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Uganda’s COVID Response a Failure to Build Back Better

6 min read.

For a brief moment in history, everyone was equally vulnerable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that moment has passed as recovery in developed countries outpaces recovery in Africa.



Uganda’s COVID Response a Failure to Build Back Better

“Build Back Better” is Developmentspeak for a particular approach to disaster recovery. The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery defines it as “an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.” It looks forward to the post-COVID era and the potential to rebuild health, education and other human development systems in a fairer, greener and more robust way to minimise the likelihood and impact of future disasters.

The leaders of the USA and the UK use it frequently, Joe Biden more often than Boris Johnson. Unicef, which has mopped up Africa’s vaccine loans, has also adopted the phrase and has used it to signal better vaccine supply systems in the future. But BBB has been ridiculed in British social media and some Americans are irked by Biden’s “my Build Back Better Agenda” refrain repeated with every new policy announcement. African leaders have not yet adopted the mantra and there is hardly a trace of BBB on African social media.

At first, it sounded like more of the “revival of Empire” talk that accompanied the Brexit saga. A year into COVID, it is clear that what is being built back is the previous relationship between the developed world and developing countries before it was levelled out by the pandemic—for a brief moment in history, everyone was equally vulnerable. That moment has passed as recovery in developed countries outpaces recovery in Africa. Despite the far fewer deaths in Africa, the continent was more vulnerable to the economic shock caused by the pandemic. Recovery therefore requires more of that which was lacking in economic development prior to the onset of COVID: strong, accountable governance able to make and implement hard decisions.

According to the recently deceased Dr Anthony Mbonye, Uganda began to fail the governance test right at the beginning. The National COVID Task Force set up after the detection of Patient 0 in March 2020 excluded eleven doctors with experience of managing Ebola Virus Disease (of which Uganda has had five outbreaks), Yellow Fever and Cholera, in favour of some chosen on grounds irrelevant to the problem. This may explain why decision-making came to be dominated by the local World Health Organisation representative. Where a Ugandan may have understood the implications of contagion in Uganda, especially along truck routes through the poorest-served regions, the WHO representative was instrumental in lobbying to keep the borders open to truck drivers before their test results were known. During his mission, the representative was accompanied on media platforms by the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health. In his book Dr Mbonye singles out the permanent secretary as part of the problem plaguing Uganda’s health sector. Since then, the rehabilitation of regional hospitals has failed to respond robustly to the Second Wave.

Whatever the development goals, recovery from the pandemic will require money, which is in short supply, with nearly all countries maxed out. Uganda’s public debt increased from 32 per cent to 37.5 per cent of GDP (an increase of ten percentage points since 2015). The current account deficit rose from US$1,999 million to US$3,205 million between 2018 and 2019. Debt repayments increased by US$17 million in the same period. The current account deficit that grew by US$740 million was plugged with funds from the World Bank’s Uganda COVID Response and Emergency Preparedness Project (UCREPP) and the US$300 million IMF Rapid Credit Facility in 2019/2020.

In order to put together a COVID Response, Uganda and many other African countries resorted to massive borrowing through the pro forma Emergency Response, Rapid Credit Relief and Economic Recovery programmes designed by the World Bank. Within weeks of Patient 0’s detection, the country was close to a billion dollars in COVID debt (bi-lateral debt not included). Under UCREPP, US$300 million was released by the World Bank for among other things, medical supplies, tax relief for businesses in key economic sectors like tourism and industry and to provide relief for the vulnerable. The IMF formed a joint framework with the Bank and added a credit facility of US$491 million. The African Development Bank chipped in with US$31 million to support the medical response, social protection and maintenance of macroeconomic stability and economic activity. The following year the IMF added another US$700 million while the World Bank has continued to lend under existing programmes.

On the face of it, there are elements of better development solutions within the COVID response. For example, in order to bypass the global shortage of protective gear, funds were made available to build local manufacturing capacity for face shields and masks. The simplicity of it was astounding. Where these items have been imported since Independence in 1962, a solution was found and implemented within weeks.

The main candidate for the Build Back Better approach is the health sector. Prior to the emergency, there were active health sector loans of a combined US$468,360,000 and a history of loan-funded interventions dating back at least twenty years. Still, the stock and quality of health infrastructure was in need of improvement, human resources needed to be enhanced and service delivery to be made more efficient and effective. Every major disbursement related to the COVID Response has been accompanied by a public outcry about irregular procurement methods and the incompetence that led to ICU beds remaining uninstalled for months after delivery. The climax came when over 30 patients died in one day and it was discovered that the new oxygen plant acquired by the national referral hospital was not fit for purpose. The seven USh7 billion (US$1,883,587) contract had been handed over to the daughter-in-law of ruler Yoweri Museveni and her twin sister, a newly elected member of parliament. They are the daughters of disgraced former minister of foreign affairs Sam Kutesa.

A budget of USh32 billion (US$8,996,240) to procure cloth masks from local manufacturers quickly ballooned to over USh70 billion. Awards of contract followed the usual pattern—the government paid a price four times the production cost, contracts were awarded to people within the President’s Office and to a firm in the entertainment industry and to other entities not connected to garment manufacturing. To produce the masks would therefore entail sub-contracting, with the attendant price inflation. Whole districts did not receive any cloth masks.

Every major disbursement related to the COVID Response has been accompanied by a public outcry about irregular procurement methods.

A challenge that has existed since 1995—when I first encountered it—is the storage and distribution of essential drugs and medical supplies. Over the years, massive amounts of expired drugs have either been destroyed or remain in stores. At the same time, stock-outs of essential drugs are a widespread annual occurrence across health facilities. Symptoms have persisted throughout the pandemic. Some quarantine centres were shut down after being in existence for some time without the means to manage patients. Hospitals have lost patients for lack of oxygen. Health workers have been on strike over Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Rivalling Mulago Hospital’s oxygen debacle for incompetence, the medical stores lost an entire donation of half-a-million face masks. COVID test kits and drugs were later discovered being off-loaded from a truck onto private vehicles by a side-road.

