Sometime in the late 80s, at the tail end of the era of the state commanding the heights of the economy, the Moi government had an idea—to establish a national shipping line. The business case seemed straightforward enough. The country was leaking a substantial amount of its meagre foreign exchange earnings to foreign shipping lines that were ferrying our imports and exports. The total value of shipping services in 1986 was in the order of $230 million (Sh3.7 billion) equivalent to 10 per cent of the country’s $2.2 billion (Sh43 billion) foreign exchange earnings (the exchange rate was Sh16 to the US$). Saving some of this money looked like a splendid idea. As always, the devil is in the detail.
The country was not in a position to buy vessels. The plan was to establish what is referred to in the industry as a Non-Vessel Owning Common Carrier (NVOCC) that would lease space on third-party vessels, essentially a glorified freight forwarding company. The Kenya National Shipping Line (KNSL) was incorporated in 1987 as a joint venture, with Kenya Ports Authority and UNIMAR, a German investor, owning 70 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively (UNIMAR later sold half its stake to DEG, a development finance institution of the German government). KNSL began operations in 1988 by establishing a partnership with Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) to charter space on MSC ships plying the Mombasa-Europe route, calling in at Lisbon, Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Felixstowe among other ports in that general geographic region.
Business did not go as planned. Chartering slots on ships and hiring containers was easy, getting customers, not so. KNSL quickly racked up debt with the shipping lines and with container leasing companies for slots and containers that it was leasing and not using. But even had business gone according to plan, it is doubtful that it would have saved the country much foreign exchange. At the time, the Mombasa terminal was handling 120,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of containerised freight annually. The total cost of shipping a container to or from Europe would have been in the order of $900, a total of $108 million annually. Even had KNSL been able to secure a monopoly and get a 10 per cent trade margin, which is doubtful, it would have earned the country just over $10 million, about 0.5 per cent of the foreign exchange earnings.
In 1996, Heywood Shipping, an entity linked to MSC, acquired a stake in KNSL. The exact circumstances and nature of the transaction are hazy but it appears that this was part of a restructuring that may have involved converting debt to equity and bringing in MSC as a strategic partner. Heywood Shipping does not appear to be an operating business. An internet search brings up the name in the company registry of the Isle of Man, a British offshore tax haven, which may or may not be of the same company.
Nothing was heard of KNSL for two decades, although to be sure, it had not been making headlines even before. Then, out of the blue, in August 2018, it was reported that the Government had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with MSC to revive KNSL. The reports indicated that the government was eyeing a slice of the Sh300 million ($3 billion) that it claimed the country was paying foreign companies for shipping. As usual, the Jubilee numbers are exaggerated. The $3 billion is about right for the total imports of services, of which shipping represents less than a third ($830 million in 2017 according to WTO data). I have two observations. First, this is the same reasoning that had motivated KNSL’s establishment three decades earlier. What has changed? Second, MSC was already a shareholder and strategic partner of KNSL. Why then was the Government signing an MOU with MSC on the same? The plot would soon unfold.
In March 2019 the government introduced an amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act to give the Transport Cabinet Secretary power to exempt government entities from some provisions of the statute. The particular provision that needed to be circumvented prohibits a shipping line from operating port facilities. In competition law and policy, this clause is used to prevent vertical integration, the control of many stages in a business chain by one firm to undermine competition. If for example, a manufacturer also controls distribution and retail, it can use its market power to choke competitors by restricting supply and/or overpricing its goods. A shipping line that also operates port facilities can frustrate competitor shipping lines similarly by making it advantageous to use its seamless services while providing competitors with shoddy services. Yet this is precisely what this amendment was about: to pave way for KNSL to be awarded a concession to operate the second container terminal at the Port of Mombasa, referred to in the industry as CT2.
