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We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab

6 min read.

Wealthy nations are actively hoarding pre-orders of the multiple vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giants from which they sprang are largely avoiding sharing their advancements with the developing world.

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We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab

The sun dipped over the Nile in Jinja on New Year’s Eve. Shots were thrown back, toasts were raised, beer glasses clinking against each other. The night almost seemed like the usual run-of-the-mill end-of-year celebration, with the noticeably big exception that people kept their distance and the gates were locked to keep out roving members of the army looking to catch any reveler dumb enough to wander out mask-free past curfew and slam them with a myriad of charges until bribes were produced.

Now 2021 seems to be little more than the continuation of the cavalcade of horrors that kicked off the new decade. And once again the cynicism is proving justified. For the last couple of months, in various social settings, over various libations, statements of optimism had sprung forth regarding COVID-19 vaccine developments. These were invariably met with knowing laughter from someone at the table, an individual almost certainly all out of damns to give and sick of starry-eyed statements of global equity in these desperate and turbulent times.

And now, as if from some unexpected remnant of colonial history, it trickles out (not as a leading headline amongst the upstanding Western press) that the wealthy nations of the world are actively hoarding pre-orders of the multiple vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giants from which they sprang are largely avoiding sharing their advancements with the developing world.

It is not just the typical candidates that are guilty of this. By typical candidates I am pointing the finger at the United States, Britain, China, and France. But also at countries like Canada, which has pre-ordered enough vaccines to inject its population an estimated five times over. Are they also trying to stop the pandemic from affecting two generations of their ancestors and the local polar bear population? In fact, by mid-December last year, only 700 million doses had been secured for the entire “underdeveloped” world. That number is laughably low. Politics is being played well above people’s heads once again. Nothing has been learned, and mega-corporations are in lockstep with the very same austerity-measure-loving members of the Western political elite.

In essence, this means that pencil-pushing cheapskates in the big conference rooms of places with organizational titles like NATO, the UN and the EU are fully content to once again screw the developing world over if it doesn’t add a couple of hundred million euros to western coffers. Bailouts and massive pushes for research were fine for the good, upstanding, and largely white citizenry within their own borders. International cooperation to ensure worldwide immunity? Well, that might be a problem for those who pull the purse strings.

The only surprise with such behaviour is that there is any surprise at all within the global South. Is this not a continuing theme spread across years, regimes, decades, centuries? 2020 certainly didn’t shape up to be a boring year, dreadful though it was. It was almost enjoyable (albeit in a deeply perverse way) to watch the bullshit come flying from the mouths of nearly everyone in charge, including the deep tones of patriarchal condescension from powerful nations directed disdainfully at sub-Saharan African countries, even as their own fell into disrepair and chaos.

And isn’t it interesting that the entire global market and economic conditions truly were a series of well-constructed lies this entire time? Let me expand. In saying that the global state of affairs was a lie, it is a finger pointed squarely at the West. With a special round of kudos to the United States.

This lie has been easy to spot in media narratives, as they make little mention of smaller, less powerful nations rolling out their vaccine plans or how such goals will be attained. No. Instead, if the narrative remains that the powerful countries have defeated the virus, then it has been defeated. The rest of the issue can be quickly swept under the carpet. Out of sight, out of mind. What will the next phase look like? Will immigration restrictions on citizens of African countries get even more stringent? Will the song now be: “Well you have not been immunised against the pandemic, so surely how can you be allowed around our citizens who have?”

A darker-minded conspiracy theorist than I would almost view such a series of actions as intentional moves to quicken the crippling of “developing” nations from attaining that aspiration. Of course, citizens of such developing nations are still having their rights stripped back, curfews violently enforced, and media freedoms curtailed seemingly daily. Meanwhile, there are rumours that Kenya’s and Uganda’s rich and powerful are having their vaccines flown in on private planes. These claims are, of course, entirely unsubstantiated.

In the age of COVID-19, such governments have the perfect excuse to call on their darker nature and have their nations more fully in their grip, the economy be damned. In fact, this seems the likely option as during the daylight hours, most aspects of daily life seem to grind on utterly unimpeded. There is little logic to the current 9 p.m. curfew especially since bars, movie theaters and indoor restaurants are all allowed to keep their doors open and are largely operating as normal. With the pandemic however, one must be incredibly careful not to overstep the mark, unless they wish to face fines, jail, or more sinister off-the-record consequences.

Now, as the West and other wealthy countries stumble around in the dark in their own vaccination campaigns, one must ask, when exactly does this end for the unlucky “other” countries of the world? Are all others simply doomed to an endless half-decade of dodging curfews, watching the development wave recede and roll back and feeling the iron hand of whichever government figure decides to come down on them for breaking a newly rolled out “rule”?

Such arguments may sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist but make no mistake, this is a serious issue that needs addressing. A year into the pandemic, and many world governments have not exactly done much to shield their citizens from the vast hardships that come along with lockdowns, closures, and social distancing. It seems reasonable to bet that they will not figure it out any time soon. In some instances, it seems that the efforts can be viewed as a sort of willful ignorance. To be sure, the global healthcare system will drastically change for the better in the fallout from COVID-19, but the rate at which access to future advancements will trickle down to the developing world is unclear. It seems as though many actors chosen the more protectionist and nativist camps, abandoning the spirit of “global unity” that the NGO world likes to make bumper stickers about.

With vaccination campaigns seemingly starting in earnest (and some countries such as Israel already having vaccinated 12 per cent of the population as of 3 January 2021) one could be forgiven for rolling their eyes. This seems a familiar narrative: the vaccines are being distributed to some countries while leaving others well out of the scheme. Sure, the pandemic affects all the people of the world equally, but now that there is a solution within grasp, some people are proving to be much more equal than others. Most African nations now find themselves in the unenviable position of waiting around for the West to quit dawdling and get their act together.

The US for one seems to be stumbling from one rollout hurdle to the next, a hodgepodge of state governments interacting with federal, bad, and incompetent actors. The US vaccination effort had set a target of 20 million people having received their first injection by the end of 2020. The reality? Between three and six million, at most just thirty per cent of the number targeted. It isn’t too unreasonable to predict that the US will spend the whole of 2021 trying to grab the reins and steer the COVID-19 response back into a series of workable solutions. Even while putting the US campaign to shame, several other nations’ efforts aren’t exactly stellar either. The UK, home to arguably the world’s best healthcare system, reported issues with distribution in the latter part of 2020. All these factors slow down the efforts to get the vaccine distributed globally – if that was ever part of the plan to begin with.

In the future, it will become clear that there is some blame to be laid at the feet of East African governments as well, given their dubious relationships with foreign nations and their murky tendering procedures. In the years to come, when the many trials and errors regarding vaccine distribution in sub-Saharan Africa come to light, I’m willing to put money down that at least one country will fall drastically behind in the vaccination effort, having thrown its lot in with a questionable tender worth several hundred billion shillings, only for it to emerge that all that money went to the Sinovac vaccine made by China that only has a 50.4 per cent efficacy rate.

It is yet to be seen how exactly African state actors (and their respective publics) will react to this period of global chaos, whether they will start to move away from the neo-colonial overreach of Western governments considering their bungling of the pandemic or if the old guard will remain and carry on down this new decade. As I have mentioned in previous pieces for this publication, the pandemic has illuminated something to the youth within the United States; that all the systems that they were told to comply with were built on lies. A similar sentiment seems to be taking root within several developing countries; that the current guard isn’t really in charge of anything and that the systems need to be overhauled and made more equitable if they are to last. The vaccine buy-up by the West is just a symptom of a larger disease.

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Alex is a journalist and social media expert based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

Forest for Thieves: Why Illegal Harvesting of South Sudanese Teak Leaves Nothing for the People

The European Union Timber Regulation of 2013 has proved ineffectual and it is still easy to ship illegally harvested teak, “the king of woods”, from South Sudan to Europe via India.

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Forest for Thieves: Why Illegal Harvesting of South Sudanese Teak Leaves Nothing for the People

In front of the entrance of the Rivièra Maison furniture store in Utrecht stand two low garden tables made of teak. On sale, says the saleswoman, because the next season is already coming up. Where does the wood come from? “Oops,” she replies, “that is an unusual question.” She goes to the computer inside the shop and comes back out radiantly: “These tables are from India!” That sounds likely, because since 2013 exports of furniture from India to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Just like Rivièra Maison, a large chain with a hundred sales points in the Netherlands and six hundred worldwide, dozens of other Dutch companies source their teak products from India. While the country itself produces only a limited amount of teak, India is the world’s largest exporter of teak products.

