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The Militarisation of US/Africa Policy: How the CIA Came To Lead Deadly Counter-Terrorism Operations in Kenya

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US and Kenyan diplomatic and intelligence officials tell Declassified UK why the CIA set up a covert paramilitary counter-terror team, how it flies recruits to the US for special training, and why Britain helps gather intelligence on targets.

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The Militarisation of US/Africa Policy: How the CIA Came To Lead Deadly Counter-Terrorism Operations in Kenya
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Republication courtesy of Declassified UK / the Daily Maverick. First published by Declassified UK on 28 August 2020.

A CIA-backed paramilitary police unit uncovered by Declassified UK – known as the Rapid Response Team (RRT) – is at the heart of US efforts to combat terrorism in Kenya. The revelations come as deaths of US military personnel in an attack by the al-Shabaab terrorist group earlier this year on a base in northeast Kenya, are refocusing attention on America’s expanded military and intelligence footprint in Africa.

The story behind the RRT’s development, from a nascent force initially designed to undertake renditions of high-value or high-risk terror suspects, to the go-to tactical counter-terror team in Kenya behind a number of controversial killings, has been recounted to Declassified by US and Kenyan diplomatic, intelligence and paramilitary personnel.

The RRT team’s establishment dates back to 2004, long before Kenya had become embroiled in Somalia’s civil war and al-Shabaab had begun attacks inside Kenya.

Henry Crumpton, who served as deputy chief of operations at the CIA counterterrorism center and retired as State Department counterterrorism coordinator in 2007, said the “imperative” to take a more aggressive stance against Islamist extremists in East Africa emerged in the late 1990s.

“We [the CIA] didn’t really get a wake-up call until August 1998,” Crumpton told Declassified, referring to the twin bombings that month at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed over 200 people, including 12 US citizens.

“I think it’s important to note what happened in August of ‘98 because Kenya has been on the frontline. If you go back further; if you look at the attacks against US forces in Somalia [in 1993] and before that even, I think that US policymakers and leaders and certainly citizens don’t remember or know or appreciate the role Kenya has played going back to the nineties,” Crumpton said.

Michael Ranneberger, the US ambassador to Kenya during 2006-2011, agreed the country was and remains a pivotal player in the fight against al Qaeda-aligned militants.

“Kenya is a strategically very important country for the United States. Not just in terms of the fight against terrorism, but its location on the East African coast – with the largest [US] embassy in Africa and one of the largest in the world – and that’s because we do a lot of our regional activity from that embassy,” he said.

After the 1998 bombings, the director of the CIA’s new counterterrorism centre, Cofer Black, began taking “a much more aggressive view” of the agency’s approach to its relationships with African law enforcement agencies, Crumpton said.

“If you look at how the CIA approaches liaison relationships, in the late ‘90s it really accelerated beyond just gathering information, and rapidly evolved into integrated operations,” said Crumpton, who led CIA operations in Afghanistan in 2001-2002.

By 1998, Crumpton had been seconded by the CIA to deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism operations section. Facing a terror case in the US involving a Somali suspect, he recalled reaching out to his Kenyan partners for help.

“They sent us a Kenyan policeman – ethnic Somali – who was integrated into the FBI investigation, which was of enormous help. And that was just a small step in what would become a rapidly intimate relationship among intelligence and law enforcement officials, where it’s not just sharing information, it’s really integrated operations,” Crumpton explained.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of examples of this type of deep cooperation.”

One key US figure tasked with developing the diplomatic groundwork for the integrated operations in Kenya was William Bellamy, US ambassador to the country from 2003-2006.

The covert Kenyan Rapid Response Team (RRT) was established as part of the CIA’s “intimate integration” programme to train and manage local paramilitaries in terrorism hotspots around the globe

Bellamy recalled arriving in the Kenyan capital Nairobi feeling that the country was “a high-value target for al-Qaeda in East Africa”. Increasingly concerned about the possible spread of terrorism across the region, the US government set aside a “large pot of money” for counter-terrorism assistance, Bellamy told Declassified.

However, he added that efforts to persuade the Kenyan government’s law enforcement and military agencies to buy into America’s war on terror proved “a real hard sell”. The police and military agencies were beset by “too much interagency rivalry and suspicion” and, to the former ambassador’s “biggest frustration”, a proposed multi-agency centre for counter-terrorism never got off the ground.

Another former senior CIA official with knowledge of Kenyan counter-terror operations at the time recalled: “Western governments were throwing a lot of resources at the Kenyans. That [extremism] was something we were all trying to get ahead of and not allow al-Qaeda or any other successor groups to get a foothold there.”

The former official added: “We were definitely trying but I think the Kenyans were a little reluctant, and I think that was just because they knew it would be a rough fight… Now it seems it’s like a whole government strategy.”

Former Kenyan Foreign Minister and Vice President, Kalonzo Musyoka, explained: “Kenya’s positioning, when I was foreign minister [2003-2004], was that of absolute neutrality in the regional conflicts… that’s why we were trusted with the role of mediation. We had taken a view that as a frontline state with a 1,800km border with Somalia, which is unpatrolled, we would be making a mistake to engage directly by sending our troops into Somalia.”

