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.”
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.
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.”
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Educating the Native and the Ivy League Myth
Elite schools in the US continue to place a premium on institutions, not ideas. Where you went to school is what matters.
As a young student, I was always fascinated by the “top” universities and the erudite people that emerged from those august institutions. My first contact with Ivy League people was when I arrived at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in 1999 to start my MSc research. I met students and faculty from Princeton University (which is a trustee of the research centre) and was reassured that they looked “normal”, given all the academic challenges and foibles that a Kenyatta University student like me had. After I finished my MSc, the administration was impressed enough with my work to offer me a job as resident scientist, which I took up with the alacrity of someone catching a big break through hard work (I got a rude awakening later, but that’s a story for another day). As part of my job, I was to supervise a group of Princeton undergraduates undertaking a senior field project and, wanting impress, I sharpened my ecologist brain, especially because I thought I would be instructing some of the world’s sharpest young minds. Now I laugh at my consternation when, after mapping out clear and easy ecological transects for them, they strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle (they were ladies) and that the boss might be offended.
Later on, I asked a postgraduate student from the same institution how these ladies could be so casual about their studies and she couldn’t hide her amusement at my ignorance. “Grad school is competitive. Undergrads get in because of money and name recognition.” I was stunned, but I remembered this when I saw the poor work they submitted at the end of their study. Being an aspiring lecturer (and a student of the late brilliant Prof R.O. Okelo) I marked them without fear or favour, assuming that they would be used to such standards at Princeton. I was told that I couldn’t give them such low marks because they were supposed to qualify for med school after their biology degrees.
They strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle.
The next cohort included one serious student who I actually enjoyed instructing and who finished her course successfully. By that time though, I was getting restless and had started writing an academic and financial proposal for my PhD, and I finished it about six months after my student had returned to the US to graduate. The then Director of Mpala, Dr Georgiadis, refused to let me do my PhD on the job, so I submitted my proposal to several conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. I received a positive response from them (offering me a grant) which hit me with a strange mixture of feelings. First of all, I was elated at the prospect of starting my PhD, but I was completely baffled by the signature on the award letter. It was signed by the undergraduate student that I had supervised about eight months earlier. An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder. It was my rude awakening to the racial prejudice that is de rigueur in African conservation practice. But I had to get my academic career moving, and indulge my first taste of the ultimate luxury that my competence and my work could afford me, which was the ability to say “NO”. It was with extreme pleasure that I wrote and signed my letter of resignation from my job at Mpala, leaving it on the Director’s desk.
Years later, after I finished my PhD and had a useful amount of conservation practice under my belt, I attended the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Sacramento, California, where there was a side event featuring publishers from several Ivy League universities. I excitedly engaged them because at the time Gatu Mbaria and I were in the middle of writing “The Big Conservation Lie”. I pointed out to all of them that there were no books about conservation in Africa written by indigenous Africans, but they were uniform in their refusal to even read the synopsis of what we had written. I later understood why when I learned that in US academia, African names — as authors or references — are generally viewed as devaluing to any literature.
An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder.
From Sacramento, I made the short trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, to give a seminar to an African Studies group. I felt honoured to be making an academic contribution at an Ivy League university and I prepared well. My assertions about the inherent prejudices in African conservation practice were met with stunned silence by the faculty, many of whom are involved with conservation research in Africa. One bright spot in that dour experience was the brilliant PhD student who echoed my views and pointed out that these prejudices existed within academia as well. I later found out that he was Kenyan — his name is Ken Opalo and he now teaches at Georgetown University.
Fast forward to today. The Big Conservation Lie was published, and after the initial wailing, breaking of wind, gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Mbaria and I are actually being acknowledged as significant thinkers in the conservation policy field and our literary input is being solicited by various publications around the world. Now, the cultural differences between how European and American institutions treat African knowledge are becoming clear (certainly in my experience). I have been approached by several European institutions to give talks (lectures), and have contributed articles and op-eds (to journals and magazines) and one book foreword. Generally, the approach is like this:
“Dear Dr Ogada, I am_______ and I am writing to you on behalf of________. We are impressed with what you wrote in _____ and would appreciate it if you would consider writing for us an article of (length) on (topic) in our publication. We will offer you an honorarium of (X Euros) for this work, and we would need to receive a draft from you by (date). . .” Looking forward to your positive response. . .”
When inviting me to speak, the letters are similarly respectful and appreciative of my time. The key thing is the focus on and respect for one’s intellectual contribution. Publications from American Ivy league schools typically say:
“Dear Dr Ogada, I am __________, the editor of __________. We find your thoughts on _______ very interesting and we are pleased to invite you to write an essay of________ (length) in our publication. Previous authors we have invited include (dropping about 6-8 names of prominent American scholars).