The IMF is on track for BBB having reignited a lending relationship with Uganda that has been dormant since 2006. The World Bank has consolidated its dominance especially through its Hands-on Enhanced Implementation Support mechanism or Bank Facilitated Procurement through which it has supported the suppliers of its choice, and captured the African pharmaceuticals market. In this way, any possibility of Uganda cooperating with countries outside Europe and North America on vaccine acquisition and technology transfer has been extinguished. As a result, European and North American vaccine-supplying countries will also Build Back Better, financed by COVID outflows from countries like Uganda.

The easy borrowing under UCREPP was made possible by simply reopening or extending existing projects that were closed or closing in 2020/21: Uganda Health Systems Strengthening Project, East African Public Health Laboratory Networking Project, Agriculture Cluster Development Project (ending in 2021), and the Uganda Multi-Sectoral Food Security Nutrition Project.

New loans unrelated to the pandemic were sought and granted: Roads and Bridges in the Refugee Hosting Districts/Koboko-Yumbe-Moyo Road Corridor Project (US$130m); Uganda Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfers (US$300 million additional financing); Securing Uganda’s Natural Resource Base in Protected Areas Project (US$2.7 million); and the Uganda Digital Acceleration Project—GovNet (US$200 million).

The IMF is on track for BBB having reignited a lending relationship with Uganda that has been dormant since 2006.

In the meantime, repayments of multi-lateral loans continue uninterrupted. For example, since the pandemic was detected in Uganda in March 2020, an amount of US$8,222,820.93 has been repaid to the World Bank on the 2006 Transport Sector Development Project and US$988,160.75 on the 2011 East African Public Health Laboratory Project.

Appointed by the World Bank’s Assisted Procurement, Unicef has done better than Uganda’s entire COVID Task Force and members of the cabinet. It has carried out its biggest procurement assignment yet under the most stringent conditions. Individuals within Unicef and WHO have added key contacts to their address books, and pandemic management to their skillsets.

By surrendering their responsibility, Ugandan government representatives are now unable to say on any given platform what brand of vaccine would serve the country best, or why and when it is arriving. Tragically, while Iran and Vietnam have tested Cuban vaccines and are building for future pandemics by reaching technology transfer agreements with Cuba’s Finlay Institute of Public Health to create domestic production capacity, Uganda has not taken delivery of a single paid-for phial of vaccine. All the doses received a year and four months since COVID-19 made landfall have been donations.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.


The Thin Red Line: Why Police Reform Hasn’t Stopped Extrajudicial Killings

Reforms have failed to transform the Kenyan police force from one that is driven by a colonial logic of control to one of service to the community.



The Thin Red Line: Why Police Reform Hasn’t Stopped Extrajudicial Killings

On 1 August 2021, two brothers – Benson Njiru (22) and Emmanuel Mutura (19) – died in police custody in Embu in central Kenya. A few weeks later, John Kiiru (38) was “allegedly clobbered to death by officers” in Kayole, Nairobi. In both instances, the only crime the men seem to have committed was breaching the country’s curfew, which requires everyone (bar essential service workers) to stay indoors between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Kenyans are understandably in uproar about this tragic loss of life as reflected in local protests and social media commentary (#JusticeForKianjokomaBrothers), and statements by various civil society organisations and politicians.

Extra-judicial killings or executions (EJEs) by police and other armed security forces – such as the Kenya Wildlife and Forest Services – are commonplace in contemporary Kenya. As Peris Jones, Wangui Kimari and Kavita Ramakrishan noted back in 2017, “Though there is a glaring dearth of accurate data . . . there is a widely held perception of a spike in EJE during the mid 2000s in President Mwai Kibaki’s first term [2003-2008], then a relative decline in his second [2008-2013], before an upsurge since 2013.”

The spike in the mid-2000s is associated with a police crackdown on Mungiki – a much-feared ethnic militia – and the post-election violence of 2007/8 when the police are reported to have been responsible for 405 of 1,133 recorded deaths.

The latter triggered a series of police reforms, which sought to convert the police from a “force” with its roots in a colonial logic of control into a “service”, which would work for the Kenyan public. Most notably, these reforms established a clearer and more independent leadership structure, and an Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), which – despite limited resources and a lack of cooperation from police – has been able to investigate and successfully prosecute a number of police officers.

However, while these reforms have initiated some real change, they have failed to create a “service” and have instead gone hand in hand with an upsurge in police killings.

For example, between January 2013 and December 2015, Naomi Van Stapele estimated that in Mathare (i.e. in just one of Nairobi’s many informal settlements) at least one young man was killed by police per week on average. Over the same period, the Mathare Social Justice Centre lists 803 killings by police and other internal state security forces reported in the national newspapers.

Such everyday violence continued to be a reality during and after the 2017 elections. At least 92 people died in the wake of the first presidential election in August and around the fresh presidential election in October – “the vast majority executed by the police. More recently, 105 allegations of deaths and serious injuries at the hands of the police were lodged with IPOA between January and June 2021 – including 21 alleged deaths in police custody and 55 “from police action”.

These year-on-year numbers are shocking enough, but almost every report – be it by the media, civil society organisations, activists, scholars or IPOA – recognises that the numbers are likely to be a gross under-estimation.

At the same time, many officers do an incredibly difficult job with little thanks and at great personal risk, and sometimes show considerable restraint. Many also suffer from problems within the service. As Anneke Osse recognised in her 2016 article on police reform, individual officers are often “harassed, intimidated and denied their rights by other police officers”. However, the problem of extra-judicial killings is clearly more substantial than a few “bad apples”.

So how have limited police reforms gone hand in hand with such everyday violence?

The answer is two-fold.

