Two cheers for democracy. That would probably be a fair verdict on last week’s general elections in Kenya. It was free-ish and fair-ish. Over 15 million Kenyans stood in lines, often long, to elect a president, senate, national assembly, governors and members of assemblies for 47 counties, and women’s representatives.

President Uhuru Kenyatta won a second and last term with just over 54% of the official vote. The perennial also-ran Raila Odinga lost his fourth shot at the top job, managing just over 44%. At least according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

Predictably Odinga again cried foul and claimed Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition had stolen the election by hacking into the experimental electronic voting system. But none of the many election observers bought that argument. Certainly not the African missions, such as the African Union’s led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. He cited this election as an example for all other African countries to follow. 

Not even the Carter Center election mission led by former US secretary of state John Kerry was willing to support Odinga. Kerry pointed out that the electronic results were ultimately irrelevant as they had been fully backed up by a paper tally signed off by all party agents at each of the country’s 40 883 polling stations.

So Odinga, that most tragic figure of Kenyan politics, seems now to have finally reached the end of the road. He was last heard urging the United Nations to investigate the elections, but that seemed unlikely to happen. 

Kenya does well enough to create the wish that it would do more to fully realise its potential

It’s almost certain that Odinga was really cheated of the 2007 elections by the incumbent Mwai Kibaki. To paraphrase Michela Wrong’s excellent 2009 book about Kenyan ethnicity and corruption, It’s Our Turn to Eat, it was Odinga’s ‘turn to eat’ – and that of his Luo, Luhya and Kamba ethnic coalition. Now most Kenyans seem to regard that as ancient history and want to move on. The youth, who swelled the voting numbers substantially this time, seemed especially repelled by Odinga’s grievance-centred, backward-looking election campaign and wanted to hear a more positive message oriented to the future.

So Odinga and his National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition probably genuinely lost this election, as they might have done in 2013 too.

Not that this one was necessarily absolutely clean. One election observer was told by a senior official in Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition – ‘without a hint of irony’ – that yes, the other side would cheat, so they would have to also. Each side would thereby inflate the vote in its own strongholds, this observer believed, while the split in contested areas would probably be genuine. So he concluded that, on balance, the result was probably a reasonable approximation of the reality. Such seems to be a free and fair election in Kenyan terms.

On top of that, one must add the more subtle and not so subtle advantages of incumbency, such as Kenyatta using state helicopters to fly to about half a dozen election rallies a day towards the end, according to local media. No one doubts that many more state resources were siphoned off into the Jubilee campaign. This is one reason to query Mbeki’s view that this was an exemplary election. Another is that it was still fought mainly on ethnic grounds.

Some Kenyans insist that the ethnic polarisation of the past is eroding and that more and more people – especially the young – are breaking out of it, to cast their votes on other grounds. That may be so but ethnicity is clearly still a strong factor. After all, the two main election protagonists were still ethnic coalitions, with Kenyatta’s Jubilee assembling mainly the Kikuyu and Kalenjin and Odinga’s NASA mainly the Luo, Luhya and Kamba.

If democracy in Kenya is evolving, corruption is merely devolving

Wrong’s book was about Kenya’s anti-corruption czar John Githongo, and about ethnicity. She derived its title from the lamentations of those ethnic groups who felt they had not yet had their fair chance to guzzle at the trough of patronage and all the other goodies that come with access to state power.

Those groups again missed their chance last week and some were angry. ‘We are tired of Kenyatta forcing himself upon us all the time,’ said an angry young Luo Uber driver carrying a passenger away from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission results centre. It was becoming clear that Kenyatta was winning again. ‘We will not tolerate it,’ he said. 

And indeed there was something distasteful about the so-called Mount Kenya mafia, the Kikuyu elite from central Kenya who surround Kenyatta, once again emerging triumphant to enrich themselves. Some opposition ethnic groups, if one may call them that, were more expressive than the Uber driver. There were violent protests among Odinga’s supporters in Nairobi’s slums and in the Luo strongholds around Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria in the west.

About two dozen people were killed, mostly by excessive police force rather than by sectarian clashes like after the 2007 elections when around 1 200 died.