The CT2 facility has been built by the Government with debt financing from Japan. The first phase was completed in 2016. Under the financing agreement, CT2 would be leased out to an independent operator selected through a competitive process. In 2014, the Government invited port operators to make their bids. Several international port operators applied, but the process was cancelled before completion—but not before eliciting uncharacteristically pointed objections from the usually reticent Japan. Long after the bids had closed, the government sought to introduce new conditions that would have opened up financing of the second phase even though the government had already signed a financing agreement with Japan. In a letter to the Treasury, the resident representative of the Japanese aid agency, JICA, talked of their “obligation to assure accountability and transparency in the process”, and warned that mishandling of the process would jeopardise future assistance to Kenya.
In early 2017, it emerged that the government had entered into a bilateral agreement with the United Arab Emirates in which the UAE was to extend a loan of $275 million (Sh28 billion) for improvements to the port at Mombasa, including “enhancing operational and business efficiencies within the Second Container Terminal.” In return, the state-owned port operator, Dubai World, would get the concession for the second container terminal. Dubai World was one of the bidders in the cancelled tender, and according to media reports, it had emerged second. This particular deal seemed to have been designed to circumvent competitive bidding through a ‘government-to-government’ transaction. For whatever reason, it also floundered.
This brings us to the KNSL transaction. Like the UAE agreement, the revived KNSL is devised to circumvent competitive bidding under the guise that KNSL is a state entity. KNSL shareholding stands at 53 per cent Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) and 43 per cent Heywood Shipping. Heywood Shipping has two directors on the board of KNSL: a Mr Peter Reschke and a Captain G. Cuomo. The MoU between the Government and MSC was signed by a Captain Giovanni Cuomo, designated as Vice President. It seems reasonable to assume that Captain G. Cuomo and Captain Giovanni Cuomo are one and the same person.
Financial capacity is one of the standard requirements for concessionaires in public-private partnerships (PPP). According to the 2017 audit, KNSL made a loss of Sh44.7 million, up from Sh37 million the previous year. It had revenues of Sh723,000 against expenses of Sh45 million. On the balance sheet, it has accumulated a deficit of Sh376 million. In short, KNSL is insolvent. The audit is qualified, and the Auditor General’s basis for adverse opinion runs to a couple of pages. KNSL is a shell, and to all intents and purposes, a Trojan horse for MSC.
It has been reported that the business case for single-sourcing MSC is to leverage on the concession to create seafaring jobs for Kenyans on MSC’s ships. Media reports say that MSC has committed to employing several Kenyans on its cruise liners, and to docking them in Mombasa thereby creating more jobs. These may be good intentions, but single-sourcing an operator and stifling competition is not the way to go about it. MSC will be in a position to leverage its position to undermine competitors. The competitors will lose market share in Mombasa but they are unlikely to take it lying down. For transit freight in particular, the competitors are likely to respond by undercutting MSC in competing ports, notably Dar es Salaam, and even Djibouti. Far from enhancing Mombasa as the pre-eminent port in the region, vertical integration will undermine it.
It is worth noting that even as the Government railroads this transaction, it is woefully short of investors for the Lamu port project. So far, the government has completed one of the three berths that it is building—out of a total of 32 in the plan. It is shopping for private investors to build and operate the other 29. The government is also shopping for an operator for the berths that it will have built. According to its website, MSC has a subsidiary—Terminal Investments Limited—that invests in, and manages container terminals. Given that MSC has been a joint venture partner in the KNSL all these years, it is intriguing that the Government has failed to persuade them to take up the Lamu opportunity as either operator, or investor or both.
It is worth noting that even as the Government railroads this transaction, it is woefully short of investors for the Lamu port project. So far, the government has completed one of the three berths that it is building—out of a total of 32 in the plan
We are compelled to infer that someone is out to reap where they have not sown. The initial meddling with the first tender sought to not only influence the award of the operating concession, but to also prevent the Japanese Government from financing the second phase. We infer from this that there was another financier lined up who was amenable to paying the hefty kickbacks that are standard operating procedure for Jubilee mega-infrastructure projects. The deal with the UAE and Dubai Ports had embedded private interests written all over it. The KNSL Trojan horse is the third bite at the cherry.