The entire tone of the letter implies that you are being offered a singular privilege to “appear” in the particular journal. It is even worse when being asked to give a lecture. No official communication, just a casual message from a young student saying that they would like you to come and talk to their class on__________ (time and date on the timetable). No official communication from faculty or the institution. After doing that a couple of times, I realized that the reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications, or (God forbid) have an African name in the “references” section of their work.
The reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications.
European intellectuals seem to be catching on to the fact that knowledge and intellect reside in people, not institutions. That is why they solicit intellectual contributions based on the source of an idea they find applicable in that space and time. Name recognition doesn’t matter to them, which is why they seek people like Ogada, who doesn’t even have that recognition in Kenya. The elite schools in US still place this premium on institutions, which is why whenever an African displays intellectual aptitude, those who are impressed don’t ask about him and his ideas, but where he went to school. They want to know which institution bestowed this gift upon him.
For the record, I usually wait about a week before saying “no” to the Ivy League schools. Hopefully, they read my blog and will improve the manner in which they approach me, or stop it altogether.
Cuba Can Help Vaccinate the World
On 25 January, the Progressive International will host a special briefing live from Havana with Cuba’s leading scientists, government ministers and public health officials as part of its Union for Vaccine Internationalism.
2022 began with a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases crashing over the world, according to the World Health Organization. Over 18 million cases have been recorded in the past week alone, a record number since the pandemic began two years ago. In the first 10 days of January, nearly 60,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded worldwide — though the total death count is far higher than the official statistics describe.
The Omicron variant is reported to have less “severe” implications among vaccinated patients. But the world remains perilously under-vaccinated: 92 of the WHO’s member countries missed the 2021 target of 40 percent vaccination; at the current pace of rollout, 109 of them will miss their 2022 targets by July.
These statistics tell a story of a persistent vaccine apartheid. Across the EU, 80 percent of all adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Omicron is a death sentence for thousands in these countries — and as the virus travels across the Global South, new variants will emerge that may be less “mild” for the vaccinated populations of the North.
But the governments of these Northern countries refuse to plan for global vaccination — or even meet their own pledges. By late last year, they had delivered only 14% of the vaccine doses that they had promised to poorer countries through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing initiative. Big pharmaceutical corporations are focused almost exclusively on production of boosters for the world’s rich countries, creating a shortfall of three billion doses in the first quarter of this year.
President Joe Biden could easily help fill this shortfall by compelling US pharmaceutical corporations to share their vaccine technology with poorer nations. But he has so far refused to do so. A new production hub in Africa — where only 3 percent of people are vaccinated — is now trying to replicate the Moderna vaccine. But without Moderna’s help, or Joe Biden’s executive action, production could take more than a year to begin.
Amidst this crisis of global solidarity, Cuba has emerged as a powerful engine of vaccine internationalism. Not only has the island nation successfully developed two Covid-19 vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness, and vaccinated more than 90 percent of its population with at least one dose of its homegrown vaccine, Cuba has also offered its vaccine technology to the world. “We are not a multinational where returns are the number one reason for existing,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo of the Finlay Vaccines Institute in Cuba. “For us, it’s about achieving health.”
But the US and its allies continue to oppress and exclude Cuba from the global health system. The US blockade forced a shortage of syringes on the island that endangered its vaccine development and hindered mass production. US medical journals “marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries,” according to Vérez Bencomo. Meanwhile, the WHO refuses to accredit the Cuban vaccines, despite approval from regulators in countries like Argentina and Mexico.
That is why the Progressive International is sending a delegation to Havana: to combat misinformation, to defend Cuban sovereignty, and to help vaccinate the world.
Bringing delegates from the Union for Vaccine Internationalism, founded in June 2021 to fight the emerging apartheid, the Progressive International will convene Cuban scientists and government representatives to address international press and members of the scientific community in a showcase of the Cuban vaccine on 25 January.
The goals of the showcase are both local and global. Drawing attention to the promise of the Cuban vaccine and the perils of the US embargo against it, the showcase aims to forge connections between Cuba’s public biotech sector and manufacturers who might produce the vaccine and help the Cuban government recuperate the costs of its development.
In the process, the showcase aims to set an example of international solidarity in the face of the present global health crisis, advancing the cause of vaccine internationalism around the world.
This article was first published by Progressive International.
DRC: Bring Patrice Lumumba Home
The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.
For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.
At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.
The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance—from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.
In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.
While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.
These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.
Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction—at multiple levels and taking different forms—remains constant.
In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.
Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Felix’s election. Felix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi” for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.
Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.
For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.
Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.
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