In order to meet the enormous demand, India is importing more and more wood from other countries for processing into “Indian” furniture or other objects. Teak is a popular wood but difficult to obtain and whenever a fertile source of teak is restricted by international regulations, such as virgin forests in Thailand and Myanmar, India shifts its focus to new suppliers.

Today, much of the teak in India actually comes from the young East African state of South Sudan, a country where the trade in timber is barely regulated. South Sudanese wood is not prohibited on the European market, but the seller must be able to prove that it comes from a legal source. The chance of that happening is small: 90 per cent of South Sudanese logging is illegal. Any wood that reaches European stores is therefore almost always illegal.

The citizens of poverty-stricken South Sudan are excluded from the timber trade which is dominated by foreign companies whose little domestic revenues go into the pockets of corrupt politicians and rebels who until 2020 used it to finance a destructive internal war. Using trade data, social media forums and discussions with importers, we followed the potential route that looted South Sudanese timber takes to Europe via India. We pretended to be traders and proposed one illegal deal after another, often on the basis of forged documents. Despite the introduction of the European Timber Act in 2013, which should have ended the sale of illegally harvested timber, it still appears to be easy to get illegal timber onto the Dutch market.

“Sir we get the supply from Sudan. The certificate of origin we can make Uganda, Congo or whatever you want”, responds our contact from Pratham Exim Solutions when we approach him in a Facebook group and present the strict European guidelines. “We pay some money to an official and get the origin papers we want.” We can choose from five East African countries of origin: Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi or Rwanda. Of those, only Congo and Tanzania actually have teak plantations.

Various Facebook groups show how India gets its teak. Timber traders, mainly from India, offer large quantities of teak of dubious origin. Posing as traders, we ask if someone can deliver timber from South Sudan to the Netherlands. Someone can. “We get teak from Sudan that comes via Uganda, where we fill the containers in Kampala before it leaves for the port of Mombasa. From there we ship it to India or another country,” says the owner of Pratham Exim Solutions when asked which route the wood will take on its way to Europe.

At our request, he draws up a plan to ship our consignment of wood first to India, and from there to Rotterdam. India, which also has teak plantations, is in principle a legitimate country of origin. “We have good contacts at the Indian Chamber of Commerce, so the papers are not a problem,” assures the merchant. The chat provides evidence of forged labels of origin and a detailed plan to sell wood from South Sudan via India as wood from India. We cut off the conversation just before closing the deal.

Export data of timber consignments from East Africa to India for 2019 shows more than a hundred companies that demonstrably ship South Sudanese teak to India. We bought this data from the Seair, an Indian company that collects import and export data at Indian customs. It concerns five hundred teak shipments totaling twenty thousand cubic meters, with an official value of twelve million euros – not including the inevitable bribes. We also count another 120 parties from Kenya and Uganda that most likely also come from South Sudan. South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the timber market is not yet nationally regulated: as soon as a South Sudanese party enters a timber market in the nearby Ugandan capital of Kampala, the freight becomes “Ugandan”. A number of these companies also say they do business with Europe.

Our data is just the tip of the iceberg. According to calculations by the American research firm C4ADS, more than 100,000 tons of teak from South Sudan go on the world market every year. Teak, “the king of woods,” is native to Southeast Asia and is particularly popular in the boat building and furniture industries because of its weather resistance and “stability”, as traders call it. The limited and more selective logging in primary forests in recent decades has driven up the price.

While luxury yacht builders continue to prefer “primal teak”, plantation wood from Africa is an inexpensive alternative for furniture builders. South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa: they were planted in the 1940s and are now “ripe” for felling. Usually, plantation teak is relatively well regulated, but this is not the case in South Sudan. The United Nations reports that there are virtually no legal logging concessions, not even for large companies, and that there is no supervision. In addition, replanting trees is a prerequisite for felling in regulated plantations but this does not happen in South Sudan.

South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the timber market is not yet nationally regulated.

Besides oil, teak is the young state’s most valuable raw material, were it not for the fact that the lion’s share of the logging takes place below the radar of the tax authorities. According to the UN, the country could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector annually. In reality, only one to two million comes in.

On the Internet, the trade in Sudanese timber is less disguised. There are photos of traders proudly posing next to packed containers on Facebook. “Good Sudan prices” is the caption. Pixelated number plates reveal the Ugandan heritage of the individuals. Kenyan journalist John-Allan Namu went undercover to investigate the South Sudanese timber market for his documentary series The Profiteers in 2018. Namu shows how illegally felled teak from South Sudan is mixed with teak from some legal concessions in surrounding regions at a timber market in the Ugandan capital Kampala—the most common method used to conceal the origin of the wood according to Interpol. The fully loaded containers leave Kampala for their next destination, the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, where they are hoisted onto cargo ships. An estimated 73 per cent of South Sudanese teak ends up in India, where it is cut or processed into furniture.

“South Sudan has only existed since 2011 and has had little time and capacity to regulate the timber market,” Namu said from his office in Nairobi. “The market is largely in the hands of foreign companies who pay generous bribes to government officials and rebels who protect loggers.” The money has been used to finance a civil war since 2013, Namu said. That ethnic conflict between the two largest populations in the country came to an end in early 2020 yet there is still fighting in some regions. The population is very poor and the government is among the most corrupt in the world.

Somewhere in the Lopik industrial area of Utrecht in the Netherlands the smell of wet wood is in the air. Wet angelim vermelho, a tropical wood, gives off a sweet-sour scent. Ipe, itauba, massaranduba and twenty other tropical woods are also cut here. But teak is missing. “If you trade in it, you just have blood on your hands,” says timber merchant Albert Oudenaarden. Oudenaarden is the director of Van den Berg Hardhout, a wholesaler who only trades in wood that has been certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) as sustainable. He can trace every plank of wood in his timber yard to a specific place in the jungle.

Oudenaarden can talk for hours about the importance of wood and the controlled felling of trees which creates space in the jungle and is good for biodiversity if done right. Never remove too much in one place, cut safely and in a controlled manner, do not go into the forest with big trucks, leave important places for animals and the local population alone. His dream? To have only sustainably harvested wood on the Dutch market. Since 2013, however, he has seen the demand for his sustainable wood stagnate. This is a bitter consequence of the new European wood law. “Many companies are increasingly ignoring FSC. The law is intended to combat illegal logging, but whether it does so, I have my doubts about it. In any case, legality says nothing at all about the sustainability of a party.”

South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa: they were planted in the 1940s and are now “ripe” for cutting.

According to Oudenaarden, the law takes the wind out of the sails of sustainable wood. Furniture makers confirm this. “Such a label only costs money. The products comply with the wood law, so it is good, right?”

The European Union introduced the European Union Timber Regulation in 2013. Anyone who puts wood products on the market must research the entire trade chain and take measures to stem illegality in the chain. An authority has been designated in every European country to supervise the timber trade. Years of lobbying by environmental organisations preceded the introduction of the European Timber Regulation but seven years after its introduction, the scheme has turned out to be much less effective than hoped.

First of all, there are the exceptions: a multitude of products such as chairs, wooden coffins and musical instruments are not covered by the regulation. A teak garden chair made from legal, illegal or wood of unclear origin does not contravene the law. A second weakness is the susceptibility to fraud. Anyone who imports products that do comply with the regulation – table tops, cabinets, whole tree trunks – must have a lot of documents proving the exact, legal origin of the wood.

But that is only a “paper reality” says timber merchant Oudenaarden. You can say anything in documents. Indeed, we easily find a fictitious label of origin from the Indian Chamber of Commerce. Tampering with labels is common practice in the international timber market. Previous research shows, for example, that illegal coniferous wood from the Ukrainian Carpathians ended up in the Netherlands with false papers in 2016, and wood from Latin America and Southeast Asia is also “laundered” more than once.

Third is the weak control over this fraud, including in the Netherlands. Because the Timber Act does not regulate the import but only the marketing of timber, the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) is the supervisory authority in the Netherlands. The body makes company visits based on risk indicators such as the country of origin, product type or processing country. According to critics, that role should have been assigned to customs. “The border is the only place where you can really say something about the origin of wood,” says Peter Hartog, head of the environmental team of the Rotterdam police. “Once in the warehouse of a company, it is impossible to say whether that one pile of paper actually belongs to that one wood lot.”

The country could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector annually.