Despite the difficulty faced by former ambassador Bellamy in dealing with his Kenyan counterparts, their National Intelligence Service (NIS, then known as NSIS) was nonetheless eager to develop counter-terrorism collaboration, and was the CIA’s liaison for the development of integrated operations.

Establishing the covert team

The unit that would later become the Rapid Response Team (RRT) was a product of this outreach. Part of a secret CIA programme to train and manage local paramilitaries in numerous hotspots around the globe, from Afghanistan to Georgia, the team began with just 18 officers – dubbed ‘Team 18’ – who were selected by Kenyan police and intelligence to receive elite training in the United States.

A former senior US government official with knowledge of the RRT’s establishment said, “On something of this sensitivity and this importance… we would need to run it through the Agency [CIA] and through [Kenya’s] NIS.”

NIS, with extensive links to Britain’s MI6, were “professional, capable, serious people. And they were our best partners, the most reliable partners”, the former senior official said.

The new recruits to the RRT, who would become Kenya’s first paramilitary police squad dedicated primarily to counter-terrorism operations, were then flown to training facilities in the US. Landing at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC, the CIA handlers advised the RRT trainees to tell immigration officials they were visiting the country on a sports scholarship.

From there, the men were flown to a further destination and driven in buses with blacked-out windows so the trainees could not determine the location.

Though the recruits never found out where they were being trained, multiple RRT officers said they believed their initial training, and successive courses, took place at Annapolis Naval Academy in Maryland. One former senior US official with direct knowledge of the programme told Declassified it was also likely that, at one point, trainees were taken to the CIA’s training facility at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg in Virginia, also known as ‘The Farm’.

One former RRT officer recalled asking his CIA handler why they did not want the trainees to know their location in the US. “We have good intentions and do not act in bad faith. But the United States is not prepared to repeat its errors with Osama bin Laden,” the CIA handler is said to have responded, referring to mistakes made in providing covert assistance to Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s.

On arrival at the facility, the men received training from CIA contractors, former special operations forces and SWAT team members of the US police, in tactical operations, close-quarter combat, weapons handling, reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering.

RRT commandos have been flown to Maryland, US, for SWAT-style training, under cover of sports scholarships

Following their first and second courses in 2004, titled “Renditions Operations Training” and “Disruption Operations”, the commandos were formalised as the Rapid Response Team. But by then the new unit’s nickname – the “Renditions Team” – had already stuck among the few who knew it existed.

RRT members are part of the special operations-oriented Recce Company of the Kenyan paramilitary police’s General Service Unit (GSU). At their headquarters in Ruiru near Nairobi, they enjoy privileged status. Exclusive training facilities, such as ‘Michelin House’ – a mock terrorist hideout used for conducting entry drills – were financed by their US embassy liaison, multiple RRT officers said.

However, owing to the sensitivity of their operations, RRT officers were not permitted to reside in the same quarters as other teams in the GSU’s Recce Company. This included other ‘special teams’, such as the US State Department and FBI-supported Crisis Response Team (CRT), which specialises in surveillance and hostage rescue, and which sometimes supports the RRT on tactical operations.

“Specialised units are needed to deal with extraordinary situations, such as hostage-taking and terrorist activity,” former US ambassador Michael Ranneberger said.

He added, “We do that in a lot of countries, where we will identify a GSU [RRT]-like unit, a special unit [to work with]. Or if they don’t exist, we sometimes help establish such units and then provide the training.”

Target development

In the first few years after its founding, the RRT carried out relatively few offensive counter-terror operations. Although Kenya’s intelligence service, the NIS, and Kenya’s  Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) “knew they had some bad people” in Kenya, as one former CIA official put it, political leaders were initially reluctant to be drawn into the US war on terror.

Former US ambassador William Bellamy agreed, noting, “When I was in Kenya we probably spent 70% of counter-terrorism [work] on good intelligence work with the Kenyans.”

Explaining why the RRT was relatively dormant in its first few years, the former CIA counter-terrorism official said that targets were often operating below the radar.

“We try to stick, on certain levels, on many levels, within the law. I think that’s why you didn’t see much [action from RRT], because certain targets were either very deep cover and you weren’t able to make a case on them, and once you started getting a little more clarity on the cases and being able to take these suspects down for violations, that’s when you started seeing the Rapid Response Team get more active.”

The few counter-terror operations undertaken by the RRT in its first years were focused on the capture and subsequent rendition of terror suspects.

RRT officers would be summoned to Wilson Airport in Nairobi, briefed by CIA paramilitary liaison officers on their objectives, and then flown to their destination, which was often in Kenya but, on some occasions, included Somalia, former RRT officers and US officials confirmed.

The former senior CIA official recalled watching Kenyan clerics becoming radicalised by videos emerging from Iraq, particularly those of the then leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “When the Zarqawi videos started popping up in Kenya, I was like ‘oh shit… here come the takfiris,” he said, referring to militant jihadists.