First, and as Patrick Mutahi and Mutuma Ruteere have argued, the government has cherry-picked “what aspects of reforms to support and which to ignore. Most of the executive references to police reforms refer to increasing police numbers, salaries, and improvement of police housing and other hardware. In turn, little has been done with regard to the “software” or a police culture of unprofessionalism, lack of accountability and use of excessive force.”

This cherry picking reflects a lack of political will. As Anneke Osse explained, domestic and international pressure following the post-election violence of 2007/8 encouraged the political elite to “present themselves as reform-minded” and to “use ‘reform speak’”, but without the commitment required to ensure that this agenda was actually operationalised. In short, an association of political power with both wealth and status, and the deep involvement of many politicians in corruption and other illegal activities, ensures that “it serves the interests of the leaders of the executive to keep the police under their control and hold them accountable to the executive rather than to the public.”

At the same time, despite vocal calls for justice for particular instances of police abuse, there is, in general, limited public outcry or pressure for reform. This is the case even when the killings appear to be clearly extra-judicial or illegal; by Kenyan and international law, the police are only allowed to use lethal force in order to protect life.

This links to the second reason. There has been a delegitimization of protest or other activities that might foster tension or cohesion in the name of stability and development – what Nic Cheeseman, Justin Willis and myself have referred to as the rise of peaceocracy. This delegitimization, together with an underlying criminalisation of poor young men, has helped to demonize protestors, terrorists and criminals to such an extent that their unlawful murder can (at least in the eyes of many police and ordinary citizens) be regarded as justified and even necessary.

“It serves the interests of the leaders of the executive to keep the police under their control and hold them accountable to the executive rather than to the public.”

This reality of an often implicit, and sometimes explicit, justification of extra-judicial killings is evident when we look at the main victims – poor young men reported to either be alleged criminals, terrorists or protestors – and debates around the same.

The majority of police killings target suspected criminals with regular news reports such as the one of 28 August 2021 in the Saturday Nation, which detailed how police in Kisumu had “gunned down two people suspected to be members of a gang that has been terrorising the city dwellers during curfew hours.”

However, it is often unclear what threat to life the alleged criminals had actually posed at the time of their killing. In a recent piece for The Elephant, Stoneface Bombaa gives the chilling example of Ian Motiso, a known criminal, who, “On 9 August . . . sat down to take a late lunch at a kibanda in Mlango Kubwa, Mathare when a killer cop called Blacky passed by. Blacky took out his gun and shot Motiso down then and there. Just like that.”

Tragically, this story of extra-judicial killings is a common one: from a plain-clothed police officer filmed shooting two teenagers in broad daylight in Eastleigh in April 2017 to reports of alleged criminals shot in the back, or of guns, or other evidence of illegal activity, posthumously planted on their bodies.

However, while question marks surround the circumstances of many killings, and whether many of those killed had actually engaged in criminal activities, their alleged criminality appears to offer a sufficient “legitimating narrative that these young men embody an imminent threat to society at large and to police officers in particular.”

As Wangui Kimari summarised of the public response to the widely shared video of the Eastleigh execution of April 2017, “a majority of the newspapers framed their reporting of this incident in language that legitimized the actions of the police officer” and “a majority of the Nairobi residents interviewed in the media or speaking on twitter . . . responded in favour of the executions of these young men. A popular response was that the youths killed were “gang members” who “lived by the gun and so should die by the gun.”

A similar picture emerges when we turn to alleged terrorists. In 2011, Kenya invaded Somalia. As Abdullahi Boru Halakhe notes, “The intervention was a military exercise. However, once al-Shabaab retaliated with attacks on Kenyan soil, it was the police that responded to the “blow-back”. . . This response involved new abuses; it was also used to justify a relaxation of security laws that had been introduced as part of police reforms on the basis that they were inhibiting a ‘strong’ optimal response.”

Once again, the killings that resulted, whilst often illegal, have been justified on the basis that such “strong-arm policing is the best way to deal with ‘criminals’ and restore order.”

In turn, while peaceful protest is a constitutional right in Kenya, protests are often characterised by a degree of violence or disruption – such as looting, stone-throwing, road blockades or arson – and by police killings. As occurred just recently on 25 August 2021, when police allegedly shot a man while “repulsing protesters in Kahawa West”, Nairobi, who were demonstrating against kiosk demolitions in the area.

A popular response was that the youths killed were “gang members” who “lived by the gun and so should die by the gun.”

In a similar way to the very real threat of terrorism or crime, the idea that protests are violent, or are likely to become violent, is used to justify excessive force. As Wangui Kimari summarised of the extra-judicial killings that followed the 2017 elections, “The police were seemingly not troubled by the questions asked by some citizens and leading human rights organizations about the unconstitutionality of this violence, and, in fact, denied it initially. When they finally, through their spokesman, offered a response, they claimed that theirs was a measured reaction to ‘acts of arson and thuggery.’”

Critically, this idea of a “measured reaction” is used to justify excessive force, or to silence criticism of allegations of the same, in a whole range of situations. To give just one example, two weeks after the 2009 mission of a UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings to Kenya, “Two activists who had been particularly active in reporting on police death squads were murdered”, with suspicion quickly falling on the police. As the Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, later noted,

The police response was a classic. The police revealed a dossier which indicted – who do you think? – the two people who had been killed. In other words they announced that after carrying out a thorough investigation they had concluded that the two persons who had been assassinated had, in the past, been involved in criminal activity, as demonstrated by an allegation that the car they were driving might have been stolen. So there was no focus at all on who actually killed them, or why. But instead the police resorted to their time-honoured technique of trying to blacken the reputations of the two persons concerned – on the assumption that if they could be painted as criminals, then their assassination or their killing would have been more or less justified in any event.