“You better be an environmental criminal than a drug trafficker,” says Hartog in his office in Hoogvliet, where the depot houses confiscated snakeskins and swordfish. “Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties,” he sums up. Since 2006, Hartog has completed five investigations into the illegal timber trade. There should and could have been more if the work was less international in character and the capacity of supervisory authorities somewhat higher.

The Netherlands has one of the five largest timber ports in Europe. Customs, which check for taxes and CITES – a list of internationally protected flora and fauna – has to deal with 75,000 containers of wood entering the port of Rotterdam every year, and the NVWA must supervise at least 5,000 traders. Other matters are also given higher priority in the investigation by the police. “Then calculate the chance of being caught,” says Hartog.

The European Union is only as strong as its weakest link. Under the Timber Act, only the first trader to place a prohibited batch on the market is punishable. And there are quite a few weak links, the European Commission concluded in an evaluation of the law in 2016. Most countries made far too few human and financial resources available, “which makes the deterrent effect of the enforcement activities rather limited”. Dutch customs acknowledges that they only employ a few people who can distinguish one type of wood from another, and two inspectors work at the NVWA.

In 2017, the authority imposed a conditional fine of 20,000 euros per imported cubic meter on the Boogaerdt company for illegally marketing teak from Myanmar. This is one of the few cases dealt with by the NVWA in recent years. Despite the fine, Royal Deck in Livorno, another company owned by the Boogaerdt family, still imports from Myanmar. A video that was until recently posted on the company’s website shows large shipments of timber in the port of the Asian country, and proudly advertises the timber’s provenance.

Myanmar is a notoriously high-risk country when it comes to the origin of wood. The Netherlands has blacklisted it because it is impossible to distinguish illegally from legally obtained timber in the country due to fraud. Yet it is openly sold in several places in the Netherlands. The fact that wood from forbidden countries of origin still ends up in Europe also illustrates the ease with which teak of more diffuse origin – such as South Sudan – can land in Europe.

Traditional East Asian countries of origin are increasingly restricting the export of teak. India, a country with a strong woodworking culture but too little wood of its own, drew its shortages from the jungles of Myanmar until 2014 when that country was issued an international export ban due to the widespread corruption and illegal logging involved in the sector. Indian merchants have since been importing from East Africa. A simple calculation explains the fraud: Indian forests today can only meet 5 per cent of the demand annually. The rest is imported from Africa and Latin America. Ninety per cent of the supply from East Africa comes from South Sudan. According to Indian sources, it cannot be determined where the wood on the Indian market was harvested. When asked where they get their wood from, Indian teak suppliers are curt: “We don’t do that business.” Or they hang up the phone.

 An estimated 73 per cent of South Sudanese teak ends up in India where it is cut or processed into furniture.

Since 2013, Indian exports to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Some of the teak products arrive in the Netherlands through the Alibaba online store. Some of the companies we approach openly admit that they source their teak from East African countries such as South Sudan to market them on the European market as a “product of India”. “We deliver to Europe by land, air or sea. Never had any problems with it, “says Saurabh Gupta of the Indian company Medieval Edge.

In data on the trade flows between India, the Netherlands and Belgium, we find 161 consignments of teak products that were exported from India to the Low Countries between September 2018 and September 2020. Sometimes these are orders from private individuals, or products not intended for further sale: a large elephant, wooden horses for the furnishing of a pharmacy – “a teak temple for the home” bought at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Three quarters go to furniture chains and wholesalers who sell them on to local retailers.

Rivièra Maison’s  furniture buyer Gideon Manger does not want to believe his saleswoman’s answer. He must have provided incorrect information: “I would never import teak from India. We only work with certified wood from Indonesia. We think that is very important.” To reinforce his story, he sends a screenshot of a certificate from the factory in Indonesia.

That remains to be seen though. In export data, we see fourteen orders – making up a total of almost twelve hundred products made of teak and mango wood – from Rivièra Maison to a company in Moradabad, a city east of Delhi. Teak from India, and therefore of unclear origin. In an official response, Rivièra Maison says that the products ordered in India, although made of teak, are exempted by the European wood law and can therefore still be sold.

The furniture store is certainly not the only one that purchases in India. For example, furniture wholesaler Hazenkamp also sells teak products: wine racks, coffee tables, clocks and lanterns. Where does that come from? “Yes, it will all be India, it is produced there. I dare not say where the wood comes from. Yes, I think it comes from India.” But isn’t he legally obliged to investigate? The employee ends the conversation.

“Better to be an environmental criminal than a drug trafficker. Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties”

The NVWA is aware of the existence of South Sudanese teak, the service says, but has not found it on the Dutch market in the past five years. According to the authority, most of the inspected companies have the correct documents, but she admits that this does not say everything. A report by Deloitte on behalf of Agriculture Minister Carola Schouten shows that the NVWA does indeed miss the big picture: it only carries out 50 wood inspections per year, often at the same companies. “It is first and foremost up to the business community itself to comply with the rules,” the NVWA said in a response. “After all, it is in everyone’s interest to combat illegal deforestation.”

Nyarayek Moboic recently graduated from the University of Amsterdam as a lawyer and is determined to do something for her native country. She views the logging in South Sudan with sorrow. She fled the civil war in her country with her family in the 1990s. Relatives who have stayed in South Sudan see one loaded truck after another driving out of the jungle.

Indonesia introduced its own quality marks more than ten years ago and obliged exporters to process logged wood in the country first to maintain employment. Moboic has something like that in mind. She hopes to acquire a legal logging concession in the country so that her enterprising cousin can make furniture out of it to ship in a direct line to the Netherlands. “Unique furniture with local influences. But for people like my cousin, it is difficult to get teak. The only option is to buy it from foreigners while it grows in their country. The wood leaves South Sudan. Nothing is left for the Sudanese themselves.”

In collaboration with journalist Ankita Anand, this article is part of the Money Trail project supported by the Nationale Postcode Loterij.

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Politics

Counterfeiting, War and Smuggling: British American Tobacco Dirty Games in the Sahel

Billions of cigarettes, most made by BAT, are smuggled north through Mali every year on their way to the gray markets of the Sahel and Northern Africa.

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Stashed inside pickup trucks and guarded by armed militias and jihadists, every year billions of illicit cigarettes wind their way through the lawless deserts of northern Mali bound for the Sahel and North Africa.

The profits from their long journey fuel north Mali’s many armed conflicts, lining the pockets of offshoots of al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, as well as local militias, and corrupt state and military officials. This violence is now spilling out across West Africa, displacing more than two million people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger.

Cigarettes made by one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, British American Tobacco (BAT) and distributed with the help of another major, Imperial Brands, through a company partially owned by the Malian state, dominate this dirty and dangerous trade.

Now an investigation by OCCRP can show this is no accident.

Secrets contained in leaked documents, backed up by trade data and dozens of interviews with insurgents, former BAT employees, experts, and officials, show BAT started to oversupply Mali with clean-labelled cigarettes soon after the north fell to militants, knowing that its product would be fodder for traffickers.

The profits of cigarette smuggling fuel the bloody struggle between jihadists, armed militias, and corrupt military officers that has turned northern Mali into a lawless warzone.

For years the company partnered with Mali’s state-backed tobacco company, a subsidiary of Imperial Brands, to distribute cigarettes in regions controlled by rebel militias and throughout the country. Sources say these cigarettes, trucked north with the help of the military and police, then fall into the hands of jihadists and militias. An internal document suggests BAT used informants in West Africa to keep abreast of the workings of the illicit trade.

 

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

The dirty business goes well beyond the desert. OCCRP’s reporting found the Malian government not only helps to distribute BAT’s cigarettes, but also apparently turns a blind eye to gross accounting irregularities at its partner Imperial and even possible trade fraud.

And it continues today. Public trade data and expert analysis show BAT and Imperial continue to oversupply the country with billions more cigarettes than it needs. Meanwhile, BAT’s annual revenue in 2019 alone exceeded the total GDP of Mali and Burkina Faso.

The Malian case is the latest to show the world’s leading tobacco companies are not always abiding by the terms laid out in a series of historic agreements between 2004 and 2010 with the European Union (EU), in which they agreed to prevent their cigarettes from falling into the hands of criminals by only supplying legitimate demand. The agreements were concluded in the wake of legal disputes between three companies and the EU over cigarette smuggling.

“This is their playground,” Hana Ross, a University of Cape Town economist who researches tobacco, said of the industry.