By 2006 Kenya’s NIS had developed intelligence liaison cells dedicated to working with the CIA, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) and Israel’s external spy agency, Mossad, multiple US and Kenyan intelligence sources told Declassified.

In later years, Mossad would assist in forming, training and providing weapons to a separate Recce squad ‘special team’, composed partly of former RRT and CRT officers, known as the Special Anti-Terror Team (SATT), a team dedicated to VIP protection and covert patrols of Kenya’s five-star hotels.

Alongside the CIA, MI6 helped Kenya’s NIS with target development, bringing together and analysing the various sources of intelligence to prioritise the greater threats.

The former CIA counter-terrorism official said the four pillars of the CIA and MI6 relationship with Kenyan intelligence were “training, mentorship, lead by example… and pressing”.

“When we talk about pressing a liaison partner, that is together [as the CIA and MI6]. We are working together with our liaison partner [NIS] to get things done. We’re meeting with SIS [MI6] and saying, ‘Hey here’s what we’re doing on this case’, you know, this is how we’re trying to push them, ‘we’re giving them this’ and they [MI6] would respond in kind.”

The former official added: “There were British-centred cases, there are US-centred cases, and I think on both sides, and in parallel, we’re all giving them training, equipment and money etc – I won’t talk about the amounts – to try and get it done, and then have oversight.”

One of the RRT’s major coups occurred in August 2009 when Kenyan and Western intelligence agencies detected a plot to stage simultaneous attacks on three hotels in Nairobi, one of which was to be visited by then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. A subsequent operation, driven by the CIA and NIS, pinpointed the location of suspects who were then captured by the RRT.

Out of gratitude to Kenyan intelligence, and “to bolster what we thought was already a pretty good relationship”, five months later then CIA chief Leon Panetta paid a secret visit to Kenya to meet with Michael Gichangi, then NIS director, a former US official familiar with the meeting recalled.

“Gichangi was absolutely a world-class spymaster. He did a great song and dance. A very polished guy, very glib. He gave a great presentation,” the former official said. With a successful meeting for the visiting CIA director, the former official continued, “The outcome was, let’s push ahead, let’s try to deepen this, let’s try to do more.”

 ‘Let’s go get ‘em’

Less than six months after this meeting, the US would come to heavily rely on its Kenyan intelligence partner, and the RRT commandos, amidst fall out from one of the worst terrorist attacks to hit the region in recent history.

On 11 July 2010, football fans had gathered to watch a World Cup match in Uganda when militants bombed a restaurant and rugby club, killing 74 people. Somali militant group Al-Shabaab publicly claimed responsibility, calling the attacks retaliation for Uganda’s involvement in a UN-backed military mission to protect the Somali Transitional Federal Government.

In response to the attack, Kenyan intelligence and police snatched multiple suspects across the Horn of Africa. Press coverage of these operations tended to pinpoint Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) as being responsible. But while the ATPU was involved in some operations, those deemed high-risk or high-value were led by the RRT, at times with CRT support, officers from both teams confirmed.

A plot to kill Hillary Clinton was foiled by the CIA-backed Kenyan paramilitary team

Around 2010, al-Qaeda-inspired militants began targeting tourist sites in Kenya, killing civilians and abducting tourists, and the political barriers to taking action evaporated.

“I think that’s when the Kenyans said ‘this isn’t just about America. We have to do something because they’re hitting us too’,” the former CIA counter-terrorism official said.

Former Kenyan vice president, Kalonzo Musyoka, said that at the time, “The position was taken by the NSC [Kenya’s National Security Council] to exercise the right of ‘active pursuit’, because that [terrorism] was seen to harm our tourism industry,” he added, having served on the Council as deputy president during 2008-2013.

As Kenya waged war against al-Shabaab outside its borders, domestically its covert war on terror suspects was also ramping up, the former CIA counter-terrorism official said. “Once they [Kenya] got on board [with the war on terror], the Recce [RRT] team gets busy… People that were long time targets; they get taken down.”

He added: “Remember, you’ve been building this capacity since ‘02 and in some cases the first work started after ’98. They [RRT] have got some of the best training in the world, some of the best tools, so they start getting active. In some cases they did, some of those targets were cross-border and some of them were inside Kenya.”

The former official continued: “They [RRT] have got the discipline, they’ve got the techniques… and then you’ve got your US advisors [to the RRT], your British advisors [to NIS] and now it’s like ‘hey guys, let’s go get ‘em’. That’s what you started seeing in terms of ‘let’s go get ‘em’.”

But when a target travels into Somalia, “that’s his ass”, the former official added, referring to the deadly US programme of drone strikes, backed by special force raids.

‘Less constraint’

Kenya’s burgeoning role in regional counter-terrorism in this period was shown most clearly by one target who was eventually captured by RRT operatives and is currently serving a jail sentence.

Brought up Catholic in western Kenya, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha converted to Islam in 2005, changing his name to Mohamed Seif. Though Bwire’s journey into radicalisation is not extensively known, in 2009 he made his first attempt to join militants in Somalia, only to be thwarted by Kenyan police.