There is only one office with the power to subvert the competitive bidding process consistently and incessantly, and there are no prizes for guessing which one it is. This is Uhuru Kenyatta’s racket. From the now ill-fated dairy industry regulations to the floundering Huduma Namba, we have learned that wherever you see presidential political capital being expended, family business is involved. Indeed an MP friend remarked the other day that the only business that Parliament is transacting these days is Kenyatta family business.
What we need to know is the what and the how. First, we should demand full disclosure of the ownership and beneficial interests of Heywood Shipping. The two Heywood directors on the KNSL board need to swear affidavits that they have not entered into any agreement to transfer such interest to anyone else in the future. Kenyatta should be asked to declare that he and his family have no current or future beneficial interest in Heywood and MSC.
From the now ill-fated dairy industry regulations to the floundering Huduma Namba, we have learned that wherever you see presidential political capital being expended, family business is involved
A direct beneficial interest in Heywood is by no means the only route that Kenyatta can use to profit from the infrastructure. We know that the terminal integrates with the SGR railway. The railway terminates in Naivasha where the Kenyatta family has extensive landholdings positioned to benefit from the anticipated dry port business. We have seen Uhuru Kenyatta personally offering land for freight stations to Uganda and South Sudan leaders; whether this is public or private land, we do not know, but it does beg the question why Uganda would build a facility in Naivasha if, as we are told, the railway is to be integrated with the revamped meter-gauge rail all the way to the Uganda border.
Even without a pecuniary interest in the KNSL transaction, a seamless operation that transfers all the freight logistics to Naivasha is sufficient motivation for Kenyatta to pursue the capture of the terminal as aggressively as he is doing. We may also have our answer as to why the Government is not enticing MSC to Lamu. Kenyatta does not own land there.
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Kisumu County’s Fragile Food Security
Reliance on imports from as far away as Tanzania, Uganda and even China, leaves Kisumu County’s accessibility to food on a fragile footing.
A ceasefire had to be called at the height of the 2007/8 post-election violence and a corridor created for the safe passage of foodstuffs from the Rift Valley to the lakeside city of Kisumu to avert a food crisis. The post-election violence had erupted barely 10 days earlier.
For a region that enjoys adequate rainfall and has good agricultural soils, the lack of access food supplies within days of a crisis breaking out is indicative of the problems generated by how food systems are structured in Kisumu County.
Kisumu County has a considerable shoreline along Lake Victoria that extends from Seme to the south to Nyakach Sub-County to the north. Apart from Kisumu city, the county also has a number of smaller towns such as Muhoroni, Ahero, Katito, Maseno and Kombewa.
Eighty per cent of the food consumed by the county’s 300,000 households—including maize, potatoes, onions, vegetables, milk, rice, eggs and bananas—is imported from as far as Uganda and Tanzania along with imports of fish from China.
Kisumu County continues to import food despite having regions that could potentially support expansive food production in areas such as Muhoroni, Nyamware and Nam Thowi, and the fertile crescents in Seme to the south. Over time, the rich alluvial soils that have been deposited in these areas by floods and rivers flowing downstream from Nandi Hills have created fertile grounds that support farming.
How did we get here?
The persistent issues that have impeded food production in Kisumu County are numerous. Traditionally, communities living in the county practiced fishing and livestock keeping, and subsistence agriculture as their economic mainstay. Commercial farming has only been embraced in recent years, due to interactions with neighbouring farming communities such as the Kisii, Luhya, Abasuba, and Kuria. The majority, however, continue to practice smallholder subsistence agriculture.
The uptake of commercial farming was also hindered by the economic policies of the 1990s that saw the collapse or the weakening of many of the structures that had been established to support food production in the country as a whole and provided extension services, grants, and subsidies to farmers. They include the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC), the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), Agricultural Training Centres (ATCs), Agricultural Research Institutions (ARIs), and farmers’ co-operatives.