The new constitution that was introduced in 2010 was designed to curb the two chief and interrelated curses of Kenyan politics – ethnicity and corruption – that led to that catastrophe. The creation of 47 county governments, each with its own legislative assembly and governor, was the main mechanism for that purpose. Devolving more power and resources from the national to the county level would, the drafters of the constitution hoped, reduce the ferocious ethnic-based contest for loot at national level.

The youth, who swelled voting numbers, wanted a more positive message oriented to the future

Perhaps those founding fathers succeeded in some measure. But clearly not entirely. Grant Masterson, from South Africa’s Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, observed these elections, as he has many others. He says devolving power and resources to the counties just transferred the focus of the rent-seeking politicians to that level. The politicians followed the money and so there were hundreds of candidates to be members of county assemblies. 

He also noted that since the 2013 elections, when the county assemblies were introduced, several county governors who tried to clean up government were simply ousted by votes of no confidence from county assemblies. That left many corrupt governors securely in power. So if democracy is evolving in Kenya, corruption, it seems, is merely devolving.

For all that, it wasn’t a bad election, deserving perhaps of two cheers. And it must be said in its relative defence, thatKenya gets a lot more critical attention than some other African countries with far less democratic elections. That’s no doubt because it has a vibrant media and civil society which is allowed to criticise. And also, perhaps, because it does well enough to create the wish that it would do better, to fully realise its considerable potential. 

One was reminded of the occasion when someone once suggested to Charles de Gaulle that Brazil was ‘the country of the future’, to which he quipped, ‘And always will be.’ Will that also remain true of Kenya?

The stakes for public safety have never been higher in South Africa. Last year saw 3 119 more murders and 31 000 more armed attacks in the country than five years ago. Public confidence is at an all-time low, with 77% of all households believing that corruption has worsened over the past three years.

The problem isn’t a lack of resources, skills or necessarily the ability of officers, though. The problem is incompetence and dishonesty at the highest levels of policing which have profoundly weakened the ability of the country’s crime-fighting institutions to tackle corruption and violent and organised crime. 

This boils down to the exceptionally poor appointments for the top spots in the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation – the Hawks. And at a time when the country most needs strong leadership, both these positions – the SAPS national commissioner and the head of the Hawks – stand vacant.

The problem is incompetence and dishonesty at the highest levels of policing

South Africa can no longer afford poor appointments to these two posts.

For this reason the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and Corruption Watch have joined forces to highlight the importance of appointing the best people to head these institutions. The campaign is a call for people to be aware and to urge the leaders responsible for the two appointments – President Jacob Zuma and Police Minister Fikile Mbalula – to implement the policies as set out in the National Development Plan (NDP).

The recommendations of the NDP on the process for appointing the SAPS national commissioner and deputy commissioners were adopted by the African National Congress (ANC) and the cabinet in 2012. The decision to appoint the SAPS national commissioner lies in the hands of Zuma, and that of the head of the Hawks will be made by Mbalula.

The NDP states that the appointment of the national commissioner and deputies should be on a competitive basis against objective criteria, as this would enhance the incumbents’ standing in the eyes of the community and ‘increase the respect accorded to them by their peers and subordinates’.

The ISS-Corruption Watch campaign has laid out a 10-point process for ensuring that an appropriate selection panel is established to develop clear minimum criteria for the post, and to develop a shortlist of candidates from which the president and police minister can select the best people to lead the SAPS and Hawks.

If there is the political will to improve the process for appointing these two leaders, then the above proposal could be implemented with shortlisted candidates available for selection by the end of 2017.

Under better leadership between 1994 and 2012, murder in South Africa dropped by 54%

The NDP identified ‘serial crises of top management’ in the police as a fundamental shortcoming for public safety in South Africa. This was even before the ongoing bombardment of details of state capture by the president’s friends, the Guptas. This indicates that corruption is far worse than many of us realised, which severely compromises the state’s ability to solve the problems of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Poor police commissioner appointments have reversed the gains made since democracy was achieved. For example between 1994 and 2012, murder levels in South Africa dropped by 54%. Between 2009 and 2011 – under dedicated political leadership and capable operational police commanders – armed attacks on homes and businesses, and car hijackings in Gauteng province decreased by 20%, 19% and 32% respectively. South Africa needs to get back to a place of good leadership.

