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The Hands That Steal: Who Is Benefitting From Aid to the DRC?

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A review by an anti-fraud taskforce has revealed massive corruption in the DRC involving employees of the UN and international NGOs. Lack of oversight on how aid to the DRC’s vulnerable populations is dispersed has allowed bribery to flourish in one of the world’s most mineral-rich and conflict-prone countries.

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The Hands That Steal: Who Is Benefitting From Aid to the DRC?
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The bringing down of a statue of King Leopold in Brussels has brought to the fore not just the atrocities this Belgian ruler inflicted on his private colony in Congo from 1885 till 1908, but has reminded the world about the gross human rights violations that continue to be part of his legacy today. King Leopold will not only be remembered for amassing a fortune from ivory and rubber in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but for carrying out the most cruel forms of torture on the Congolese people, including dismembering the hands and feet of children who refused to work on his rubber plantations.

Leopold’s legacy of looting and human rights violations did not stop when the DRC achieved independence. On the contrary, Cold War rivalries led to the assassination of progressive forces like Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first prime minister, and the installation of regressive pro-West puppets like Mobutu Sese Seko, who continued with the looting.

The DRC – arguably the world’s most mineral-rich country – thus remains the site of much poverty, conflict and misery as militias and the Congolese army fight to control mining areas and extract taxes. Human rights organisations have for years raised the alarm on cases of human rights violations, including rape, committed by both the army and armed groups, but the violence and abuse don’t seem to stop.

Foreigners keen to get their hands on coltan, uranium, copper and other highly-prized minerals in the DRC have joined in the plunder and abuses. Tom Burgis, author of The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth (2015), has documented the unholy alliance between militias, smuggling cartels and foreign businesspeople that facilitates the looting. In the book, the DRC stands out as one country where the “resource curse” is particularly severe. “From multibillion-dollar copper deals in Katanga to smuggling rackets shifting coltan out of the East, Congo’s looting machine extends from the locals who control access to the mining areas, via middlemen to traders, global markets and consumers”.

Analysts point out that conflict in the DRC benefits foreign businesspeople and corporations who rely on the country’s minerals; a cessation of conflict might mean that their operations would be under greater scrutiny and would therefore be less profitable to them, as they will be bound by legal and other restrictions, which would inevitably raise the price of the minerals and the cost of doing business in the DRC. However, because corruption in government is also an essential cog in the looting machine, such government oversight is highly unlikely for now. So the looting and the killing continue.

Enter the UN and international NGOs

DRC has also attracted a large number of international NGOs and humanitarian agencies that work under difficult circumstances, but which have also been caught up in the war economy of the DRC. In many cases, these organisations also get sucked up in the looting, either accidentally or by design. With little oversight, and a government that is happy to allow aid agencies to do the work it should be doing , employees of these organisations have found innovative and deceitful ways to make quick money on the side, as revealed by a shocking investigative report published by The New Humanitarian on 11 June.

The investigation shows how millions of dollars of aid money ended up in the hands of corrupt and unscrupulous aid workers, business owners and community leaders who illegally benefited from the Rapid Response to Population Movement (RRMP), a programme that delivers large-scale multisectoral assistance to recently displaced or returning populations in the DRC, and which is managed by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

This is how the scam operated: “When a conflict or natural disaster occurred, aid groups would receive reports from local community leaders that exaggerated the number of people who had fled their homes. Business people would then pay kickbacks to corrupt aid workers to register hundreds of additional people for cash support who were not actually displaced. The merchants would then receive the aid payments and share with the local leaders”.

This fraud was first discovered by Mercy Corps, which conducted its own investigation in November 2018 and found that at least 19 of its own employees were involved. Many of these employees lived large – one of them had even started building a hotel. “The fraud scheme showed how, after some 25 years, humanitarian aid in Congo is no longer just a lifeline for those fleeing conflict but an opportunity – for local power brokers, business owners, and aid workers at both international and local organisations – to cash in on the country’s endless wars”, said the report.

The goings-on in the DRC show how easy it is to rig an aid programme so that assistance does not reach the intendedbeneficiaries but benefits a few well-connected individuals who profit from people’s vulnerability. As I have pointed out before, and have explored in some depth in my book War Crimes, pouring aid money into fragile or failed states often leads to the diversion or theft of the aid, and ends up benefitting warlords, the political elite or those with guns.

The reason why theft of aid is more likely in fragile states, or countries or regions experiencing conflict, is because there is little monitoring of where the aid ends up. Most UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations do not have staff on the ground in countries that are experiencing conflict because it is considered too dangerous. So they employ local NGOs – referred to as “implementing partners” – who are expected to deliver aid to communities on the ground. But with no oversight from the parent aid organisation, it is easy for these implementing partners to do what they like with the aid, and to lie about how it was used. And with no effective monitoring of the aid supply chain, those giving the aid can also cook up figures to make their projects seem successful. Aid workers thus inevitably become embroiled in the stealing as there is no one asking questions.

In Somalia, UN monitors have known for some time that individuals and groups have been operating criminal networks that exploit vulnerable populations, particularly during a famine. Many of these networks act as “gatekeepers” who determine who gets food aid and who doesn’t, how much of the aid will be diverted, and who will benefit from its sale. Sources interviewed by the UN monitors estimated that up to 50 per cent of food aid to Somalia was regularly diverted, not just by transport companies owned by Somali businessmen, but even by World Food Programme personnel and non-governmental organisations operating within Somalia. According to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, Some implementing partners even owned protected warehouses where food aid was delivered and then put up for sale in Mogadishu’s markets.

Bribery and kickbacks

After the Mercy Corps investigation in DRC, an operational review was commissioned by an anti-fraud taskforce created by UN agencies and aid groups. The report of the taskforce was shocking both in terms of the scale of the corruption and the people and organisations involved. It found that bribery and kickbacks involving contracts between international aid groups and national NGOs were “particularly egregious, with local organisations sometimes expected to provide kickbacks that could amount to more than 10 per cent of the contract value”.

Procurement processes were especially lucrative, with suppliers expected to provide kickbacks of up to 30 per cent of the contract value to staff of NGOs and UN agencies. (Incidentally, the practice of taking kickbacks from suppliers has apparently also pervaded some sections of the NGO sector in Kenya. A reliable source informed me that in order to obtain contracts, suppliers and consultants routinely have to provide kickbacks to procurement officers working for some international and local NGOs based in Nairobi. Those who refuse to give kickbacks are denied contracts. This practice has severely impacted the quality of the work that the NGOs do, as often it is not the most qualified people who are given contracts, but those most willing to part with a bribe.)

According to the New Humanitarian, which was given access to the report of the taskforce, “Representatives of national NGOs and suppliers told the review’s authors they believed that flagging corrupt practices would get them blocked from future contracts or partnerships with aid agencies. Both described a blacklist collectively enforced by some workers at different aid groups – most often UN agencies – for those who ‘disturb the system’”.

Offering jobs in exchange for sex is also “widely practiced” as is sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers. The corruption and the abuse continue because those tasked with evaluating project performance are also paid bribes to hide irregularities.

So, basically, the people of the DRC are not just being screwed by the corrupt Congolese government, armed groups and foreign business interests, but also by UN and international NGO workers, who have joined in the looting of one of the most exploited countries on earth.

The lesson we can learn from this case is that aid corrupts. And in strife-torn regions, it can actually be downright harmful.

Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was not the case in 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are the boss’ options.

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

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

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

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll
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Dear Readers/Viewers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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