Reports claim that he eventually reached Somalia two years later, and received training from militants on how to use small arms and stage terrorist attacks. Two months after his return to Kenya, Bwire is said to have recruited others to conduct those attacks.

On 24 October 2011, after receiving intelligence that Bwire had led a grenade attack on a bus stop in Nairobi, killing six and injuring dozens more, RRT commandos descended on Kayole, one of Nairobi’s densely populated neighbourhoods. They captured Bwire, along with a cache of grenades, assault rifles and over 700 rounds of ammunition.

But ATPU officers failed to claim the arrest, as was normal practice, an RRT officer familiar with the operation recounted, forcing personnel from the paramilitary unit to make a rare appearance in court and testify that they had captured Bwire.

Unused to appearing publicly, and fearing cross-examination, an RRT officer recalls anxiety at seeing someone from the unit having to make the court appearance. “Nobody knew [about] our existence, which was good [for] us”, the officer said. However, even though RRT officers appeared in court, few questions were asked about the RRT itself.

There are US laws governing which foreign security services US government bodies can partner with. These include the Leahy Law, which requires human rights vetting of units slated for assistance, training or equipment. But the law only applies to the US military, the State Department and law enforcement agencies, former Washington director at Human Rights Watch, Sarah Margon, said.

Robert Etinger, former deputy general counsel at the CIA, told Declassified in an email that the law does not apply to the intelligence community.

A former senior US official based in Africa, who had knowledge of Kenyan counter-terrorism operations, explained that programmes such as those supporting the RRT are run through the CIA, in part to avoid domestic legal restrictions.

“The Leahy amendment prevents the US from training anybody [we want] that’s going to be useful to us in [offensive] anti-terrorism endeavours,” said the former official. But “friends from across the aisle, the intelligence community, don’t have similar restrictions”.

Had the CIA been required to vet the Kenyan RRT under the terms of the Leahy Law, it may have faced difficult questions about the General Service Unit, the RRT’s parent police unit from which its commandos are selected. One leaked US diplomatic cable from 2009 noted allegations that the GSU “is involved in committing serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings”.

The classified RRT programme is run through the CIA in part to avoid legal restrictions, it is claimed

Former CIA deputy Crumpton disagreed that Leahy Law-related “bureaucratic reasoning” was why the CIA leads counter-terrorism operations in Kenya. Instead, he said, “this conflict, against al-Qaeda and ISIS [Islamic State] and affiliates, is fundamentally driven by intelligence”.

The CIA’s relationship with the RRT endures under Donald Trump’s presidency, US officials and RRT commandos confirmed.

A senior State Department official with knowledge of the CIA-RRT liaison explained: “The relationship goes back some way and we keep reinvesting in them because of that perception that we have, that they are somewhat more professional than the rest of the police.”

But under Trump, its operations are even less constrained than before, according to US officials. The CIA, and the paramilitary teams it supports, would encounter little criticism from the White House, a former senior CIA counter-terrorism official said.

“At the end of the day, Trump is not going to castigate them for violating human rights.”

He added: “You can brief Trump and tell him ‘the Kenyans just went and killed five targets unilaterally’ and Trump’s going to be like ‘and your point is? These are bad guys right?’

“So I think that if you’re the Agency [CIA], you’re going to keep working and hope the Kenyans keep trying to take down your targets in a way that is palatable.”

A former senior State Department official based in Africa agreed. “I would certainly think the Kenyans would feel under much less constraint, in terms of how they operate, than they ever did before under previous administrations.”

Grant Harris, a former special assistant to former president Barack Obama and senior director for African affairs between 2011-2015, told Declassified: “What we’re seeing now in the Trump administration is… less emphasis on governance, on human rights, on economic growth and development and a greater emphasis not just on security issues, but specifically counterterrorism and security tools.”

He added: “I’m very concerned this is militarising US-Africa policy, across the continent, in East Africa and elsewhere.”

Read Part 1 of this investigation here.
Read Part 3 of this investigation here.

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Namir Shabibi is a British investigative journalist who has written and produced documentaries for the BBC, VICE News and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, among others. Declassified UK is an investigative journalism organisation that covers Britain’s role in the world.

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Will Ruto Resist the Temptation to Marginalize Civil Society?

William Ruto’s administration has an opportunity to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role.  

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Will Ruto Resist the Temptation to Marginalize Civil Society?
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When scholars speak of “civil society”, they usually mean all organized groupings of people that are neither part of government nor part of business. Sometimes media groups are also included. Using this definition, Kenya’s civil society sector is rich and diverse. It ranges from neighbourhood chamas, to churches and mosques, to international NGOs with billion-shilling budgets. Yet it is the highly focused governance and democracy-promoting civil society organizations (CSOs) that usually have the most prominent voices in Kenya. Around the world, the 1990s heralded an “opening” of space for such organizations, but that space eventually began to close. Kenya is no exception to this experience.