Ultimately therefore, these justifications of force against alleged criminals, terrorists and protestors help to explain how limited reforms have gone hand in hand with an upsurge in everyday police killings whether it be of a criminal, someone who broke a curfew, someone who protests against the destruction of their livelihood, or someone who poses a threat to those in power. As a result, extra-judicial killings serve to uphold a culture of impunity, undermine public trust in the police and further fuel a sense of exclusion amongst many Kenyans that only further fuels criminality and potential instability.

As Stoneface Bombaa wrote of Ian Motiso, the thousands of men (and it is likely thousands) who in recent decades have lost their lives at the hands of the Kenyan police when they posed no immediate and clear threat to life, “did not deserve to be killed by the people whom we expect to protect us.” This may seem obvious, but it is only when it is widely accepted that it will no longer be possible for the police and others to justify extra-judicial killings. And it is only when such action can no longer be widely justified that more meaningful reform will become likely and a colonial police force can finally shift into becoming a police service.

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Guns, Oil and Water in Turkana County: What Do the Stars Portend?

The discovery of oil and water in Turkana might not be the only answer to the development challenges of this violence-prone county.



Guns, Oil and Water in Turkana County: What Do the Stars Portend?

Six hundred and seventy-one kilometres north of Nairobi, close to the border with Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia, lies the dusty town of Lodwar in Turkana County, a rustic regional headquarters surrounded by a vast, sparse, thorny landscape that hosts the largest desert water body in the world, Lake Turkana.

The recent discovery of oil in the region has thrown the county into the national limelight, giving it newfound importance because of its resource matrix. But even as the oil extraction begins, a process that has been marred by opacity, accusations of corruption, and conflict over the division of profits between the locals and the national government, an older discovery remains relatively unknown—archeoastronomy.

Archeoastronomy is the study of how people in the past understood the phenomena in the sky, how they used these discoveries, and what role the sky played in their cultures. It is a multi-disciplinary field that includes geomorphology, art, astronomy, and religion.

The basalt pillars discovered at Kalokol, Lothagam, Manemanya, Lokori and Namoratunga in the Turkana region in 1970s, are said to align with seven major stars: Aldebaran, Sirius, beta Triangulum, Pleiades, Bellatrix, central Orion and Saiph. The name Namoratunga is interpreted to mean either “dancing stones” or “people of stones”. There is contestation as regards the dating of the rock formations, with some claiming they were installed around 300 BC while others say they date as far back as 2400 BC.

Some of the pillar sites have sophisticated underground burial sites containing as many as 160 graves all facing in one direction and marked by horizontal and vertical stone slabs jutting out of the ground.

These rock formations have been linked to similar ones among the Cushitic people of southern Ethiopia, in the Nile Valley in Egypt, and among the Nilotic people of southern Kenya. They comprise rock art, ceramics, symbols, writings, and pottery that are collectively referred to as the “Turkwel tradition”.

The remoteness of the sites, the poor accessibility, and the general insecurity in the area have led to little appreciation and understanding of the centrality of these sites to our historical memory as a people. The widespread insecurity is mainly driven by the ease of access to weapons both within and from outside our national borders.

Guns and raiders

For a country with an estimated 700,000 guns in illegal hands, the story of the arming of the Turkana has many starting points depending on whom you ask. Some place it at the point where the Turkana acquired Austrian Steyr AUG rifles from the Italian troops during World War II and later during the Shifta wars. Soon after, they began raiding their Karamojong neighbours across the border in northern Uganda. That is, until April 1979 when the fall of Idi Amin led to the looting of the famous Moroto Barracks in northern Uganda which gave the Karamojong massive firepower and defences.

It is estimated that the barracks had more than 15,000 guns and roughly two million rounds of ammunition from the Soviets. The raid yielded German-made Gehwer 3 NATO army rifles, AK47 assault rifles, and millions in free ammo.

A succession of events between the fall of Amin, the drought in the Moroto water catchment area, and Tito Okello’s miscalculated act of arming and drafting the Karamojong into the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) essentially brought the entire pastoralist belt into localised modern warfare and the Soviet Cold War circuit.

In the 1970s, rural ethnic politics over pasture and livestock spilled into national concerns over territory and mixed with global Cold War politics that saw Gerald Ford supply Kenya with F-5As/5Es fighter weaponry, as Soviet leader Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev courted Somalia’s Siad Barre. Meanwhile, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist regime rose in Addis and armed the late John Garang’s fast-growing war machinery, the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA).

Turkanas meanwhile harnessed their critical geostrategic importance to the Kenyan state as the ethnic buffer at the border, to negotiate with the Kenyatta regime. This happened primarily because an increasingly belligerent Amin threatened Kenya’s territorial integrity, and an expansionist Islamic regime under Defence Minister Gen. Abdel Rahman Mohammed toppled President Jaafar Nimeiry in Khartoum while he was on a trip to the United States.

Further South, the Pokot, faced with threats from the Marakwet to the East, the Ugandan Sebei to the West, the Sabaot to the South-east and the Turkana to the north, amassed their stash of American-made weapons—spoils from the 1977-78 Ethio-Somali Ogaden war. Siad Barre’s men had offloaded their loot of weapons taken from the retreating Ethiopian regiments into the hands of the Pokot fighters.

Former President Daniel arap Moi tried disarming the Pokot thrice, including during the famed 1984 Konyi Lotiriri operation around the Kopokogh area in Pokot north which was followed by a second wave in 1986. But it was the 1989 disarmament, and the subsequent massacre, that underscored the difficulty of removing rifles from private hands in such a conflict-prone region.

If you disarm the Turkana, they could be easily obliterated by the Merille who are north of Todonyang on the Ethiopian border. The Turkana had coexisted with the Merille until their fallout in the mid-1990s after which the Merille fled north into the Omo Valley and the Turkana clans fled south to around Longwarek village on the northwest shores of Lake Turkana.