“They know they can get away with stuff. It’s much easier to bribe. It’s much easier to cheat the system,’’ she said. “Governments here are generally weak. This is where they do things that they don’t dare to do in Europe anymore.”

A spokesperson said BAT was opposed to the illegal trade in tobacco, which the company called a “serious, highly organized crime.”

“At BAT, we have established anti-illicit trade teams operating at global and local levels. We also have robust policies and procedures in place to fight this issue and fully support regulators, governments and international organizations in seeking to eliminate all forms of illicit trade.”

BAT started to oversupply Mali soon after the north fell to militants, knowing its product would be fodder for traffickers, according to dozens of interviews.

Imperial said it is committed to ensuring high standards of corporate governance and “totally opposed to smuggling which benefits no-one but the criminals involved.”

The Malian government did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Malian soldiers traveling in convoy across the desert arrive at the entrance to Kidal in northern Mali. Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Malian soldiers traveling in convoy across the desert arrive at the entrance to Kidal in northern Mali. Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

 

The Tobacco People

In the deserts of northern Mali, cigarette smugglers are called “kel tabac,” the tobacco people.

Illicit cigarettes from the capital, Bamako, and ports in Guinea, Benin, and Togo are loaded into convoys with armed guards and driven north along thousands of kilometers of winding roads and desert tracks to Libya and Algeria, and as far east as Sudan.

Smuggling has long been a part of life in the vast and largely empty Sahel region, where armed insurgents claim a patchwork of ever-shifting territories. Jihadist movements linked to al-Qaida and IS, Tuareg separatist forces, and local ethnic militias take turns controlling roads and checkpoints along the way.

Residents of northern Mali drinking coffee. Credit: Ahmoudou Attiane

Residents of northern Mali drinking coffee. Credit: Ahmoudou Attiane

Moving illegal tobacco is a difficult and dangerous job, with trips taking between three and 10 days. Many truckers are killed by military or armed groups along the way. But it is well-paid: In a country where most people live on less than $1.90 per day, drivers can expect to earn between 6,000 to 10,000 euros for moving a load of contraband cigarettes.

It is also a lucrative trade for the drug lords and corrupt local officials in Mali’s restive northern regions.

Hama Ag Sid Ahmed, spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an armed Tuareg independence movement that has controlled much of northern Mali on and off, said state officials and organized crime work together to profit from smuggling.

“Certain military officers, members of the intelligence services, heads of military zones in the northern regions are approached by drug lords,” he said.

“Large sums of money are paid for a contract related to a service rendered or to be rendered.”

A former tobacco industry insider said various militant groups, from the Tuareg separatists who have been fighting the Malian state for decades to the more recent offshoots of IS jihadists, also take a cut along the way.

“Product is escorted north by the Malian army or the gendarmerie [police], to protect it from so-called bandits,” said the former official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. “It would be given to the Tuareg for the trip onwards near Timbuktu, and then the Tuareg looked after paying IS in the Sahel.”

With the continuing violence and lawlessness, Malian customs have abandoned much of the north. Samba Ousmane Touré, an ex-employee of BAT’s distributor in Mali who is now a member of the country’s tobacco control committee, said armed groups have become the gatekeepers of the smuggling routes towards Algeria, Libya, and Niger.

“Armed groups play the role of customs,” he told OCCRP. “Yes, [BAT] knows.”

One of the most high-profile jihadists in northern Mali, an al-Qaida operative known as Mr. Marlboro, is thought to have financed his jihad by smuggling cigarettes.

The one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar allegedly orchestrated terror attacks, including one in Algeria in January 2013 that killed more than 35 people. He led the so-called Those Who Sign in Blood Battalion. In June 2013, U.S. authorities offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Belmokhtar’s location.

His battalion had ties to key Malian armed groups, reportedly providing crucial military assistance to the terrorist group MUJAO against the MNLA during the battles of Gao and Timbuktu. A senior U.S. official said in July 2013 that Mr. Marlboro “has shown commitment to kidnapping and murdering Western diplomats and other civilians.” One such hostage was the former U.N. Niger envoy Robert Fowler.

Sid Ahmed, the spokesperson for the MNLA, said many terrorists like Belmokhtar started out trafficking cigarettes before moving onto harder substances, and then to violent jihad.

“The Arab drug barons created armed militias to protect their drugs and which later developed into the terrorist organizations that are present today in the Sahel region,” he said.

Research from The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime argues the long established smuggling networks in Mali and the Sahel evolved “first to move illicit cigarettes, later hashish and then, most profitably, cocaine.”

A 2017 KPMG report agrees, noting that the region’s cocaine trade overlays routes originally used to smuggle cigarettes, and that illicit trade “can also intersect with the operations of terrorist groups.”Illicit trade is “an important component of the local political economies” of Mali and other countries in the Maghreb, said the report, which was sponsored by Philip Morris, though it claims the trade is fueled by illicit cigarettes from free-trade zones in the United Arab Emirates.

Raoul Setrouk, who is pursuing a court case against BAT competitor Philip Morris in the state of New York for intellectual property theft, said that illicit tobacco in the region has consequences that go far beyond health and tax issues.

“I hope we don’t have to wait for a new Mr. ‘Marlboro’ like terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar to raise our consciousness,” he told OCCRP.

Multiple sources, from soldiers and U.N. employees to businessmen, and armed militia members, told OCCRP that brands made by BAT and Philip Morris dominate the illicit trade.

Most common are Dunhills, produced in BAT’s factories in South Africa, and Philip Morris’ flagship brand Marlboros, which are handed to smugglers linked to armed groups by PMI’s politically connected representative in Burkina Faso, along with American Legends.

“Those which transit through are mainly three brands: Dunhill, American Legend and Marlboro,’’ said Hama from the MNLA. “It is the same thing also in northern Niger and not far also in the south of Algeria.”

Mohamed Ag Alhousseini, an independent researcher in the region, said much the same: “Even in Algeria, the trafficking is encouraged by the need of Marlboro and Dunhills, because they have other brands in the country.”

It’s hard to determine exactly how many illicit cigarettes are smuggled through Mali.

Trade data, information from customs officials, leaked BAT documents, and industry experts indicate there may be up to 4.7 billion surplus cigarettes in Mali every year — the equivalent of around 470 shipping containers of extra cigarettes. Some of them are produced in the country, but more are imported, almost all of them from South Africa.

Mali’s government has ignored years of blatantly false tax figures from Imperial Brands, a shareholder of the state tobacco company that distributes Dunhills in militant-run areas.

It’s also tricky to determine how much profit BAT makes because the company doesn’t separate out country figures in its annual reports. A company presentation from around 2007 estimates BAT’s market value in 18 “operational markets” in West Africa at 201 million British pounds (about US$394 million), and its market share in Mali at 61 percent. Another document, from 2012, gives gross turnover for Mali of 52.06 million British pounds ($84.6 million).

A BAT source, by contrast, estimated the company had a gross turnover of over $160 million in Mali in 2019 alone.

Imperial said SONATAM’s sales are “commensurate with the legitimate demand of the Malian population” and the company operates a stringent sales monitoring system.

“All cigarettes imported by SONATAM into Mali are done so legally under synallagmatic contracts with other commercial operators,” the company said in a statement.

Understanding Mali’s illicit cigarette trade is a messy business — and that includes the data behind it. Because the illicit market is so opaque, many of the calculations rely on educated guesswork.

Euromonitor International, a strategic market research company, estimated the country’s retail volume at 3 billion cigarettes in 2016, rising to nearly 3.2 billion in 2020.

Leaked documents obtained by the University of Bath and shared with OCCRP show that in 2007, BAT estimated the country had demand for 1.9 billion cigarettes. In 2011, the company upped the estimate to 2.4 billion. Both these figures are lower than independent projections for the same years.

After northern Mali became a war zone, however, BAT’s calculations changed, with documents from 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017 estimating the market as significantly larger than Euromonitor’s figures, at between 3 to 3.8 billion sticks.

The reason behind these high figures is unclear, as the same documents contain estimates of Mali’s smoking prevalence that are below the WHO’s. Experts have varying estimates for smoking rates. In 2011 BAT pegged it at 9.5 percent. The World Health Organization, by contrast, says 12 percent smoked in 2017, a rate that has remained steady over the past decade.

Yet data shows that every year since 2016, the first year after Mali’s 2012 rebellion for which trade figures are available there may have been up to almost 8 billion cigarettes in Mali.