There has also grown some confusion in the country about the role that civil society ought to play. In the 1990s, CSOs were perceived by wananchi as primarily interested in fairness, accountability, and human rights—not political power—as they pushed to make Kenya a democracy. But as the new millennium has unfolded, prominent CSO leaders have increasingly been seen as “taking sides” in the political arena, whether in supporting the International Criminal Court indictments and the challenge to the 2022 presidential results, or in themselves running for political office. Although most NGOs and community-based organizations remain apolitical, these changes can make CSOs in general appear to be less united with wananchi as a whole. And this leaves CSOs in a more precarious position.

With the new William Ruto administration, the country now sits at a possible inflection point. Will Ruto follow in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, in threatening to close the space for CSOs, or might he take an approach similar to Mwai Kibaki, under whose leadership vocal Kenyan civil society largely thrived?

As a candidate, Ruto ran as a proponent of accountability. If he wishes to continue in the same vein as president, he will facilitate Kenyan civil society and free media. Doing so will not only help to guarantee his legacy among Kenyans, it will also help to retain Nairobi as a regional leader and an employment hub for the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector. And it could bring more politicians with a CSO background to his side.

Here, we present a brief history of the space allowed for civil society over the past sixty-plus years and under the three previous administrations, followed by a discussion of possible trajectories for Ruto and their potential outcomes.

Kenya’s rich history of civil society since before independence

Kenya has had a reputation for being home to a strong civil society sector—arguably the strongest in East Africa. This reputation stems from the long-standing culture of harambee, which encourages people to work together to better the community. The sector has also grown in part out of the country’s religious communities. But it has also grown from the decolonization movements that included educational institutions, trade unions, and ethnic associations, among others fighting for self-rule.

Kenya’s CSOs are diverse, yet they all share at least one thing in common: the space in which they can operate is determined by government regulation—and sometimes by a government’s whims. During colonial times, space was exceedingly limited. The colonial government restricted education and assembly in order to maintain its illegitimate power. During the Jomo Kenyatta administration, local community based organizations and harambee groups were granted more space, but also something of a responsibility to provide self-help solutions.

Closed space: repression and resilience under Moi

For more than two decades, civil society was tightly controlled by the Daniel arap Moi administration. After the 1982 coup attempt, Moi learned to carefully monitor society for potential sources of alternative power, including from nongovernmental organizations and the media.

Given flat economic growth and increasing calls for economic liberalization and budget downsizing from powerful Western donors, however, Moi also recognized the benefits of some types of civil society actors. He recognized that they could provide social services like healthcare, education, and sanitation services where the state could not.

Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work. At the same time, the creation of the governmental NGO Board in 1989 gave his administration an organizational authority to shut down or intimidate democracy, human rights, and governance organizations that he perceived as threatening him politically, while the NGO Act, passed in 1990, provided the legal justification. Media was similarly repressed while harambee organizations, meant to be an avenue for self-help, became politicized tools for support and mobilization.

Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work.

Yet individual proponents of opening up the civic space, like Wangari Maathai, Oginga Odinga, and Kenneth Matiba, could not be fully deterred. Under Moi, they were largely based in professional organizations like the Law Society of Kenya, religious ones, like the National Council of Churches of Kenya, national movements like Greenbelt, or banned political parties like FORD. From these havens, they pushed for political opening and democracy for Kenyans.

And, importantly, they attracted popular support from wananchi wanting to live without fear of government. Activists and Kenyans together sought basic political and civic rights.

Opening space: CSOs in the Kibaki administration

When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002, he brought with him many allies from civil society. Kibaki’s regime not only hired many CSO leaders like Maina Kiai, Willy Mutunga, Kivutha Kibwana, and John Githongo into government, but also deliberately worked more openly with those who stayed in the third sector. Many thought Kibaki’s technocratic background allowed him to adopt a hands-off approach.

These strong relationships soured somewhat when Githongo was run out of the country in 2005. And tensions grew after the 2008 post-election violence, when some governance, human rights, and media leaders were harassed or restricted, and even murdered.

Yet Kibaki signed the Public Benefit Organization (PBO) Act of 2013 into law before leaving office. The progressive law, which aims to ensure transparency and accountability for organizations in Kenya, has been lauded by civil society advocates, but is yet to be operationalized nearly a decade later.

Further, beyond civil society leaders moving into administrative offices, during Kibaki’s time some civil society leaders began to seek their own political ambitions as well. New research shows that NGO work can act as a pipeline to politics for potential candidates by placing them in politics-adjacent roles and providing them with deep community connections and relevant expertise. Civic activism can align well with opposition politics. This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good. In seeking political advancement—especially in a country where MPs are among the highest paid in the world—former activists-turned-politicians may muddy the waters of civil society, blurring the line between governance and accountability.