Disarming the Turkana also risks a repeat of the 1989 Pokot-style massacre, either by the Toposa of Kapoeta in South Sudan, or by the Jie, or the Karamojong of Uganda. The arms inside the pastoralist belt are therefore a case of mutually assured destruction or at the very least represent the risk of strategic damage to the powerful tribes by the lesser ones.

Conflict over pasture, land and livestock puts water prospects into sharp focus, with the Eliye Springs, the Loboli swamps and Aiyanginyang water catchment areas a playing strategic role in the provision of water for sustenance, and leading to clan-based resource conflicts in the region.

The politics of the colourless gold 

Previously known as Lake Rudolf, the 6,500km² Lake Turkana is fed by the Omo River from south-western Ethiopia, and the Turkwel and Kerio Rivers from the south and southeast of the lake, respectively.

Water is becoming the centre of region-wide ecological, demographic, and societal pressures in this arid landmass and conflict over water and pasture have emerged as the real strategic risks. To properly define what will be at stake in a few years based on the county’s current resource trajectory, we must begin with the recently discovered aquifers.

The mapped Turkana and Lotikipi aquifers hold more than 250 billion cubic metres of water against an annual national usage of just 3 billion cubic metres. For context, the two aquifers —the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer and the Lodwar Basin Aquifer—could supply the water needs of the entire country at the current population rate for at least 70 years. The two aquifers were identified using advanced satellite exploration technology.

The discovery resulted from the GRID MAP (Groundwater Resources Investigation for Drought Mitigation in Africa Program) groundwater mapping project, and was announced at a 2013 international water security conference in Nairobi. The find was then confirmed by drilling conducted in 2015, but there is a need for further studies to more accurately quantify the reserves and assess the water quality.

But it was the 1989 disarmament, and the subsequent massacre, that underscored the difficulty of removing rifles from private hands in such a conflict-prone region.

The Lotikipi Basin Aquifer is located west of Lake Turkana basin and studies show it to be a part of previous surges in the size of Lake Turkana hundreds of years ago. The technology combined seismic mapping, remote sensing, and available groundwater data to explore and ascertain the presence of groundwater over such a large, arid, and rocky area. On its own, Lotikipi could potentially triple Kenya’s strategic water reserves and meet its medium-to-long term water needs.

The relatively smaller Lodwar Basin Aquifer could serve as a strategic reservoir for Lodwar, Turkana County’s main town, and the Lokichar, Kainuk, and Lokitaung areas. Three other aquifers have also been identified in other parts of Turkana County but are still subject to mapping and confirmation by drilling and assessment.

The politics of black gold

In 2012, right around the time the aquifers were discovered, Kenya discovered oil in the Lokichar area. Categorized as light and sweet with a light to medium oil grading API scale of 32-38 and a sulphuric content below 0.5%, the discovery has a high wax content, which would make production, transport, and storage costs relatively high.

Even up to the time of the sale of the first 200,000 barrels to Singapore at a cost of US$1.4 billion, the actual breakeven cost of Turkana crude oil remained a closely guarded piece of information. At US$60 a barrel, the sale was a US$2 discount on the day’s market prices.

The Lokichar crude fields contain an estimated 560 million barrels in proven and probable reserves and are expected to produce up to 100,000 barrels per day from 2022. A barrel is a standard unit used by the oil industry representing 159 litres or 42 gallons of crude oil.

The logistical challenge of extracting the oil in Lokichar, 912 kilometres away from the port of Mombasa, Kenya’s largest port, further complicates the economics of mining and exportation.

Water is becoming the centre of region-wide ecological, demographic, and societal pressures in this arid landmass.

The project was already facing headwinds when the Kenyan government, through the Ministry of Petroleum, hired an undisclosed firm to audit the petroleum prospects and projections in 2016. So when the British oil explorer Tullow Oil served the Ministry with a KSh204 billion bill for its six years of work in the Lokichar oilfields, the state was ready, waiting to challenge that invoice.

This points to a hidden scepticism within the Kenyan petroleum circles as to the reliability of the explorer, and the viability of the oil reserves. The tussle between Tullow and the state arises right at the point where about 40 wells have already been sunk over the last 7-year period.

On the revenue-sharing front, Turkana leaders accepted a 5 per cent share for the locals (down from a proposed 10 per cent share) and 20 per cent for the county coffers. The remaining 75 per cent is to go to the National Treasury.

Devolution meets oil

The lure of the petrodollar has seen nearly 10,000 firms move into Turkana’s once sleepy transit town, establishing retail space, guesthouses, leisure outlets, offices, malls, petrol stations, housing, eateries, and agribusiness. Devolution and auxiliary services to the oil economy have pushed the county’s GDP ranking to about KSh11 billion as per the 2017 County Gross Product report.

Still, the boom has not translated into much in the lives of the locals, as a 2018 report put the poverty incidence at 756,000 of the 1.2 million residents, and the illiteracy rate at 80 per cent.

Additionally, the Lokichar crude fields carry the implicit risks of crowding out the other economic sectors and disincentivising capital investment in pastoralism, education, transport, and hospitality that have been the economic mainstay for decades.

For the oil explorers and related service providers, relations with the locals have not always been rosy. Protests by locals in 2013 during Tullow’s drilling launch, and in 2018 during the first shipment of crude, regarding jobs and other benefits, led to a truce and better engagement by the firm and its stakeholders. Loss of pasture as urban development and gazetted blocks crowd out grazing fields does not augur well for the pastoralist communities.

The discovery of oil has triggered border conflicts in Kalingorock, Lorogon, and Nakwamoru, and as far away as Kainuk town in the South. Juluk and Napeitom areas have not been spared either, even as a section of neighbouring Pokot leaders lay claim to the Lokichar basin.

Decades of a pastoralist lifestyle have left the broader community with few modern skills and local subcontracted firms trying to hire specialists and experts in machining, fabrication, refrigeration, manufacturing, engineering, energy, and construction, as well as service-sector workers are facing challenges.

