhara regions, ignited discontent whose depth the EPDRF had clearly underestimated…Repression, including massacres, mass incarcerations and a state of emergency, a feature of both Emperor Selassie’s late rule and Mengistu’s Red Terror, returned under a beleaguered EPRDF.

Hot on the heels of the tectonic shift in the politics have come equally momentous economic pronouncements. State owned Ethiopian Airlines and telecommunications and power utilities and other state corporations are to be partially privatized.

What exactly is cooking in Addis?

In his pronouncement speech, the Prime Minister Abiy spoke of a hard currency crisis. He is quoted in the media castigating his audience, Ethiopian businesspeople, for keeping their hard currency in Dubai and China and asking for their cooperation to resolve the crisis while also threatening unspecified actions on the hoarders of foreign exchange. Instructively, he also disclosed that the political crisis has dented diaspora remittances. Diaspora remittances are Ethiopia’s single largest source of foreign exchange, bringing in US$ 5.5 billion last year, almost double the country’s US$ 3 billion dollar export earnings.

The foreign exchange crisis is not new. In October last year, Ethiopia devalued the currency by 15 percent. While the recent government data shows foreign currency reserves equivalent to 2.3 months import requirements in December 2017, precarious but not dire (3-4 months requirements is the norm), some analysts say the reserves could have fallen below one month’s requirement, which is dire. Last week, the government announced that it had secured a US$1 billion foreign currency lifeline from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), part of a US$3billion aid and investment package. The UAE deal looks like a quid pro quo for Prime Minister Abiy’s de-escalation of tensions with Egypt over Ethiopia’s damming of the Blue Nile. The UAE is a strong ally of Egypt. This sequence of events begins to suggest that the foreign currency crunch is behind the softening of the EPDRF regime.

Prime Minister Abiy spoke of a hard currency crisis. [He castigated] his audience, Ethiopian businesspeople, for keeping their hard currency in Dubai and China and asked for their cooperation to resolve the crisis while also threatening unspecified actions on the hoarders of foreign exchange. Instructively, he also disclosed that the political crisis has dented diaspora remittances. Diaspora remittances are Ethiopia’s single largest source of foreign exchange, bringing in US$ 5.5 billion last year, almost double the country’s US$ 3 billion dollar export earnings.

Ethiopia has run into an old, mostly forgotten, economic development problem: the foreign exchange constraint. In the old days, it was caused by import substitution industrialisation. Import substitution industrialisation, the dominant development strategy for many sub-Saharan African states until the mid-seventies, entailed setting up industries to produce finished goods the country was importing, and protecting them from import competition with trade barriers, import and foreign exchange controls.

The new import substituting industries imported virtually everything from machinery, intermediate inputs, spare parts, technology and even management. The import substituting industry’s foreign exchange requirements ended up exceeding what the country was using to import the finished goods. Most of the import substitution industrializers relied on a few primary commodity exports. They soon found that their export earnings were insufficient to finance the industries.

Foreign exchange became scarce, and self-reinforcing. To circumvent foreign exchange rationing, businesses would hoard foreign exchange abroad through transfer pricing (over-invoicing imports and under-invoicing exports), compounding the primary motive for transfer pricing— tax evasion. One such scheme came to light not too long ago during the unravelling of the Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed corporate icon, CMC, which has since been delisted. It was revealed that the company had maintained a secret account in Jersey to which proceeds of over-invoicing were deposited and paid to its directors offshore. Remarkably, many of the beneficiaries of the scheme were the same bureaucrats who were responsible for enforcing foreign exchange controls.

The 1973 oil-shock and declining primary commodity prices in the ‘70s compounded the external imbalance that import substitution industrialization started. By the early ‘80s, most import substituting countries were on their knees. In some, Tanzania for example, manufacturing ground to a halt.

Ethiopia’s external imbalance and attendant foreign exchange crises emanate from over-investment in infrastructure. Ethiopia adopted an infrastructure-led growth strategy known as the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) in 2010. It has since doubled electricity generation from 1800 to 4200 MW, against peak power requirement of 2000 MW. There is close to 7,000MW of new power projects under construction. The Ethiopia Grand Renaissance dam alone has a capacity of 6450 MW. When these are completed, Ethiopia’s generation capacity will be more than four times domestic demand. The road network has been expanded two-and-a-half fold, from 44 km to 110 km of road per 1000 square kilometres. And there is of course the 670-km Addis-Djibouti railway, and a light rail system for Addis Ababa, operational since late 2015 .

The infrastructure building boom, described in a recent World Bank report as “one of the highest rates of public investment in the world”, turbocharged Ethiopia’s economic growth rate from a respectable 5-6 percent to an exceptional 10 percent per year. But close to a decade on, the anticipated private investment that would enable Ethiopia to pay for it has not materialised. Ethiopia was banking on export processing zones investment, and has built several industrial parks around the country.

Besides failing to attract investment, building booms of this magnitude have the effect of shifting incentives against “tradable” sectors of the economy. This phenomenon is more commonly associated with natural resource booms that economists call Dutch Disease. This is reflected in the decline of Ethiopia’s export to GDP ratio, from 17 percent to eight percent of GDP compared to Sub-Saharan average of 27 percent. Its export to GDP ratio is now the second lowest on the sub-continent after Burundi (6.2%).