Contracting space: Uhuru warns CSOs

The start of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration in March 2013 was in many ways overshadowed by the indictment in the preceding months of both Uhuru and his deputy, Ruto, at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity in relation to the violence that followed the 2007 elections. Although service-providing civil society organizations were largely unaffected, and most NGOs stayed out of the conversation, many prominent governance and human rights organization leaders supported the ICC investigations. They petitioned for the courts to bar Uhuru and Ruto’s candidacy on account of the indictments and demanded that the trials move forward even after the two were in office. They focused on the worrying “culture of impunity” in the wake of the 2008 post-election violence.

This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good.

This had caused tension even before the 2013 election. Uhuru’s rhetoric troubled many CSOs as he supported calls for limits on foreign funding of NGOs. Public support for restrictions on NGO funding rose in some quarters as Uhuru supporters suggested that civil society had evolved into an “evil society.”

In the coming years, the space grew more hostile. Uhuru made sharp statements threatening to defund NGOs and restrict foreign worker permits. His administration also stridently refused to implement the PBO Act of 2013, even when ordered to do so by the High Court.

The administration was even willing to use the NGO Board, which the PBO Act abolishes, for political purposes. It sent harassing letters from the Board in an attempt to silence human rights and governance NGOs that had spoken out against Chris Msando’s brutal murder in the lead-up to the 2017 election.

These challenges were compounded by the government’s support of a controversial media bill which would have forced journalists to reveal their sources and, unsurprisingly, drew immediate protests. These efforts to restrict free expression led to reports that Kenya was experiencing significant free speech backsliding,

Yet these setbacks for civil society occurred as Kenyan legal institutions grew stronger. The courts’ empowerment culminated in the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on the 2017 election, annulling Uhuru’s win and requiring that the election be rerun. This dramatic democratic showing buoyed the CSO sector, reassuring governance groups that they were not operating alone, but rather had powerful allies on the march toward a stronger democracy. In so doing, however, did these prominent governance organizations increasingly politicize themselves?

New space: greater autonomy and accountability on the horizon?

The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead. We see a unique opportunity for this new administration to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role. In so doing, he may thwart further politicization of the sector.

Will President Ruto follow Candidate Ruto’s roadmap? While campaigning, Ruto worked hard to separate himself from prior administrations. He presented himself as an “outsider” candidate, immune to dynasty politics. His opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative suggested wariness of the strongman politics of years past and signalled an openness to robust government accountability, a point he has made at home and abroad.

Candidate Ruto appeared to extend a hand to civil society groups, in contrast to Uhuru’s contentious engagement with the sector. He promised that they would be free to operate without government interference. He explicitly invited them to hold the Kenya Kwanza government to account, referring to the sector as a key accountability mechanism, essential for good governance.

Yet during the same period, Candidate Ruto’s team was accused of media harassment that threatened progress toward a more robust democratic space for all. Prominent CSOs called for an opening of civic space with an eleven-point list of demands. They noted that Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations, had rated Kenyan civil society as “obstructed” while Ruto was deputy president.

The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead.

It remains unclear what hand Ruto may have had in marginalizing civil society during the Kenyatta administration. And he may still harbour a grudge against CSOs for their support of the ICC trials. Regardless, the relationship between his administration and CSOs is off to a rocky start, as it is well known that prominent civil society groups strongly supported Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga, in the August general election. After the election, leading civil society activist (and The Elephant founder) John Githongo, claimed to have evidence that the IEBC could have been hacked easily. Githongo’s affidavit, which the court ruled could amount to perjury, was a prominent part of the larger, unsuccessful, effort to overturn Ruto’s win.

Moreover, compared to past periods, activists such as Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform. Even former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga has advocated that civil society actors form a political party, a move which would further muddy the waters. Through these explicitly political dabblings, and by betting on Odinga in the August poll, the civil society sector may have inadvertently undermined its future relationship with the Ruto government.

Nevertheless, as president, Ruto can choose whether to see civil society as a continued opponent or not. At least publicly, he has not moved to restrict the sector in retaliation, and has called for civil society and media to work hand in hand with government to amplify the voices of Africa globally with regard to climate change. Yet after more than two months of the Kenya Kwanza government, it is not clear that the administration is going to heed its own calls.

If the new administration can put aside its election-related differences with prominent civil society actors and submit to accountability meted out by CSOs, Ruto will find an undeniably effective way to prove the anti-dynasty politics for which he campaigned. This may prove fruitful if he plans to seek re-election in 2027. It could also endear him to Western allies, who have historically encouraged democracy.

Activists such as John Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform.

Indeed, abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally. The West is facing challenges with declining democratic credibility both at home and abroad. The US and UK spoke out in support of the ICC cases, yet took a “business as usual” approach to relations with the Uhuru/Ruto administration. Western leaders also praised the 2017 elections before they were annulled by the Kenyan Supreme Court. If Ruto shuns the temptation to ignore the warnings of civil society, his administration could be a model on the international stage that would needle at older democracies that may be leaning away from accountability.

On an even more practical note, re-opening space for civil society could help Ruto fulfil his vow to reinvigorate the Kenyan economy. The international humanitarian and development sector comprises a nontrivial part of the economy. There are not only UN agencies based in Nairobi, but also around 12,000 active NGOs countrywide, who employ an estimated quarter of a million people. The sector brought in KSh185 billion in donations in the 2019/2020 financial year.

Abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally.

Research shows that development sector organizations like international NGOs tend to locate in democratic countries more than in authoritarian ones. Thus a welcoming environment for civil society could help to retain Nairobi as a leader and an employment hub of the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector.

Ruto must decide which legacy to leave for the history books. Ultimately, his administration, like those of his predecessors, may find itself unable to resist the temptation to frustrate and marginalize civil society actors who opposed his presidency. If that happens, we expect the sector to grow ever more nimble, adapting to restricted space just as it has in the past.

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Philosophy for the People

For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.

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In late September 2022, a consortium of universities hosted by the Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale in Yaounde, Cameroon held an “Ethicslab” to deliberate on the theme, “Justice, Democracy and Diversity.” The meeting brought together doctoral candidates in philosophy from Cameroon, Canada, Nigeria, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be mentored by experts. Some of those experts included Dany Rondeau (Canada), Geert Demuijnck (France, based in the Netherlands), and Bernard Gagnon (Canada).

The driving force behind the event was Thierry Ngosso, a young Cameroonian philosopher based  at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. Ngosso’s dream has been to deliver important philosophical lessons in a readily digestible way to younger African scholars while at the same time aiming for social transformation.

The study of philosophy in the continent is marked by all-too-familiar colonial linguistic and political divisions: the anglophone sector fastened to the thought of figures such as John Rawls and analytic philosophy, while francophone countries usually follow the dictates of continental philosophy. Ngosso thinks it is time to collapse these age-old colonial divisions. Also, philosophy seems removed from pressing issues, such as poverty. It can certainly be successfully re-energized by interrogating topics such as ethics and health, ethics and education, ethics and business, politics, the environment, and so on to broaden and deepen linkages between the discipline and urgent contemporary issues.

Nonetheless, philosophy has always been valued in Cameroon’s education system. As early as high school, students are introduced to the discipline. At postgraduate levels, there are various social media forums where students debate philosophical concerns of mutual interest. These debates are usually vibrant and engrossing.

Since its inception in 2019, the Ethicslab has been inviting two or three keynote speakers from disciplines such as sociology, political science and history to brainstorm about the intellectual concerns it seeks to tackle. The Ethicslab is concerned with issues of normativity and social change. Such an approach obviously grants philosophy an urgency, purpose and social transformational energy.

The Ethicslab is an intellectual experiment to identify the future stars of theoretical thought on the continent. During the 2022 edition of the event, quite a few promising upcoming scholars further etched their names;  Benjamin Olujohungbe (Nigeria), Charles Dine (Cameroon/Canada), Hammadou Yaya (Cameroon),  Opeyemi Gbadegesin (Nigeria), Elisanne Pellerin (Canada), Tatiana Nganti (Cameroon), Henri Gbadi Finimonga (DRC), Kakmeni Schaller (Cameroon), Eric Vernuy Suyru (Cameroon) and Ndedi Emma Maximine Ndjandjo (Cameroon). All these individuals are not only being trained in the rigors of theoretical reflection but also in the ethics of mutuality and reciprocity. Although they come from varied national, linguistic, and institutional backgrounds, the objective is to establish commonalities based on universally accepted cultural and human values.

Ultimately, Ngosso is interested in effecting meaningful social change in African communities through the study and use of philosophy. He plans to find funding for about ten doctoral students and thirty postdoctoral scholars in the discipline within the next five years. He also intends to shift the nodes of perception regarding the African continent from an ostensibly external locus to largely endogenous sources. To realize these grand aims, Ngosso has had to battle with numerous bureaucratic obstacles. The quest to change societies from within also entails transforming the traditional character and functions of academic institutions and establishments. This is no small task. What Ngosso has been able to do is wrest a degree of flexibility in how he operates within and amongst institutions. He is currently employed by the University of Maroua, Cameroon, holds an ongoing research fellowship at the University of St. Gallen, where he is based, and is a research associate of Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale. Within an African context, and perhaps any other setting in the world, such institutional flexibility and mobility are rare. But this is precisely the sort of liberty Ngosso requires in accomplishing his stated mission of social change.

Perhaps as part of ongoing efforts to demystify the study of philosophy, Ngosso arranged a trip to Kribi for all the participants of the 2022 Ethicslab. Kribi, a coastal town, is a perfect spot to unwind. Its coast is replete with tourist attractions such as the magisterial Lobe Falls, a pristine array of waterfalls nestled within Kribi beach. The Atlantic ocean is always enticingly open for a swim after intense brainstorming or away from the diurnal pressures of everyday life. There are also amazing seaside resorts and restaurants and the most delightful varieties of seafood to savor.

In 2024, Ngosso plans a grand event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ethicslab. In this, he will have accomplished the entrenchment of modern philosophy in Africa, concomitant globalization of its multicultural potentials and tentacles, and finally, a re-configuration of the discipline for the myriad demands and expectations of the 21st century.