Three major initiatives have been undertaken to upskill, reskill and build the capacity of the local workforce. The county government has already spent KSh90 million setting up, upgrading and retooling village polytechnics, while Mount Kenya University has set up a KSh600 million (US$6 million) campus to offer oil and water-related courses. The Canadian-headquartered local oil explorer Africa Oil has invested KSh100million (US$1 millions) to upgrade the Lodwar Youth Polytechnic to teach a variety of blue-collar skills.

The Kapese airstrip in Lokichar, owned by African Camp Solutions (ACA), received a major KSh175 million facelift to extend the runway to cater for larger local planes. Regional airlines have now started operating daily flights to Turkana, including Phoenix Air, Astral Aviation, Safarilink, Flying Doctors, Tropic Air, and other chartered aircraft contracted by Tullow Oil to ferry its staff.

Land prices in the area have increased five-fold as prospects for oil  bring in speculators, with the attendant complaints of land grabbing, zoning disputes, land titling challenges, and lack of access roads. An eighth of an acre piece of land that cost KSh50,000 in 2013 now prices at around KSh400,000.

Tullow has also leased 420 acres from residents in the Kapese area to build a new camp, located just seven kilometres from Lokichar town and 90 kilometres from Lodwar. This will be Tullow’s fifth camp as it was already operating from Ngamia and Twiga camps, as well as in the Engomo and Ekales camps.

Land prices in the area have increased five-fold as prospects for oil  bring in speculators.

In early 2021, Tullow Oil, the primary driver of the oil exploration, promised to provide a six-month review of the viability of its operations after the planned sale of its stake in the venture fell through. The fate of the county’s oil boom and the related industries is heavily tied to the report’s final findings, which are expected by the end of 2021.

High production costs due to the nature of the Lokichar crude oil, weak output in Ghana, and the March ethnic clashes in the South American petrol state of Guyana led to announcement of a 16-year low in oil production for Tullow in 2020. Amidst the COVID-19 meltdowns, the firm has warned of a further 16 per cent dip in its production capacity for 2021.

In light of the above issues, it just might be time for Turkana County to begin diversifying its economy away from the oil prospecting industry.

Tapping into the potential benefits of the Lapsset project, the county’s water resources, the Namoratunga sites, and devolved powers, will spur the local economy even as the leaders await the findings of the December 2021 oil report,  and its recommendations about the economic viability of the oil deposits in and around Turkana County.

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Dominic Ongwen: LRA Victim or Perpetrator?

Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander who was put on trial at the ICC, is appealing his conviction and sentencing. A question that persisted throughout his trial was whether Ongwen was a victim or a perpetrator in the northern Uganda conflict.



Dominic Ongwen: LRA Victim or Perpetrator?

All sides involved in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Dominic Ongwen agreed that he did not voluntarily join the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and that he was subjected to the group’s violent initiation rituals to force him to submit to the LRA.

What they disagreed on is whether Ongwen’s brutal induction into the LRA meant that he was himself a victim throughout the 27 years he was a member of the LRA, that he was always submissive and incapable of making his own decisions, including whether to escape the group.

Ongwen’s trial covered only a fraction of the time he was with the LRA— the period between 1 July 2002 and 31 December 2005. In 2002, Ongwen was 24 years old, well past the age of 15 years, the upper limit for him to be classified as a child solider under the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding law.

Ongwen’s lawyers advanced the “once a victim, always a victim” argument. The prosecution disagreed, pointing to the testimony of multiple former LRA members who, just like Ongwen, were abducted and forced to join the group but later chose to escape the LRA despite the threat of death if they were recaptured. Lawyers representing the victims said their clients had shared a similar  a experience of their LRA superiors “beating the civilian” out of them but they later chose to leave the group at great risk to themselves.

The three judges of Trial Chamber IX agreed with the arguments of the prosecution and the victims’ lawyers when they unanimously convicted Ongwen of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity on February 4 this year.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt and Judges Péter Kovács and Raul C. Pangalangan also considered similar arguments when determining what sentence to give Ongwen. They sentenced him to 25 years imprisonment in a 2-1 decision issued on May 6.

The duress defence

In their 1,077-page judgement, Judges Schmitt, Kovács and Pangalangan explained why they concluded that when Ongwen committed the crimes he was charged with he was not under “a threat of imminent death” nor was he under threat of “continuing bodily harm.” These are the two elements Ongwen’s lawyers needed to demonstrate in their argument that their client was under duress when he committed the crimes he was charged with.

“In fact, based on the above, the Chamber finds that Dominic Ongwen was not in a situation of complete subordination vis-à-vis [LRA leader] Joseph Kony. The evidence indicates that in the period of the charges, Dominic Ongwen did not face any prospective punishment by death or serious bodily harm when he disobeyed Joseph Kony. Dominic Ongwen also had a realistic possibility of leaving the LRA, which he did not pursue. Rather he rose in rank and position, including during the period of the charges,” said the judges.

The judges further addressed the issue of Ongwen being a victim because of his abduction when he was nine years old and concluded,

“The Chamber has duly considered the above facts underlying these submissions [by the defence]. In addition, and while acknowledging that indeed Dominic Ongwen had been abducted at a young age by the LRA, the Chamber notes that Dominic Ongwen committed the relevant crimes when he was an adult and, importantly, that, in any case, the fact of having been (or being) a victim of a crime does not constitute, in and of itself, a justification of any sort for the commission of similar or other crimes.”

Dominic Ongwen also had a realistic possibility of leaving the LRA, which he did not pursue.

One reason the judges reached the conclusions they did about Ongwen was that dozens of witnesses who testified before them described having suffered similar experiences to what Ongwen underwent in the LRA. They testified about their abduction at a young age. They testified about their brutal initiation into the LRA. They testified about their constant fear of being killed on suspicion of wanting to escape but, in many cases, they overcame that fear or resigned themselves to the possibility of being killed and chose to escape anyway.