The SAPS budget has increased by 50% since 2012 to R87 billion. Between 2002 and 2012, the organisation grew by about 68 000 posts. With almost 195 000 employees, the SAPS is now one of the largest policing agencies in the world. Despite the increase in resources and the expertise, SAPS performance over the past five years has deteriorated significantly.

The criminal prosecution of the suspended head of crime intelligence, Lt-General Richard Mdluli, for a variety of crimes, has profoundly weakened SAPS intelligence capacity. This means that the SAPS cannot direct its resources effectively against those who commit serious violent crimes.

Due to ongoing problems with the detective services, the detection and prosecution rates for murder and robbery have declined; and as a result, these crimes are on the rise. It is much easier to be involved in violent crime and corruption today than it was before Zuma took office as president.

Despite more resources and expertise, police performance has deteriorated significantly

The police national commissioner is an immensely powerful position that determines the extent to which the organisation is able to achieve its objectives. Only the SAPS head can ensure that Mdluli is held accountable. Similarly, the head of the Hawks can determine which powerful individuals – be they corrupt cabinet ministers or business people – are thoroughly investigated for their crimes against society.

The people next appointed to the two posts will probably lead these organisations for at least five years. Appointing the best possible police leaders could see a substantial improvement in the safety of all people living in South Africa.

However yet another poor appointment, as has been the case with the previous three permanent SAPS national commissioners, will result in more people being murdered and attacked in the streets, their homes and places of work.

The choice faced by Zuma and Mbalula is a stark one: implement the recommendations of the NDP and act in the public interest, or follow the well-worn path to failure, with a continuing decline in policing and public safety.

Two months ago, a private contractor working for the United States (US) military posted a photograph on Facebook. It was taken at the Salak military base in Cameroon’s far north, where Cameroon’s elite Rapid Intervention Brigade (Brigade d’Intervention Rapide, or BIR) has its headquarters, and where the US military maintains an outpost. An unidentified number of American troops are also stationed there.

According to Amnesty International, which included it in a recent report on war crimes committed in Cameroon’s fight against terrorism, the photograph shows American soldiers playing football at night with their Cameroonian counterparts, all using night-vision goggles to see where the ball is.

It looks like fun.

Visible in the background of the photograph is a small building, known as the DGRE room (named after the Direction Générale de la Recherche Extérieure, Cameroon’s feared intelligence agency). In here, just metres from the makeshift pitch, Amnesty documented the illegal detention and torture of dozens of Cameroonian citizens suspected of involvement with militant group Boko Haram. Victims included underage boys and people with mental and physical disabilities.

The US continues to fund security forces despite reports of torture and executions by these forces

Sale (not his real name) told Amnesty what he experienced there in late 2015: ‘In Salak, I was permanently chained up. I was only given one meal per day, and I was tortured at least three times. The first two times, men in plain clothes beat me severely all over my body with electric cables. During torture, they asked me in French to confess that I was a member of Boko Haram. The third time, they beat me with a wooden plank and a chain as they tried to force me to eat pork. I am Muslim and I don’t eat pork so I refused, and I was tortured. They beat me several times with the wooden plank, which had a nail stuck into it. I was beaten everywhere, especially on my legs and ankles. I received so many blows that I passed out.’

American soldiers, who had already established a presence in Salak at that time, would have been close enough to hear Sale scream.

‘We can’t be 100% sure that Americans were aware of the torture. But our evidence demonstrates that at Salak these practices occur in places that are accessible and can be visible to US and other foreign personnel,’ said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International’s lead researcher on the report, titled Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers.

In follow-up reporting, The Intercept and research firm Forensic Architecture detailed the scale of US involvement in Salak, and in Cameroon more generally. ‘Over the last decade, the United States has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to Cameroon (more than $111 million in security assistance since 2015) while training its elite military force and providing everything from arms to humanitarian aid to development assistance.’