Ethiopia has compounded its infrastructure-driven external imbalance with classic import substitution—a massive state-drivend sugar industry expansion. The state-owned Ethiopia Sugar Corporation is currently developing ten large-scale sugar projects that will put a million acres of land under sugarcane production. A capital intensive, low value product with distorted markets and a permanent global glut floating in the high seas, sugar is as bad as import substitution industries get. Yet there is no shortage of export-oriented agriculture investments Ethiopia could have chosen. Oilseeds are Ethiopia’s second largest export earner after coffee. It has a promising livestock and leather apparel industry. Maize even.

The Bretton Woods institutions spent the ‘80s and ‘90s preaching the free market economic orthodoxy known as the Washington Consensus. Ethiopia has done the complete opposite. But the World Bank has been nothing but effusive. In a 2016 report, Ethiopia’s Great Run: The Growth Acceleration and How to Pace it, the World Bank asserts confidently that Ethiopia was on course to become a middle income country by 2025. Astoundingly the World Bank goes ahead to give a thumbs up to the policy regime that its structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) dismantled:

“Heterodox financing arrangements supported one of the highest public investment rates in the world. Three less conventional mechanisms stand out: first, a model of financial repression that kept interest rates low and directed the bulk of credit towards public infrastructure. Second, an overvalued exchange rate that cheapened public capital imports. Third, monetary expansion, including direct Central Bank budget financing, which earned the government seignorage revenues.”

Ethiopia has compounded its infrastructure-driven external imbalance with classic import substitution—a massive state-driven sugar industry expansion. The state-owned Ethiopia Sugar Corporation is currently developing ten large-scale sugar projects that will put a million acres of land under sugarcane production. A capital intensive, low value product with distorted markets and a permanent global glut floating in the high seas, sugar is as bad as import substitution industries get.

Heterodox means unorthodox or unconventional. In plain English, it means distorting credit markets, overvaluing the currency and printing money.

 After all the cheerleading, the Bretton Woods sisters now find themselves in an awkward situation. In its most recent debt sustainability report, the IMF acknowledges that Ethiopia is now staring at a debt crisis. It has no advice to give. Ethiopia’s hopes, it writes, now rest on exporting electricity. The IMF posits that Ethiopia has the potential to earn US$ 1 billion a year from selling electricity.

In reality, Ethiopia is selling a little power to Sudan and Djibouti, and has signed power purchase agreements with Kenya and Tanzania. But these countries are ramping up their own generation capacity. Kenya’s installed capacity is presently 35 percent above peak generation requirements excluding the 340 MW Turkana wind power which is awaiting completion of a transmission line, 55 percent when it is included. There are several other projects underway, and Kenya’s government seems dead set on proceeding with a controversial 1000MW coal plant in Lamu. Ditto Tanzania.

After all the cheerleading, the Bretton Woods sisters now find themselves in an awkward situation. In its most recent debt sustainability report, the IMF acknowledges that Ethiopia is now staring at a debt crisis. It has no advice to give. Ethiopia’s hopes, it writes, now rest on exporting electricity. The IMF posits that Ethiopia has the potential to earn US$ 1 billion a year from selling electricity.

Ethiopia’s biggest electricity customer potentially is Egypt. This may begin to explain the reason for the olive branch. Prime Minister Abiy also made a quick visit to Somalia last week. He might be hoping to sell some electricity there. To flog a billion dollars worth of power, Ethiopia will need to make peace with all her neighbours, and then some. If truth be told, the electricity export bonanza is a fig leaf.

There is a cold reality that the Ethiopian government seems to be still in denial about. Its heterodox macroeconomic regime is now untenable Investors do not like putting their money in places where it is difficult to get out. And now that people know how precarious the situation is, hard currency hoarding and capital flight will get worse, not better.

The competing destinations for the export processing investment that Ethiopia is building industrial parks for do not have exchange controls. And Ethiopia has many disadvantages to overcome, not least, being landlocked, not to mention its byzantine bureaucracy and anti-capitalist instinct. Financial liberalisation is inevitable, a matter of when and how, not if. The Prime Minister talked of the foreign exchange problem being a long term problem. He is dead wrong. He has eighteen months—best case scenario. His options boil down to whether to do big bang or gradual – rather like choosing whether to do your root canals all at once or every other week.

The announced fire sale of family silver will not do it either. Deregulation should precede privatisation otherwise it substitutes public monopolies for private ones. In the case of the telecom monopoly in particular, deregulation will kill a whole flock of birds with one stone—bring in hard currency from license fees, investment, access (at 40% Ethiopia’s mobile penetration is the lowest in the region) and quality of services. The sugar factories I would sell right away on an “as-is-where-is” basis. A stitch in time saves nine.

Ethiopia is by no means the only country floundering on infrastructure-led growth. It is a foolish idea. Monuments, delusions of grandeur, cargo cults—this columnist has all but run out of metaphors. Last year, Zambia’s President called a national day of prayer for the Kwacha. Last week he suspended borrowing and instituted an austerity programme that includes freezing projects that are less than 80 percent complete. Kenya is surviving on speculative capital inflows and juggling debt as it negotiates an IMF bailout.

Ethiopia’s unravelling is a reflection of its macroeconomic policy regime. When demand and supply don’t balance, something must give. In a liberal regime it is prices that adjust (exchange rate, interest, and inflation). If prices are controlled then demand or supply must give, in this case, the supply of foreign exchange. Still, the crisis has provided an opportunity for transformational political and economic change. To quote economist Paul Romer, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

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.

By

David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

Op-Eds

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.

Published

on

Land Title and Evictions in the Supreme Court of Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

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?

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

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.

Published

on

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

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.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

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.

Published

on

By

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

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.”

Continue Reading

Trending