Exact figures are hard to determine. A Malian customs official estimated an annual total of 4.6 billion cigarettes based on adding imports (2.6 billion in 2018 and in 2019 each year) with local production (around 2 billion in 2018 and in 2019 each year).

U.N. Comtrade data, however, shows between an estimated 3.4 billion to 5.9 billion cigarettes were exported to Mali per year from 2016 to 2019, nearly all of them from BAT’s regional hub, South Africa. Adding in local production, that could mean as many as 7.9 billion cigarettes are available in Mali each year.

Officials in Mali and South Africa confirmed the accuracy of the Comtrade numbers, which closely match regular reports on the value of tobacco imports released by the Malian government.

Ahmed Malian troops join with former rebels before a joint patrol in Gao, Mali, after deadly attacks by Islamic extremists. Credit: AP Photo/Baba

Ahmed Malian troops join with former rebels before a joint patrol in Gao, Mali, after deadly attacks by Islamic extremists. Credit: AP Photo/Baba

Hallmarks of an Illicit Trade

In Gao, a city in northern Mali that has long been under the control of armed groups, a warehouse that distributes BAT’s cigarettes does a brisk trade.

Ahmoudou Ag Attiane, a local automotive dealer, told OCCRP that 20-ton tractor-trailers stocked with cigarettes commonly arrive at the warehouse. Many of the cartons are then trucked 10 hours north to Kidal, which is controlled by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

“The law is the [AQIM group] that has the most power — the terrorists, the jihadists — and they banned smoking and also alcohol. So you see, someone can’t show off too much by opening up a place where everyone knows this is where cigarettes are stored, this is where cigarettes are sold.

“All these big traders have relations with the big boss of Kidal,” he said, “which means that they are protected.”

Sid Ahmed, the MNLA spokesperson, added to this point, saying: “The traffickers make a large order with a merchant in Gao or Timbuktu. The traders transport [product] from Bamako to Gao and or Timbuktu. From Gao it goes to Algeria [and] Libya and from Timbuktu it goes to Mauritania and Algeria.”

The company that runs the warehouse, SONATAM — the state tobacco company whose shareholders include Imperial and the Libyan Arab African Investment Company — has been BAT’s distributor in Mali for years. Many of the cigarettes that pass through its warehouse in Gao are Dunhills from BAT’s plant in Heidelberg, near Johannesburg, which have accounted for up to 37 percent of South Africa’s total cigarette exports in recent years.

Unlike locally produced brands, the South African Dunhills come in packaging covered with health warnings in a major European language, French, known in the industry as a “clean label,” meaning they can be sold on the gray market.

David Reynolds, who built Japan Tobacco International’s program on countering the illicit tobacco trade, said BAT in South Africa is “notorious” for oversupplying the region.

“The rule is always the same: Oversupply plus lack of local controls leads to gray trade. That’s been a big part of BAT’s — and other cigarettes companies’ — business model for years,” he said.

“If you combine a major, high-end international brand, plus oversupply in a marginal market, such as Mali, with a clean label, you have all the hallmarks of intentional diversion into the parallel [illicit] trade.”

Documents obtained by OCCRP shed further light on how BAT’s Dunhills fall into the hands of armed groups in northern Mali.

A document from 2013 show SONATAM distributes between 25 percent to 75 percent of the three brands of BAT’s cigarettes sold in Mali. Three of its warehouses and distribution points are in rebel-controlled areas, including Gao, as well as Timbuktu and Mopti in the north of the country.

This map from a BAT presentation shows the company’s distribution points in Mali underneath the text: “As we know, in a dark market, the war is won on the battlefield with no pity for our competitors and a massive and well executed trade marketing and distribution to be seen and reachable everywhere.”

This map from a BAT presentation shows the company’s distribution points in Mali underneath the text: “As we know, in a dark market, the war is won on the battlefield with no pity for our competitors and a massive and well executed trade marketing and distribution to be seen and reachable everywhere.”

One BAT presentation from 2013 calls northern Mali a “war zone,” but notes that BAT has nonetheless identified future stockists and networks in Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. Another from 2017 highlights the “extremist insurgency” in eight of Mali’s regions, noting that three of them “remain completely dangerous to operate within owing to terrorist activities.”

However, an internal strategy memo from 2015 shows BAT planned to increase its business in these regions. The plan, called “Desert Storm” in an apparent reference to the U.S.-led military operation during the Gulf War, discusses how to reach “full potential” for their brands in Mali by incentivizing SONATAM to meet sales targets in areas including insurgency-run regions.

“As we know, in a dark market, the war is won on the battlefield with no pity for our competitors,” said the memo.

A 2007 presentation echoes the language of Europe’s colonial-era Scramble for Africa to describe the contest for the “crown jewels” of Mali and Ghana, casting West Africa as a battleground and speaking of “fighting ITG [Imperial Tobacco Group] to the death” and a “PMI [Philip Morris International] attack.”

“Mali was such an important market that BAT undertook a two-pronged strategy,” said Andy Rowell, a University of Bath researcher working with anti-tobacco watchdog STOP.

“The company set out to secure a ‘license to operate’ by schmoozing government officials. At the same time, the company sought to ‘delay and disrupt’ the operations of the opposition.”

Other BAT documents lay out its strategy to increase its market share against lower-cost cigarettes in Bamako and “UPC” — jargon for “Up Country” — including detailed analysis of the competition. They also show the company’s fine-grained ability to map and track contraband in West Africa: One presentation from around 2006 lists BAT’s “informants” in Mali and Niger.

Telita Snyckers, a lawyer who previously held senior positions at the South African Revenue Service and author of the book Dirty Tobacco: Spies, Lies and Mega-Profits, called the operation “corporate espionage stuff.”

The slides of the 2007 presentation discuss BAT’s strategy for West Africa, including Mali, stressing the need to “Grow VFM in Freedom Markets and Mali.” Snyckers said that VFM, or “Value For Money,” is a euphemism for smuggling and illicit channels.

In another presentation from 2009, a group of legal and security officials from BAT was told that “Mali, as the principal market which has the highest volume of illicit trade, is where we have the most to gain by increasing contestable market space.”

A BAT spokesperson declined to comment on the documents without seeing them before the publication of this article, but added, “we are not aware of the phrases ‘dark market’ or ‘value for money brands’ relating to illicit trade.”

A map shown in a BAT presentation from around 2007. One slide explains: “The bulk of the contraband goes to Libya via Agadez (Niger) from the ports of Cotonou and Lomé.” Another notes a trail of contraband from Guinea to Mali. Credit: OCCRP

A map shown in a BAT presentation from around 2007. One slide explains: “The bulk of the contraband goes to Libya via Agadez (Niger) from the ports of Cotonou and Lomé.” Another notes a trail of contraband from Guinea to Mali. Credit: OCCRP

Extraordinary Mistakes or Barefaced Lies

The rampant tobacco smuggling in Mali isn’t only down to the cigarette companies. OCCRP’s reporting indicates there is little state oversight of the industry.

For one thing, the government has overlooked blatant inaccuracies in figures from BAT’s distribution partner, Imperial, which for two consecutive years stated in its public accounts that SONATAM paid 5.5 million euros in taxes more every year than its total turnover.

West African financial analyst Oumar Ndiaye called the numbers “impossible.” Some former tobacco executives in Mali dismissed the SONATAM turnover figures as deliberate lies to fiscal authorities.

Imperial attributed them to an error in currency conversion, with West African CFA francs mistakenly not converted into euros. The company declined to provide documentation, however, and referred reporters to the Malian government, which did not respond to several requests for comment.

Alex Cobham, the chief executive officer of the Tax Justice Network and an expert on tax avoidance by multinationals, said Imperial’s explanation “doesn’t stand up,” and that repeating the same numbers over multiple years is “implausible.”

“Whoever wrote these numbers down thought nobody would ever look at them,” he said. “They’re either making extraordinary mistakes, year after year, or they’re telling you barefaced lies, or both.”

He also faulted the company’s auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, for apparently accepting the shoddy accounting.

“The idea that one of the world’s leading accounting firms, that prides itself on the auditing of multinationals to ensure they’re behaving as they should do, would not have picked up any of this in their rigorous annual audit process is difficult to square with any claim that corporate tax is being paid or audited on an appropriate basis,” he said.

It’s unclear who put together the “impossible” numbers.

Imperial inherited much of West Africa’s tobacco business from Bolloré Group, a giant in France’s former colonies which operates a number of ports across Africa and logistics companies worldwide.