The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production. Most land in Kisumu County is not registered and titled and much of it is inherited property that has been passed down through the generations without legal title.
Recent surveys show that the cost of the farming inputs required to initiate meaningful agricultural production is out of reach for the majority of Kisumu County residents. This challenge is further compounded by the dearth of farming SACCOs (Savings and Credit Cooperatives); with the prohibitive interest rates charged by local banks, obtaining capital to start an agricultural enterprise has proved to be a challenge. These challenges are further exacerbated by the risks associated with farming such as crop losses and post-harvest losses.
The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production.
There is little agro-innovation among Kisumu farmers who still rely on traditional farming methods. There is little irrigation going on in the county. Lastly, there is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production such as agricultural engineers, extension officers, veterinary doctors, agronomists, sociologists, planners, economists, among others.
Food shortage affects the mwananchi
At Jubilee Market, a major cog in the food supply chain in Kisumu City, traders lament daily about inadequate local food supplies and about middlemen from outside the county who take advantage of food shortages to import supplies and make big profits. The high demand for food and the low supply have an impact on food prices, reducing profit margins for the traders, even as consumers are faced with high food prices.
There is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production.
The missing link in Kisumu’s economic growth is a buoyant agricultural sector. From observations made when the writer toured Victoria Eco-Farm, a leading food supplier situated at Dunga Beach in Kisumu City, the revival of agriculture in Kisumu is possible. Victoria Eco-Farm deals in poultry, dairy, bee keeping, and the rearing of exotic dogs. The farm has also diversified into agri-tourism, receiving visitors and training both students on attachment and local farmers on best farming practices. Nicholas Omondi, the Director, has become a role model for emerging food producers in the agriculture sector.
Modelling food sufficiency
Based on Walt Rostow’s model of economic growth, Kisumu County will not make a sudden and quick leap out of food insecurity. In Stages of Economic Growth, Rostow outlines the five stages that all countries must pass through to become developed: the traditional society; pre-conditions for take-off; take-off; drive to maturity; age of mass consumption. Regrettably, Kisumu County is still at the stage of a traditional society that is characterized by subsistence agriculture, limited funding and technological innovation, and low economic mobility.
The pre-conditions for take-off will only be fulfilled when the county government, acting in collaboration with the national government, provides adequate incentives for agricultural development. More food crops need to be introduced to farmers in Kisumu County. There is also an urgent need to revitalize existing sectors such as the sugar and fishing industries. The county’s potential to become a prime producer of rice also needs to be actualized.
Reform-oriented policies such as titling and surveying are needed in order to transform the existing models of landholding and land ownership. Farming communities in the county also require extensive sensitization and training on emerging technologies and innovations. Most importantly, existing lacklustre attitudes to farming as an economic activity among Kisumu County residents will need to be addressed.
However, the current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review. In effect, no serious gains can be made in the agriculture sector anywhere in the country as long as the national government continues to insist on enforcing policies that increase production costs and make it cheaper to import food from Tanzania and Uganda than to grow it at home.
The current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review.
Leaders must realize that whether they are in the opposition or in government, relations with state agencies, especially those in the agriculture sector, are key to developing farming in Kisumu County, that in the interest of economic development, they must always be in constant touch with the government for purposes of support, lobbying and relaying feedback in development processes. Existing attitudes and brands of politics that lead to self-marginalization must be removed at all costs.
It must be recognised, however, that the county government has taken initial steps to start addressing the challenge of food insecurity. In partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the county government has established a youth-focused Food Liaison Advisory Group (FLAG), leading to the promotion of urban agriculture, the strengthening of rural mechanisms for food production and initiating programmes for the training and deployment of agricultural extension officers.
It is to be hoped that such initiatives will contribute towards alleviating the food insecurity situation that the residents of Kisumu County continue to grapple with.
This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
How Twitter’s Negligence is Harming Kenya’s Democracy
Twitter’s trending algorithm has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks, failing Kenyans as political actors use it to control political narratives by harassing dissenting voices.