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

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War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

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It’s happening again. A Rwandan-backed rebel force threatens the Congolese provincial capital of Goma while foreign intervention is cobbled together to bail out the struggling Congolese army. Unlike the last two or three times this happened, the conflict faces the prospect of horrific escalation into interstate war. Rwandan and Kenyan troops are racing headfirst into a confrontation. As Kenya airlifts troops into the east under the flag of the East Africa Community (EAC), the Rwandan soldiers embedded within the M23 rebellion show no signs of backing down. These two African states, each claiming to have the most professional force in the region, will soon trade blows.

Nearly thirty years of complex, multilayered, and tragic war in the Great Lakes have led to this latest escalation. The eastern DRC never recovered from the deadly inferno that was “Africa’s great war,” a bitter conflict that drew in nine countries and killed as many as five million. While peace was declared in 2003, the embers of war continued to burn in the eastern DRC, where the war had injected violence into local politics. Local violence continues to blend with national- and regional-level politics. Rwanda, which has complex and often competitive relationships with Uganda and Burundi, has a history of repeatedly creating and supporting rebellions in Congo. While this current M23 rebellion has many Congolese members with genuine grievances, the force is historically constructed and supported by the Rwandan state. While it is unclear what exactly motivated this offensive, some point to Rwandan concerns over the growing influence of rival Uganda in the DRC. The relationship between Uganda and Rwanda is not straightforward, and there are reports that Ugandan elements have supported M23. The regional tensions at play here are unclear, as the Ugandan and Congolese states are not unitary actors. According to leaked UN reports, Rwanda is directly assisting this latest iteration of M23 with infantry, artillery, and logistics. It has easily beat back the Congolese regulars and their militia allies and downed UN and Congolese military aircraft.

In response to the escalation, the regional EAC has announced the deployment of a military force at the invitation of the DRC, its newest member. Kenya seems to have been the power player behind this intervention and has begun deploying its forces into the fight. The international community has slowly lost interest in the region, writing off the turbulence in the Great Lakes as an endemic low-intensity conflict, ignoring the possibility of an explosion. Some in Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, dream of an East African unified market where a pacified region ensures that Kenyan goods are supplied to Congolese consumers. Rwanda believes that it can only be secure if it has influence in Eastern Congo, where various rebel forces opposing the Rwandan regime have sheltered. When that influence wanes, Rwanda backs a rebellion to ensure that its influence continues.

Whether you believe that Rwandan meddling and Kenyan-backed EAC intervention are valid responses to the insecurity on their western flanks, the current escalatory track is dangerous. No one is backing down until blood is spilled. Both sides seem to underestimate the other’s will and ability.

The new kid on the block, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, demands a military solution and proclaims negotiations a failure. He is inviting foreign armies across the region into the country to bring him the peace he needs to salvage his falling popularity. All the while, the badly needed security sector reform remains stalled by the great Congolese patronage machine. Under the EAC regional force’s flag, Ugandan and Burundian forces are now in the DRC to pursue their own enemies on Congolese soil, raising the possibility of inciting countermobilization. The eastern Congolese conflict ecosystem often reacts to foreign bodies with a violent immune response that would further inflame the conflict.

The limited attention span that the international community reserves for Africa is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. Former US National Security Council Africa lead Cameron Hudson pronounced on Twitter and to The Telegraph that the war in Tigray was “the new great war for Africa.” Unfortunately, the ashes of the last great war are being stoked yet again. Few players in the international game seem to realize the stakes.

The US did send its top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to talk to both the Congolese and Rwandans. Blinken’s public statements were ripe with both-sidesisms and seemed to accept Rwandan behavior as a response to Congolese support to the genocidal Rwandan FDLR rebel group—a problematic assumption. The Congolese political elite, when being generous, complain that the US position is muddled and confused. This reasonable view is much less popular than theories that accuse the Americans of actively backing Rwandan president Kagame’s plots. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories are grounded in real historical US blindness to—and occasional support for—destructive Rwandan interventionism in the late 1990s.

The apathetic international response to the crisis stands in marked contrast to the global response to the previous M23 rebellion nearly ten years ago, when the US publicly pressured Rwanda to withdraw support for the group. In 2013, a combination of the Southern African Development Community’s intervention under the UN flag, the rise of a capable Congolese army colonel, and US pressure led to successful negotiations with Rwanda and the defeat of M23. This time, attempts by the EAC to bring a diplomatic solution have failed thus far, and it seems that military pressure is the only effective tool the community can bring to bear.

This conflict is not doomed to descend into a larger interstate war, but the region as a whole will have to grapple with the consequences if it does. The international community must bring more diplomatic levers to bear, and the EAC must question the sweeping mandate of their current intervention. Regardless, the war is on an escalatory path, and the Congolese of North Kivu will suffer first as foreign forces battle over their home yet again.

Evan Nachtrieb graduated with an honors bachelor’s degree in political studies from Pitzer College last May, where he wrote his thesis on protest and insurgency trends south of the Sahara. He is currently in California.

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

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