The tobacco purchase bought Imperial a stack of elite connections. The directors of SITAB, an Imperial subsidiary in Ivory Coast, included a relative of former President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Lassine Diawara, the chairman of the board of directors of MABUCIG, a Burkina’ cigarette manufacturer. His online biography says he is a Knight of the National Order of Merit in France. He has traveled with Blaise Compaoré, the ex-president of Burkina Faso. SONATAM was run for a number of years by Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé, who became prime minister of Mali for a short period in 2011.

Ross Delston, a U.S.-based lawyer and anti-money laundering compliance expert who has worked in West Africa, said the Malian government could well have an incentive to overlook years of obvious errors.

“Any governmental authority that has a monopoly over a given commodity also has a high degree of risk for corruption,’’ he said after discussing SONATAM figures with OCCRP. “It’s just too easy to skim off a bit, or more than a bit, for the people at the top.”

Touré, the ex-employee of BAT’s agent in Mali, agreed, saying that the state shared in the responsibility for the bad accounts, adding, “I think that [in] corrupt states like ours, the tobacco industry has a lot of power over their leaders.”

Mali’s government declined to comment.

U.N. trade figures also indicate years of discrepancies equaling millions of dollars in the price of the country’s cigarette imports.

Mali imported more than 3 million kilograms of cigarettes from South Africa annually in both 2016 and 2017, representing around 95 percent of the country’s cigarette imports. An ex-BAT official said that the only cigarettes Mali imports from South Africa are BAT’s Dunhill cigarettes, a point confirmed in an earlier BAT document.

If the former employee is correct, BAT reported to the government of South Africa it sold the cigarettes for under $7 per kilogram, while SONATAM reported it bought the cigarettes for $15 per kilogram in 2016 and 2017, the years for which U.N. trade data is available for Mali. The discrepancy amounts to between $29.1 million and $32.8 million per year, and appears to have continued afterward, according to Malian government data available for 2018.

It’s unclear exactly what is behind the difference.

A Malian customs official dismissed the numbers as a likely lag in reporting shipments.

A cigarette street vendor in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Credit: dpa picture alliance archive / Alamy Stock Photo

A cigarette street vendor in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Credit: dpa picture alliance archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Two former tobacco industry insiders told OCCRP that trade mis-invoicing, a method for moving money across borders that involves deliberate falsification of the volume or price of goods, is common practice in the company’s dealings with Mali.

“Mis-invoicing, under- and over-invoicing, and invoicing direct to the U.K. instead of in the delivered country were all used at one time or another,” one of them said.

Cobham, of the Tax Justice Network, said SONATAM’s overpayment is “very much consistent with the longstanding history of commodity trade price manipulation for profit-shifting purposes.”

That’s apparently not unusual for BAT. In 2019, Cobham’s organization authored a report that found BAT used various methods to shift profits out of poorer countries, at a scale that could deprive eight countries in Asia, Africa, and South America of nearly US$700 million in tax revenue until 2030.

“The bottom line is BAT is manipulating the price of the same commodity and the transaction in a way that can’t be justified by any possible transport costs, and any auditor worth their salt should have picked that up,” he said.

SONATAM did not respond to requests for comment.

Imperial did not respond to several OCCRP requests for clarification, saying only that the company “is committed to high standards of corporate governance” and “totally opposed to smuggling which benefits no one but the criminals involved.”

A BAT spokesperson said the prices of its tobacco “are in line with what external, independent parties would charge,” which is documented in the company’s tax strategy.

“BAT entities … comply with all applicable tax legislation and regulations in the countries where we operate,” he said.

PricewaterhouseCoopers and its French partner Xavier Belet, who audits the SONATAM accounts, ignored several requests for comment by OCCRP.

A solider lights a cigarette in Kidal, Mali. Credit: MINUSMA/Sylvain Liechti handout via REUTERS

A solider lights a cigarette in Kidal, Mali. Credit: MINUSMA/Sylvain Liechti handout via REUTERS

Friends on the Ground

From warehouses in Gao, Timbuktu, and Mopti, Dunhills flow north largely unchecked by Malian regulators.

“With the insecurity, the customs abandoned an important part of the north because of the narco-traffickers,” said Aboubacar Sidiki Kone, a Malian customs official.

Even if customs did man Mali’s lonely desert posts in the north, it’s unclear what they would do. An internal document obtained by OCCRP shows Malian customs and police were sponsored by BAT.

In a 2013 presentation, BAT lays out an “action plan” for a series of scheduled raids to be carried out by Malian customs and police in collaboration with company agents, tallying seizures of illicit cigarettes made by its competitors. A mission order and a protocol agreement in the presentation show BAT was supposed to pay for these raids.

Internal documents show BAT used informants in West Africa to keep abreast of the illicit trade.

A former BAT employee described staffers in Mali feeding intelligence on contraband to customs agents, helping them to seize the brands of other manufacturers.

Sory Coulibaly, a former sales executive for a BAT distributor in Mali, added that BAT has sweetened the deal, equipping customs agents and police with motorcycles and small patrol boats. Touré added that BAT has given customs several new cars every year.

Credit: OCCRPA slide showing BAT’s 2013 action plan for raids to be carried out by Malian customs and police in collaboration with company agents.

The cooperation between Mali’s customs and BAT was formalized further in 2019, when local media reported Malian customs’ announcement of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the tobacco company.

Deals with customs agencies are a longtime tobacco industry strategy, detailed in a paper published by the BMJ’s journal Tobacco Control the same year. Eric Crobie, Stella Bialous, and Stanton A. Glantz found that there are more than 100 such MoUs around the world, that they violate the World Health Organization’s international tobacco control treaties, and are ineffective at reducing smuggling.

Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) were seen by transnational tobacco companies as “useful to provide access to decision makers and promote the image of [tobacco companies] as government partners,” the authors wrote.

In Mali’s case, the details of neither its deal with BAT nor an MoU it signed with SONATAM are easy to find. Abdel Kader Sangho, director of the customs’ training center, ignored several inquiries from reporters.

Touré, the Malian tobacco control expert, said the country’s tobacco laws are weak and there is little enforcement of them on the ground. “Our anti-smoking texts are not strong and most of our leaders are corrupt,” Touré said. “The texts exist, but it remains to apply them in the field.”

Today, SONATAM’s statistics claim Mali’s contraband levels are at an all-time low, while BAT continues to flood the country with cigarettes far exceeding demand.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the flows of smuggled tobacco may even be increasing. Touré said he has observed that the amount of Dunhills moving to the north, have recently been on the rise.

“I’m sure these cigarettes are destined for other countries, Niger, Algeria and others,” he said.

Meanwhile BAT and the Malian government are planning to make more cigarettes in the country. In 2017 they partnered up to build a new $18.2 million factory, according to local media reports. It is expected to open this year with the capacity to produce 3 billion Dunhills per annum.

Sandrine Gagne-Acoulon contributed reporting.

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Who Are Kenya’s 42+ ‘Tribes’? and Should We Be Asking?

Asking whether or not the census should continue to count ethnic groups is one way into the difficult conversation about how to reckon with the legacies of colonial weaponisation of ethnicity.

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Who Are Kenya’s 42+ ‘Tribes’? and Should We Be Asking?

It was a hot and dusty day in January 2019. Sam had been driving me around Nairobi since my first visit, ten years earlier. I often float ideas past him as we endure interminable traffic. “Sam, how many tribes are there in Kenya?” I knew there was no definitive answer but I wanted to know his thoughts. “Well, now we are . . .  is it . . . 46? Or 47? We used to be 42 but some new ones were recently added. Makondes. Asians. Who else was it? Nubians . . .” “And where is the list?” I probed. “Oh that one . . . is it gazetted somewhere? I don’t know.” Later that day, while he refined my left hook, I asked my boxing trainer. Embarrassed, he laughed and said “You know . . . I’ve not brushed up on my tribes lately . . .” “Just roughly . . .  how many?” He replied after some thought, “I think . . . well . . . I know that we used to be . . .  is it 41? Or 42? 42. We used to be 42. But now, I don’t know.”

In multiple interviews with various government officials I was repeatedly told there were 42+ tribes, but nobody could tell me the nature or location of the list. “Do you know?” one official asked me. Ten years earlier, I had asked members of the minority Nubian community too: “Forty-two tribes. And we will be the 43rd.” They even had a letter from a Minister declaring they would, indeed, be counted as such in the 2009 census. But I struggled to find the list. Who is on it? Does it even exist? And if so, who controls it, and how? Why does nobody know? And does it matter?