On the 24th of June 2021 at around 6 a.m., an insidious hashtag, #KatibaMbichi, appeared on Kenyan Twitter timelines. Its trend seemed to be driven by a number of faceless bots, and retweeted by a series of catfishes that sent it to the number one spot on the Kenyan Twitter trends.
Our investigations have uncovered how such malicious, coordinated, inauthentic attacks that seek to silence members of civil society, muddy their reputations and stifle the reach of their messaging, is a growing problem in Kenya. Twitter, especially, has been central to these operations due to the influence it has on the country’s news cycle.
The proliferation of digital media platforms in Kenya carries the promise of a renewed definition of freedom of speech. Moreover, Twitter has been a vital tool of expression for many Kenyan citizens, many of whom use it to hold their leaders to account and to call out their failures. But civil society members and journalists have increasingly come under attack thanks to disinformation campaigns in the country.
Through a series of interviews with anonymous influencers involved in these campaigns, we accessed their inner workings and gained crucial insights into how they are organized.
An examination of the campaigns has provided our team with a window into the shadowy world of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya. Many of the accounts and individuals involved promote brands, causes and political ideologies without disclosing that they are part of paid campaigns.
Twitter features such as the trending algorithm are exploited to achieve the goals of these campaigns by amplifying them. Certain verified accounts on the platform are complicit in leading these attacks. The goal of these campaigns is to exhaust critical thinking and poison the information environment by muddying the truth.
Our investigations examined two months’ data between 1 May 2021 and 30 June 2021, with a particular focus on the Constitutional Amendment Bill—famously known as the Building Bridges Initiative—that was being promoted in Kenya at the time.
With the aid of Twint, Sprinklr and Trendinalia, we trailed the attacks by mapping and analysing specific hashtags that the influencers used on Twitter. This involved mapping certain accounts that posted malicious content targeting Kenya’s activists and judicial officers. The flagged hashtags often displayed synchronized publishing timestamps within the metadata, with a lack of content on most days, followed by one very sharp burst of activity and then fizzling out.
In total, using Sprinklr, which has access to Twitter’s full historical archive, we flagged 23,606 tweets and retweets released by 3,742 accounts under the 11 hashtags. We also obtained 15,350 of these tweets using the Twint package on Github to carry out further analysis of the content.
How disinformation is spread
The Twitter campaigns we looked at were those that were pro-BBI and directly attacked citizens and prominent civil society activists that were vocally opposed to the proposed reforms, and also sought to discredit civil society organisations and activists by portraying them as villains who were being funded by Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto—he opposes the BBI process.
The well-coordinated attacks are launched through WhatsApp groups to avoid detection. The WhatsApp group admins give direction about what to post, the hashtags to use, which tweets to engage with, and whom to target. They also synchronize the posting to enable the tweets to trend on twitter.
There is money to be made in attacking civil society. Our sources confirmed that they get paid between US$10 and US$15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Those higher up the ranks are on a monthly retainer that can go as high as US$500. Those who are on a retainer supervise the hashtags and ensure that they trend on the days they are posted.
Who the disinformation targets
From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists. Prominent anti-BBI activists under the Linda Katiba movement who petitioned the courts against the BBI were the targets of some of the most vicious attacks.
The attacks peaked in early May with the specific goal of trying to discredit the anti-BBI campaign. Jerotich Seii, a key member of the Linda Katiba campaign who was targeted, said in interview that she had to spend a lot of time trying to prove that her activism efforts were genuine and that she was not a front for someone else. “The disinformation attacks against me focussed on painting me as someone with ulterior motives who isn’t interested in the welfare of Kenyans. I had to spend a good chunk of my time defending my position as someone who is actually a patriot who does what they do out of love for their country,” said Seii.
From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists.
All this is leading to self-censorship by some of the activists on the platform as they feel that it is pointless to use a platform that cannot deliver any meaningful engagement. One activist we spoke to said that she had significantly scaled down her Twitter activity because of all the trolling she had experienced.