In their majority decision on Ongwen’s sentencing, Judges Schmitt and Kovács said they took into account Ongwen’s abduction by the LRA when he was nine years old and what he went through as a child. They said they weighed that against the gravity of the crimes for which they convicted Ongwen. Judge Pangalangan said he agreed with their reasoning regarding Ongwen’s sentencing but he disagreed with the sentence itself. In a partially dissenting opinion, Judge Pangalangan said he would have sentenced Ongwen to 30 years in prison. All the judges were agreed, however, that they would not sentence Ongwen to life imprisonment as the lawyers for the victims had asked.

Ongwen’s age

Another issue Judges Schmitt, Kovács and Pangalangan determined in their February 4 judgment was Ongwen’s age and the year he was abducted. After analysing the different testimonies placed before them, the judges concluded that Ongwen was abducted in 1987 and that he was nine years old at the time.

The judges decided to make a determination on Ongwen’s age and the year he was abducted because, as Ongwen’s case proceeded, different people gave Ongwen a different age at the time of his abduction. They included Ongwen himself who said he was 14 years old when he was abducted. He said this on the first day he appeared before the ICC in January 2015.

In 1987, when Ongwen was abducted on his way to school, the LRA was known as the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces before it later changed its name to the Lord’s Resistance Army. In the period during which he committed the crimes for which he was convicted and sentenced, Ongwen was a commander with the LRA’s Sinia Brigade. Between 2002 and 2005, Ongwen was first commander of the Oka battalion of Sinia Brigade and was later promoted to other command positions before being named overall brigade commander.

The crimes

The crimes for which Ongwen was convicted and sentenced include his role in attacks on four camps for internally displaced people in the Gulu and Lira districts of northern Uganda. Ongwen was also convicted of murder, persecution, pillaging, torture and attacking civilians in the Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok IDP camps. The attack on Pajule took place on 10 October 2003, the Odek attack on 29 April 2004, Lukodi on 19 May 2004 and Abok on 8 June 2004. These IDP camps and others in northern Uganda have since been closed and the people have returned to their villages, especially after the LRA left northern Uganda as part of the Juba-mediated peace process that ran from 2006 to 2008.

Ongwen was also convicted on 11 counts of sexual and gender-based crimes he committed himself. These include forcefully marrying five women identified in the verdict by their pseudonyms P-099, P-101, P-214, P-226 and P-227. Other sexual and gender-based crimes for which Ongwen was convicted include rape, torture, sexual slavery, enslavement and forced pregnancy. He was convicted of committing these crimes against seven women.

The former commander in the LRA’s Sinia brigade was also convicted of indirectly committing sexual and gender-based crimes against other women. Ongwen was also convicted of two counts of conscripting children under the age of 15 into the LRA and using them to participate in attacks.

Ongwen’s conviction on 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity is a record at the ICC. It is unlikely that Ongwen would be holding such a record had he not surrendered himself in January 2015. The ICC issued an arrest warrant in July 2005 but Ongwen evaded capture for close to 10 years. By the time he surrendered himself to a rebel group in the Central African Republic in January 2015, there had been an unsuccessful multinational effort in that country to capture Kony and other LRA commanders. So, what led to Ongwen’s surrender in January 2015? Ongwen did not testify during his trial so the reasons for his surrender remain unclear.

A prosecutor comes calling

But how did the northern Uganda conflict that Ongwen was part of end up at the ICC? The obvious answer would be that in December 2003 Uganda asked the ICC to investigate the atrocities committed in the region. This was the first such request to be received at the ICC after it began work in July 2002. The request led the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to investigate the atrocities in northern Uganda and request judges to issue an arrest warrant for five LRA commanders, including Ongwen. The arrest warrant was issued in July 2005 and, almost 10 years later, Ongwen surrendered to a rebel group in the Central African Republic and was later handed over to the ICC in January 2015.

However, it turns out that the ICC’s involvement in Uganda was not that straightforward. Uganda did not simply seek the ICC’s intervention—the official ICC line on the issue. On the contrary, the ICC’s first prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, actively encouraged Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to seek the ICC’s intervention in northern Uganda. The mid-2003 discussion between Moreno Ocampo and Museveni did not seal the deal; Museveni referred the matter to the Ministries of Justice and Defence and there was debate on the pros and cons before Uganda sent the ICC a referral request.

According to Phil Clark in his 2018 book Distant Justice, Phil Clark says that it is Moreno Ocampo who first broached the subject. In short, Moreno Ocampo did what in legal circles is sometimes referred to as ambulance chasing.

According to Clark, Moreno Ocampo reached out to the Ugandan government in London in May 2003. He based his information on an interview with an unnamed Ministry of Defence official that corroborated a 27 July 2009 report in The EastAfrican.

At the time Moreno Ocampo made that initial approach to the Ugandan government, the ICC was almost a year old and it had no case to its name.

In his book, Distant Justice, Clark argues that the Office of the Prosecutor actively pursuing cases in the early days of the court underlined, “a view within the Court—and particularly within the OTP—that, as a new global institution with substantial financial and diplomatic backing from State Parties, it needed to open investigations and prosecutions quickly to be seen as a legitimate actor on the world stage.”

Ongwen’s conviction on 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity is a record at the ICC.

This is echoed by an unnamed ICC official Clark interviewed in 2006. “What use is a court without cases? We wanted to hit the ground running and show the world that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” the official told Clark.

When Moreno Ocampo initiated discussions with Uganda on a possible referral, he found a government thinking through what the court meant for world politics. Lucien Tibaruha, Uganda’s Solicitor-General of at the time, told Clark in a March 2006 interview that after Moreno Ocampo got in touch with Museveni, the issue of an ICC referral was passed on to both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence. Tibaruha told Clark that it was the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that followed up on the issue with the ICC.