In my research, this idea of “the 42” kept coming up over and over again. I have been conducting academic research in Kenya since 2009, mostly with the minority Nubian community which has long sought recognition as Kenyan, and has had considerable success in recent years in getting it. It was my first interviews with Nubian elders in 2009 that made me start wondering about this idea of “the 42”, where it comes from, why it matters.

So why does it matter?

Being recognised as a “tribe of Kenya” is important to people. It’s important symbolically as it makes people feel like legitimate citizens. And it is important materially, or at least there is an anticipation that it is. There is a belief that if you are one of the tribes of Kenya, then you can access the state’s resources. The exact mechanisms through which this is expected to happen include, for example, revenue sharing to the counties, drawing of administrative and electoral boundaries, and accessing special provisions like the Equalisation Fund. There is a popular belief that these are somehow connected to ethnicity, even though many Kenyans will point out they mostly shouldn’t be.

Counties, wards and so on are often treated as if they “belong” to a particular group. So, the idea is you have to be a recognised group to get your hands on government resources. Whether this is true or not, the perception that it is matters a lot for how people feel they belong, and how they might feel they are in competition with each other for resources. Plenty has been written on inter-ethnic competition and tribalism in Kenya. That’s not my focus here.

There is a belief that if you are one of the tribes of Kenya, then you can access the state’s resources.

At another level, the idea of “the 42(+)”, or the idea that there is or could be a list somewhere, matters for debates – prominent here in The Elephant among other places – about what it might mean to decolonise identity. On one hand, I’ve heard some Kenyans suggest that Africans should abandon ethnicity altogether, as it is a colonial construct used by the British and other imperial powers to conquer; to divide and rule. On the other hand, there is an argument that ethnicity is an important facet of African identities, and that these days “the West” has turned around and wants to eradicate it, especially around elections; therefore, the anti-imperial thing to do would be to affirm ethnicity. Both arguments have merit. My proposition here is not to take a strong position on either side, but to look at this idea of “the 42(+)” and its bureaucratic origins as a way of thinking through this debate. Decolonising identity is not only a personal thing – it is also a bureaucratic thing.

The title of this essay, and the academic research article on which it is based, is, then, deliberately provocative. I never thought –  and my research confirmed this – that there would be a clear answer to these questions. I have never even been sure that “who are the tribes of Kenya?” is quite the right question to be asking. It carries some very politically loaded assumptions: that “tribe” is an appropriate term (more on this below); that there is a clear-cut way to determine who is and isn’t Kenyan based on their ethnic identity; that there are only 42 (or 43, 44 or 45) ethnic groups which can call Kenya home. My suggestion here is that asking why we ask this question is more important than the question itself.

The ‘facts’

The census is the only official list of “all” ethnic groups, and the only official tool to count the population by ethnicity. And 1969 is the only year that 42 ethnic groups were counted. Voter rolls prepared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission do not record ethnic identity.

Electoral boundaries do not involve listing ethnic groups. Boundaries are connected to the census – insofar as they draw on population data – but before the 2010 constitution they bore no official relation to ethnic data. The 2010 constitution allows for a possible use of ethnic data. Under chapter 7, one explicit consideration for boundary redrawing is “community of interest, historical, economic and cultural ties”, which could potentially be interpreted to mean ethnic communities. However, the exact role this clause – or ethnicity more generally –  now plays in boundary drawing is not clear.

The civil service doesn’t list ethnic groups. Civil service employment records routinely record and make public how many people are employed in the civil service from each ethnic group, but that only captures, of course, civil servants. To establish the “fairness” of each ethnic group’s share of civil service jobs, that data is compared to census data, but only at the national level or by problematically inferring ethnicity by location – for example, by assuming that if you live in Ukambani you must be Kamba.

Identification cards do not record ethnicity.

Nor, contrary to popular understanding, does the Kenya Gazette (the government’s official announcement record) list ethnic groups, although it was used as if it does when Asians were gazetted as the 44th Tribe of Kenya in 2017, despite no identification of the preceding 43.

So that leaves us with only the census.

In my research, I compared all ethnic classifications in all Kenyan censuses from 1948 to 2019. I looked at every census report, but also, where available, all the questionnaires used by enumerators when visiting households, instructions to enumerators about how to record “tribe”, explanations made by the Bureau of Statistics and its predecessors for what “tribe” means and why they chose the lists they did, and archival material (for 1948 and 1962) where colonial administrators debated in letters and meetings how they would conduct the census.

The list of “tribes” has changed in every single census, and since the first census in 1948, 150 different groups have been named. Of those, there are only 14 ethnic groups which have been named and counted exactly the same way in every census. The others have all changed, sometimes multiple times, for example by adding or deleting “sub-tribes”, by moving from a “sub-tribe” to a “main tribe” or vice versa, or by appearing or disappearing altogether. There are also some instances where a “tribe” was listed on the questionnaire but didn’t make it to the final census report, or where – curiously – they were not listed on the questionnaire but did make it to the final report.

You might recognise your ethnic group(s) in this list,  possibly in multiple forms as some groups have changed names over time (e.g. Sudanese to Nubi), or even – unfortunately – in a derogatory form (such as Dorobo, which was only removed in 2019 because it refers to having no cattle, suggesting some form of inferiority). Some groups included on the list for “the tribe question” aren’t even really tribes: for example “Stateless” in 2019, or “Kenyan” in 2009.

So, how are these lists determined? There is no transparency on how these lists are decided, or what it means to be “coded”.

The first census in Kenya was carried out in 1948 and was part of an East African census that included other British territories in the region. More interested in the European population than the Indigenous one, the “non-native” census was extremely thorough, and the “native” one much more basic. Whereas all kinds of details that are useful for development purposes were gathered for the white population, the only three statistics gathered for the African population in every household were age, sex and – you guessed it – “tribe”. For Census Superintendent C. J. Martin, it was so obvious that you would count “tribe” that, in his extremely detailed report on the census, he didn’t even bother to explain why. Other factors that are much more useful in making sense of a population’s development needs, like fertility, education and occupation, were only counted for 10% of the African population in a sample census, and then generalised.

The list of “tribes” has changed in every single census, and since the first census in 1948, 150 different groups have been named.

The actual list of “tribes” that enumerators were given in 1948 was also, for Martin and the other census organisers, self-evident. The British authorities acted as if it was obvious which ethnic groups should be counted, but it clearly wasn’t, because there were differences between the list provided on the questionnaire, and that which appeared in the final report. We can only assume that any range of factors may have shaped the final 1948 list, including self-identification by householders, initiatives on the part of the enumerators or District Commissioners who compiled the returns, or maybe even political lobbying. In other words, determining the tribes of Kenya was not as self-evident as Martin imagined. Decisions about which ethnic groups, what names they use, how they are spelled, what and whether “sub-tribes” are counted and so on, always have to be made by someone.

But the thing about a census, as with so many official tools, is that it gives off an air of authority. When a list like that of “Kenya’s tribes” is made in this way, it comes to feel as if it is definitive, even when it never can be. Even though every census after 1948 has changed the list, it always builds on that first list made by British administrators, some of whom had very little understanding of the communities they were counting and classifying.

In 1962, the list was very similar to the one of 1948, but it dropped most of the ethnic groups which mostly live in other parts of East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda) and added some from the North and East of Kenya. By this time, the British authorities had established much more administrative control in those regions and had learnt of new groups not included in that earlier census, showing again major gaps in their knowledge of the people they had colonised. Morgan, another colonial administrator, this time involved in the 1962 census, later admitted that the concept of “tribe” was a bit arbitrary, but stuck to it anyway, stating:

[Tribe is] a unit which evades satisfactory definition but which was widely recognised. It may be said to be a group to which the individual feels a strong sense of belonging and which is usually distinguished by a common language and culture and, since marriages are mostly within it, may have inherited traits. […] For this study we have to accept the classification used in the census, for which no justification was published. The ascriptions were those routinely used by the administration and which appear to have presented few problems to those recording or those being recorded. They were the socio-political groups encountered by the colonial power upon its entry and with which it had to deal. Administrative boundaries were normally constructed to contain them and this probably increased the sense of tribal identity at that level.

Though he admits some arbitrariness, Morgan goes on, in this passage, to suggest again that it was obvious, uncontroversial and accepted by everyone – African and colonial administrator alike – who the “tribes” of Kenya were. If this was really the case, why then would it have changed?