The Kenyan High court struck down the BBI on 14 May on the grounds that the initiative was unconstitutional and the Court of Appeal followed suit on August 20th. The ruling not only strained the already bad relationship between Kenya’s Judiciary and the Executive, it also led to wave after wave of disinformation attacks seeking to question the judges’ judicial independence and the accuracy of their decision.
A notable change in these attacks was how the visual aesthetics of the content within the campaigns evolved; newspaper editorial cartoon-style caricatures and memes were employed, a likely indication of a change of leadership or strategy at the top that sought to make the content more palatable and shareable.
What is the impact of the slander?
The data that we gathered from Trendinalia (which collects data on Twitter trends in Kenya) shows that sufficient amplification was achieved for 8 of the 11 hashtags we identified that became trending topics. This amplification was achieved partly through the use of verified accounts. One anonymous influencer we spoke to said that owners of certain verified accounts involved in these campaigns would often rent them out to improve the campaign’s chances of trending. “The owner of the account usually receives a cut of the campaign loot from the person that rented it from them once it’s over,” the influencer said.
The demand for this service by the political class in Kenya is markedly strong. During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process. This translates to at least one manipulated disinformation campaign that Kenyans have to deal with every two days.
Curiously, there is little evidence that these operations actually sway people’s opinions. However, they do have an effect on how Twitter users interact with their information environment. The goal of such operations is to overwhelm, to create an environment where nobody knows what is true or false anymore. The objective is to exhaust critical thinking and muddy the truth.
During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process.
Typically, a post by any of the prominent activists or judicial officers is bombarded with so much aggression, insults, and dismissive comments that the space for a good conversation is lost. The point is always to ensure that sober-minded people are disincentivized from amplifying the topic after encountering so much aggression in the replies and the quote tweets.
The role of Twitter Inc.
To many Kenyans, Twitter matters. The platform has become a very critical avenue of expression, networking, running ads, and a means of obtaining information. It is also an important avenue for active citizenship as #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) is one of Africa’s loudest and most lively internet communities.
On the darker side however, some of the features on Twitter are being exploited for nefarious purposes. The platform is failing Kenyans—and Africans more broadly. Political actors are using it to try to control political narratives by poisoning the platform and harassing dissenting voices.
Specifically, Twitter’s trending algorithm, which selects and highlights content without examining its potential for harm, often serves as an on-ramp for users who are trying to find information on the platform. Our sources said that Twitter trends is the primary key performance indicator by which most of their campaigns are judged. They admitted that without it their jobs would not exist. “The main goal is to go trending on Twitter. I’m not sure what our jobs would look like without that target,” said one source.
The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon. The trending algorithm in particular, which is a big part of how Twitter works, has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks.
Twitter’s Moderation Team should pay close attention, keenly monitor and regulate its trending section. Activists, such as Sleeping Giants, have repeatedly called for Twitter to “untrend” itself. This could be done by either removing the feature completely or by disabling it during critical times such as during election periods.
The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon.
Arguably, Twitter does not have an incentive to fix this. It sells ads for “promoted trends” and “promoted tweets” within the feeds of hashtags on its trending topics section to business clients. This puts Twitter squarely in the middle of the mess as it profits from this harmful activity.
Ad Dynamo, an agency that sells Twitter Ads in Kenya, currently offers promoted trends for US$3,500 per day within the country. The overall message this sends is that it is ok to sow hate on the platform so long as Ad Dynamo owners can place ads next to the trending content and make a profit from it.
As Kenya heads towards elections in 2022, the demand for these services will increase and many political parties will seek out malicious coordinated trending models and create the risk of a repeat of the 2007 political violence.