“They started talking to the Court and they kept us informed. MoD is in charge of day-to-day ICC affairs. . . . In our referral we told the ICC the LRA is out of reach by the Ugandan government. We asked the Court to go get them. It’s clear we’re unable to prosecute the LRA because they’re currently outside the jurisdiction of Uganda,” Tibaruha told Clark.

A Ministry of Defence official who spoke to Clark on condition of anonymity gave him a similar account of how Moreno Ocampo initiated the discussions with Uganda.

“In all truth, it was a blessing because we’d tried everything against the LRA—[peace] talks, military operations, amnesties. We needed a new approach and here was something new, something unexpected,” the Ministry of Defence official told Clark in August 2011.

The Ministry of Defence official also told Clark that Museveni thought going the ICC route, “would be a good way to get rid of Kony and the [other LRA leaders] but he wanted to know what we in [in MoD] thought.”

“We said it was the right approach but some in the government, like the Ministry of Justice, weren’t so sure. They thought the ICC could be turned around and used against the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force). . . . Ultimately, the President agreed with us,” said the Ministry of Defence official.

What former Ugandan Solicitor-General Lucien Tibaruha told Clark about the military taking the lead in dealing with the ICC was in evidence during Ongwen’s trial. To corroborate witness testimony against Ongwen, the prosecution relied on Ugandan intelligence and police intercepts of LRA radio communications.

The UPDF and the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) recorded their intercepts of LRA radio communications. The UPDF and ISO members who were assigned to intercept LRA radio communications also took notes at the same time as they were recording the broadcasts. Separately, members of the Ugandan police force took notes of LRA radio communications they intercepted but they did not record those broadcasts. During Ongwen’s trial, it emerged that the UPDF had been intercepting LRA radio communications since 1995 and the ISO since 2000.

In total, the prosecution disclosed 600 cassettes of recordings of intercepted LRA radio communications and 22,000 pages of notes and other material related to those intercepts.

During the conflict in northern Uganda between the LRA and government forces, LRA commanders talked to each other and to their superiors via two-day radio. Former LRA radio operators who testified during Ongwen’s trial said some of the radios they used had been seized during attacks on the compounds of aid agencies working in northern Uganda.

The former LRA radio operators also said they used a cipher to communicate sensitive information over radio because they were aware that Ugandan security agencies were listening in on their conversations. They said the cipher changed regularly.

Moreno Ocampo did what in legal circles is sometimes referred to as ambulance chasing.

In addition to the cassettes and other material the Ugandan government handed over to the OTP, eight members of Uganda’s intelligence agency, military, and police testified during Ongwen’s trial. Four of them told the court about their routine as they intercepted LRA communications and described the cipher the LRA used while communicating sensitive information over radio. They said they learnt about the cipher from notebooks and materials seized by the Ugandan military during attacks on LRA positions.

Among the Ugandan military officers who testified was the top lawyer for military intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Nabaassa Kanyogonya. He told the court that the different intercept programmes had not been started with the aim of building a court case, but rather to aid the military in its fight against the LRA. Kanyogonya did say, however, that over time they also investigated LRA commanders and gathered evidence on 15 of them, including Ongwen. He said this evidence was handed over to the ICC.

Other LRA atrocities

Ongwen’s trial was limited to a three-and-a-half-year period and to attacks on four places in the districts of Gulu and Lira. His trial did not cover the span of the 20 years during which the Lord’s Resistance Army killed, brutalised and abducted tens of thousands of people in northern Uganda.

But it is easy to think Ongwen was being tried for all the atrocities committed in the name of the LRA. After all, three of the senior LRA commanders indicted by the ICC together with Ongwen are dead. The fourth—long-time LRA leader Joseph Kony—has evaded arrest to date despite a six-year multinational hunt for him and other remnants of the LRA in the remote areas of Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan.

Outside the ICC, it is only in Uganda where a former LRA commander, Thomas Kwoyelo, is on trial. The proceedings against Kwoyelo began in 2011 at the High Court and his trial is ongoing.

To corroborate witness testimony against Ongwen, the prosecution relied on Ugandan intelligence and police intercepts of LRA radio communications.

Apart from the court cases, an amnesty programme for former rebels has also been in effect in Uganda and from the time the amnesty law came into force in 2000, more than 13,000 former LRA members have been given amnesty for their roles in the rebel group. Most were rank-and-file LRA members and, like Ongwen, a number were former senior or mid-ranking LRA members who were either his superiors or were his equals between 2002 and 2005. Some of them testified during Ongwen’s trial.

During the period between 2002 and 2005 when Ongwen committed the crimes for which he was convicted by the ICC, foreign news agencies regularly quoted 20,000 as the number of children abducted by the LRA, an estimate that was attributed to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Going by that estimate and subtracting from it the number of former LRA members granted amnesty by the Ugandan government, this means that as many as 7,000 people are unaccounted for in the northern Uganda conflict. How many of these are people who were killed during the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda? How many of them are people who survived the conflict but have not been able to return to their families?

These are not just academic questions. A clansman of Ongwen’s who was abducted together with him testified about these issues during the trial. Joe Kakanyero told the court that throughout the 27 years Ongwen was with the LRA the family was never sure whether he was alive or dead. Kakanyero, who testified for the defence, said it was only when they saw Ongwen on television making his first appearance at the ICC that they knew for sure he was alive and where he was.

Ongwen has been tried, convicted and sentenced and his family knows he is at the ICC Detention Centre. Thousands of survivors of the 20-year northern Uganda conflict do not know whether their sister or brother, mother or father, aunt or uncle is alive or dead.

Tom Maliti covered Dominic Ongwen’s trial for the International Justice Monitor from when it opened in December 2016 to when the judgment was issued in February this year.

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