The 1969 census, the first one conducted by the first post-colonial government, used the same list as was used 1962, but added two more Somali groups, without really explaining why. The 1979 census used the same list again, but collapsed a number of groups into “Kalenjin”. It is likely no coincidence that this happened the year after Moi became President, and Gabrielle Lynch has done some great research about the creation of the Kalenjin identity around this time. In 1989 there were only a few small changes. In short, with the exception of the introduction of Kalenjin as an ethnic group rather than just a linguistic group, the list remained pretty similar to the colonial-created one for the first three decades of Kenya’s independence, but not similar enough to agree with colonial officials Martin and Morgan that it was ever truly “obvious” which ethnic groups should be counted.

By 1999, with the politics of democratic reform in full swing, and the effects of Moi’s majimboist politics being felt across the country, no results were published on ethnicity from that year’s census. It was too sensitive.

Then, come 2009, only eighteen months after the post-election violence of 2007-08, the list of ethnic groups in the census underwent its first radical change since independence, with the number of groups skyrocketing to well over a hundred. This included long lists of “sub-tribes” for groups such as Swahili, Kalenjin, Mijikenda and Luhya, as well a considerable number of newly recognised ethnic groups, including Nubians (last counted in 1948 as “Sudanese”). The political mood was an inclusive one, seeking peace and inter-ethnic harmony. It felt right at the time to generously offer recognition. And it didn’t hurt that chopping up the population into lots of small groups might help cool the temperature on inter-ethnic competition between the larger groups. The 2019 census added yet more sub-tribes and new tribes, moved some around from one category to another, and renamed a few.

The only thing the history of the census classifications shows conclusively, then, is that there cannot be any conclusions. The census, though it has an air of officialdom, is really just a result of layer upon layer of bureaucracy, politics and coloniality. Politicians and civil servants might want to bed this down and make it feel certain, but they can’t. It changes every decade. They also can’t, practically, start from scratch either. The lists they have built are based on everything that came before – both colonial and postcolonial. They bear the markings of all the political moments in which censuses were conducted, and the particular concerns of politicians and statisticians at those times. And this is true of every census, everywhere in the world. They are not foolproof. They are not certain. They are not conclusive or definitive. The idea of the 42(+) is just that – an idea – however widespread and deeply believed.

The only thing the history of the census classifications shows conclusively is that there cannot be any conclusions.

The reality is that there is no definitive list of Kenya’s ethnic groups. That is, there is no list that does (or could) state with certainty and finality who the ethnic groups of the nation are. But there are official lists – those in the census – that are often perceived as certain, and those have to be reckoned with.

How colonial is ethnicity?

From one perspective, the story of ethnic classifications in the census is interesting as a puzzle. Working out who got added, who got removed, when, how and why is fascinating. There is a lot to be learnt about Kenyan history and ethnicity by looking at the details.

But from another perspective there is a bigger question to be considered here, and that is about whether, how, to what extent or in what ways ethnicity is colonial. The Elephant and other discussions in various forums are increasingly – and rightly – working through what it might mean to decolonise African identities. From renaming streets to pulling down monuments to pushing back against arbitrary determination of one’s identity by another, Kenyans and other Africans are questioning why ethnicity is such a strong form of identity; in what ways it was imposed by the colonial experience; and in what ways it has changed or should change form, or maybe even be abandoned.

Terence Ranger, a keen scholar of Kenya but also a former colonial official, coined the term “invention of tradition” to explain how the British came, saw, and invented ethnicity or – more specifically – “tribe”. Seeing Africans as being defined first and foremost by tribe allowed the British to divide and rule, and to imagine they were not just extracting and exploiting, but also civilising. The roots of ethnicity, in this sense, are problematic. The concept itself as well as the specific ethnic groups the British identified and made names and Native Reserves for, were fundamental tools of colonial control. Ethnicity kept Africans divided from each other and in a supposedly inferior place on the hierarchy of civilisation that justified British colonial authority. To the British, at least.

It is this history that makes the word “tribe” a problematic one for many people. Ngugi has written compellingly about how the word – the whole concept – should be abandoned because of its role in colonisation. Nonetheless, it remains the word used by KNBS to ask the ethnicity question in the census, which is why I have used it in this piece. It is something to think about.

Ethnicity kept Africans divided from each other and in a supposedly inferior place on the hierarchy of civilisation that justified British colonial authority.

This history of ethnicity gives cause to ask some critical questions about what to do with ethnicity in any project aimed at decolonising identity. It is indisputable that ethnicity has been – at least partly – invented by colonialism. We must, therefore, be attentive to ways in which some of the projects of colonialism – divide and rule, hierarchies of civilisation, extraction – are perpetuated by ethnic identification today. But I think it would be a mistake to reduce ethnicity to this.

How postcolonial is ethnicity?

Ranger, and others after him, including myself, have also shown that Africans also participated – and continue to participate – in the construction of ethnic identities. And this is not necessarily a terrible thing.

During the colonial period, some ethnic groups had special favour with the British and so it suited them to identify ethnically. Intermediaries like African teachers, missionaries, soldiers and so on, benefitted from colonial patronage. If a man (never a woman, of course) could position himself as a leader of his tribe, he could gain from that. So, he needed the tribe to exist. On the concerning side of the ledger, this kind of patronage politics and the inter-ethnic competition it led to are not such great outcomes.

On the more positive side of the ledger, though, many Kenyans have also come to identify with their ethnic group in more positive ways, as many did before the arrival of the British as well. Most obviously, the cultural practices and community connections that make people feel safe, secure, valued and which give many people’s lives meaning and structure, are not bad.

Then there are dimensions of ethnic identity that are more ambiguous. Many, including Rasna Warah, believe – for better or worse – that to belong to Kenya, you have to belong to a Kenyan ethnic group. This is why the announcement that Asians are the 44th tribe was so significant, even though most people wouldn’t have used the word “tribe” to describe this community in the past. Warah laments, “What makes me uneasy about the designation of Kenyan Asians as one of Kenya’s 44 tribes is that it reinforces the idea that one must belong to a tribe to be recognised as a bona fide Kenyan citizen.”

Seeing Africans as being defined first and foremost by tribe allowed the British to divide and rule, and to imagine they were not just extracting and exploiting, but also civilising.

In my book on the marginalisation of Kenya’s Nubians, I made a similar argument – that ethnic identity, and specifically recognition as being an ethnic group of Kenya, was necessary to feel one belonged to the nation. I showed how it was a source of pride and security for Nubians to identify ethnically. It has been the only way they can imagine securing a place for themselves in Kenya. When the Nubians were recognised in the 2009 census, it felt really very good for them. It has for many different groups. That can’t be disregarded, even though it might be questioned.

The postcolonial history of ethnicity, therefore, raises some additional questions for those interested in decolonising identity, questions about whether or not there might be “good” aspects of ethnic identity that are worth retaining, even if they contain shadows of the colonial past. Perhaps it is transformation, rather than abandonment, that is needed in a decolonial project?

Decolonising identity in the census?

The census is a key tool in the maintenance of ethnic identities. Any discussion about what it might mean to decolonise identity really must think through the role of the census in sustaining ethnic codes first invented by the British, but also actively continued and transformed by the postcolonial government and its citizens. Indeed, bringing the abstract conversation about decolonising identity down to the level of this very concrete list is both a challenge and an opportunity to explore and test ideas and emotions related to ethnicity.

Asking whether or not the census should continue to count ethnic groups is one way into the difficult conversation about how to reckon with the legacies of colonial weaponisation of ethnicity, as well as what it means to people today. Such a conversation needs to consider the varied effects of counting, both good (recognition for minority groups) and bad (competition and posturing based on group size). I wonder if there is a way that ethnicity can be recognised without reproducing the negative effects that first arose under colonial authorities. It is a genuine question – I don’t know the answer. Any such system of recognition, though, would have to be carefully thought through with respect to who gets to determine which groups are recognised, through what processes, with what official outcomes, and with attention to how the inevitable changes in how people identify ethnically will be accommodated. Reflecting on how you, as the reader, feel about how your ethnic group has been counted, or not, in the census, can be a useful entry point to clarifying where you sit on this question of what it might mean to decolonise identity.

Editors note: This essay is based on the author’s article ‘Who are Kenya’s 42(+) tribes? The census and the political utility of magical uncertainty’ published in The Journal of Eastern African Studies. To see the full table of all codes, click on the link, then on ‘Supplemental’. The first 50 readers can access the full article for free here. If these are all used up, Africa-based readers can access the full article for free by signing up to the STAR program. 

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