WHO Neutrality in a Time of Crisis at Home: The Case of Dr Ghebreyesus
The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was re-elected to serve a second five-year term as the Director-General of the World Health Organization at the 75th World Health Assembly on 24 May 2022. Dr Ghebreyesus is from Ethiopia’s Tigray region and he has been condemning the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, as well as non-state actors in Ethiopia such as the Amhara militia, for the comprehensive humanitarian blockade, total siege, systematic rape, mass killings, total destruction of health facilities, and killings of humanitarian and health workers, and other atrocious acts committed in Tigray and against its people. There are, however, critics, especially from the Ethiopian government, that claim that he is abusing his mandate as the head of a UN organization. This raises the question to what extent high-ranking UN officials should stay neutral when it comes to conflict and crises in their home countries.
Mandate and watchdog
As the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements on the catastrophic humanitarian and medical condition of the people of Tigray and his call on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to lift the siege and humanitarian blockade are legitimate and within the purview of his mandate. It is important to understand the context of Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements. Dr Ghebreyesus has the responsibility of upholding WHO principles, which include the recognition that the “health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent on the fullest cooperation of states and individuals” and that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”
The war on Tigray started at a time of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and disrupted the efforts of the people of Tigray to prevent and contain the spread of the disease and mitigate its significant health and socio-economic-political impacts. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the move, on 31 March 2020, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) postponed the scheduled 29 August 2020 legislative elections indefinitely. However, other voices, including the Government of Tigray, have condemned the decision as a corona-clouded power grab.
The war on Tigray, referred to by the Ethiopian government as simply “law and order enforcement” against a few leaders in Tigray, turned out to be a well-planned total war against the people of Tigray that involved significant forces from foreign countries, including Eritrea and Somalia. Several reports by humanitarian organisations and investigations by human rights organisations and international media have repeatedly concluded that the gruesome mass atrocities committed against Tigrayans constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing that may amount to genocide. This is consistent with Ethiopian officials’ openly stated intent to erase Tigrayans. In February 2021, four months after the war started, they even shared their intentions with Pekko Havvisto, Finland’s Foreign Minister and EU Envoy to Ethiopia. “When I met the Ethiopian leadership in February, they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years, and so forth.
Despite the Ethiopian government declaring unilateral humanitarian ceasefires twice, first on 28 June 2021 and then on 24 March 2022, together with their Eritrean allies, Ethiopian forces have maintained the siege sealing off Tigray from the rest of the world and imposing “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade” as stated by the UN in July 2021. The siege involves a complete shutdown of telecommunications, transportation, electricity, and the banking system with the result that workers’ salaries cannot be paid, people with savings cannot access their money, and the Tigray diaspora cannot send remittances to help their families and friends in Tigray. Even aid agencies working in Tigray were denied cash and fuel and many were forced to halt their humanitarian operations.
By March 2022, 16 months since the start of the war, it was reported that an estimated half a million Tigrayans have been killed. Of those, close to 200,000 lost their lives by starvation, which is being deliberately used as a weapon of war, while another 100,000 civilian Tigrayans died from lack of access to basic medical care. The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system. It is now close to 20 months since the war started and more Tigrayans have died from deliberate starvation, denial of medical care, torture, extrajudicial killings in the liberated part of Tigray, in western and other parts of Tigray still occupied by Ethiopian federal, Amhara, and Eritrean forces and in internment camps in many parts of Ethiopia.
The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system.
The Ethiopian government and its allies are indeed working against the core UN charter and instruments including universal human rights such as the right to life, freedom of movement, right to food, right to health, and right to humanitarian aid. The people of Tigray are now denied the enjoyment of a standard of health services that they attained after decades of a hard, consistent and holistic effort to attain primary health care. The WHO sent critical medical supplies to all conflict-affected regions of Ethiopia but while the consignments to the Amhara and Afar regions arrived at destination without problems, those destined for Tigray have been deliberately blocked by Ethiopian authorities and their allies from reaching people who are being deliberately starved and denied access to basic medical supplies.
It is within this context that Dr Ghebreyesus is speaking out and calling for the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to stop weaponizing access to food and medical supplies. Speaking at the inauguration of his second term, Dr Ghebreyesus said:
“I am humbled by the opportunity provided by the Member States to serve a second term as WHO Director-General”. He added, “This honour, though, comes with great responsibility and I am committed to working with all countries, my colleagues around the world, and our valued partners, to ensure WHO delivers on its mission to promote health, and keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.”
Dr Ghebreyesus is therefore acting in line with his mandate to be a voice for the voiceless victims. Dr Ghebreyesus is impartial in that, under his leadership, the WHO has also been dispatching critical medical supplies to the Afar and Amhara regions; the UN system has a watchdog that oversees the impartiality of UN officials. Moreover, the UN also has an Office of Internal Oversight Services, which investigates misconduct and violations by UN officials and submits reports and recommendations to the UN Secretary-General.
The Ethiopian government did lodge a complaint to the WHO Office of Compliance, Risk Management and Ethics (CRE) and to the WHO’s Executive Board, alleging misconduct and calling for the removal of Dr Ghebreyesus from office claiming that he was using the office of the Director-General to further his personal political interests. This is part of the campaign that the Ethiopian government has been waging against all Tigrayans—attacks and witch-hunts against Tigrayans that lack any credibility. UN peacekeeping troops of Tigrayan origin deployed in Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan faced similar attacks which led the UN to treat them as prima facie refugees in need of protection.
In his 2021 book titled Perilous Medicine, Professor Leonard Rubenstein describes the debate within the humanitarian and donor community about the role of neutrality in aid work, which can be extrapolated to the UN’s high-ranking officials.
Neutrality, one of the four principles of UN humanitarian practice (humanity, impartiality, and independence), is about not taking a position on one side or another in a conflict. When undertaking humanitarian and other UN operations in zones of armed conflict, UN officials are expected to remain neutral, avoiding taking sides or showing favouritism. In contrast, impartiality is maintaining non-discriminatory positions towards individuals and groups of people in a conflict needing humanitarian assistance. However, neutrality should not mean that UN officials have to remain tight-lipped and passive when any of the warring parties are massacring and deliberately starving a civilian population and denying them access to life-saving assistance because of their ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinions, race or religion. As long as aid workers (or in this case UN officials) maintain impartiality, Professor Rubenstein questions if maintaining neutrality vis-à-vis a waring party or parties is even morally ethical, especially when they attack or deny civilians humanitarian assistance because of their identity, as is the case with ethnic Tigrayans.
The WHO, led by Dr Ghebreyesus, has been impartial in its medical aid delivery to all ethnic groups affected by the civil war in northern Ethiopia. While neutrality has been interpreted as not taking sides, it does not require Dr Ghebreyesus to be indifferent to the suffering of millions civilian Tigrayans when the Ethiopian government and its allies blatantly discriminate against them and deny them access to vital international medical assistance because of their ethnicity.
In her article Neutrality vs impartiality: What is the difference?, Carol Devine of Doctors Without Borders says, “Neutrality is not the same as staying silent. It’s nuanced and even controversial. MSF reserves the possibility to speak in public about massive human rights violations and crimes of humanity, including genocide.” A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies. When civilians are facing crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide as is still happening in Tigray, taking no action using neutrality as excuse is against the fundamental values and mandates of the UN human rights and international humanitarian law.
A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies.
It is important to be aware of the unfortunate conflation of neutrality with the duty of impartiality. Indeed, former UN Deputy Secretary-General Louis Frechette is cited saying, “The UN cannot be impartial between those who respect international, humanitarian, and human rights laws and those who grossly violate them.” In 1999, former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan said, “In the face of genocide, there can be no standing aside, no looking away, no neutrality – there are perpetrators and there are victims, there is evil and there is evil’s harvest.”
The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place. The heads of UN organizations including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres need to join Dr Ghebreyesus in speaking up and acting against the continuing ethnic cleansing, siege and humanitarian blockade of millions of civilian Tigrayans.
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