The Cameroonian government needs to investigate these abuses, and put a stop to them

The Intercept quotes the US Ambassador to Cameroon, Michael Hoza, praising the conduct of the BIR – but from even before the latest Amnesty report, the BIR has been repeatedly implicated in human rights abuses. ‘In their training, conduct, and leadership, the BIR exhibited all of the values we expect in our own armed forces – professionalism, protection of the civilian population, and respect for human rights.’

For long-time observers of the military footprint of the US in Africa, these revelations come as little surprise. Although rarely getting its own hands dirty, the US has been repeatedly accused of funding various African security forces responsible for horrific human rights violations, and of turning a blind eye to war crimes.

Take for example Kenya, where the US continues to fund security forces to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year (in the 2016 financial year, it was at least $120 million). This comes despite repeated reports of alleged extrajudicial executions, abductions and torture committed by those forces.

Or take South Sudan, where in 2016 Barack Obama’s administration re-issued a special waiver allowing it to fund South Sudan’s army despite widespread evidence that child soldiers were being conscripted by government forces.

Or take Nigeria, whose armed forces get US training, arms and cash despite the US State Department’s own findings in a 2016 human rights report that Nigeria’s security services perpetrated extra-judicial killings, and engaged in torture, rape, arbitrary detention, mistreatment of detainees and destruction of property.

On public stages, American officials regularly pay lip service to the ideal of protecting human rights, and domestic legislation prohibits funding or training foreign militaries implicated in human rights violations, but the country’s track record in Africa tells a different story.

This is a mistake, on several levels.

Most obviously, it is a violation of the basic rights of the people who are victims of these human rights abuses – the tortured, the murdered, the kidnapped. It is also a violation of the US’s legal obligations under both international and its own domestic law – never mind the domestic laws of the countries where these abuses take place.

Violating human rights is a driver of radicalisation, which makes it poor counter-terrorism policy

But even more significantly, perhaps, the US’ tacit endorsement of the human rights abuses committed by Cameroonian security forces, and elsewhere in Africa, is also a strategic mistake. Research by the Institute for Security Studies hasrepeatedly detailed how violating human rights is a major driver of radicalisation, which makes it an ineffective counter-terrorism policy.

By turning a blind eye to abuses in Cameroon, the US is only likely to worsen the terrorism problem in the region.

This is not a lesson for the US alone. The Cameroonian government needs to investigate these abuses, and put a stop to them; and France, which also has a close military relationship with Cameroon, must be cognisant that its own counter-terrorism efforts in Africa are fatally undermined by the extensive torture and illegal detentions uncovered by Amnesty.

But the lesson is especially relevant for the US, given its expanding – and largely secretive – military presence on the continent, as reported on extensively by journalist Nick Turse.

While American soldiers are playing night-vision football on torture bases, it’s time for the US to open its eyes to what is happening right in front of them – or risk losing the war on terror in Africa, with Africans left to deal with the consequences.

The African Union (AU) has marked 2018 as the year for ‘Winning the Fight Against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transformation’. Anti-corruption activists and organisations across the continent will be happy to hear this. It comes at a time when efforts to ensure greater transparency in government are increasingly paying off, even if there has so far been little success in relation to ruling parties and sitting heads of state in Africa. 

The arrest warrant for Malawi’s former president Joyce Banda, issued on 31 July, has made waves inside and outside the Southern African country. Banda, who took over after the death of the controversial Bingu wa Mutharika in 2012, was initially seen as a fighter for women’s rights, good governance and rooting out corruption.

The highlight of Banda’s short presidential term, from April 2012 to May 2014, was the uncovering of the so-called Cashgate scandal, an apparent hacking of the government payment systems to favour fraud and corruption by officials and business people. Now it is alleged that she benefited from the same fraudulent system, or at least didn’t do enough to stop it.

Tracing ill-gotten gains is facilitated by globalisation, the internet and electronic communication

Her supporters say she is being framed, following her announcement that she will participate in fresh presidential elections in 2019. Banda, meanwhile, has vowed to return to Malawi from her self-imposed exile and face the music, confident of her innocence.

For anti-corruption campaigns to be successful, they should not be seen as a political witch-hunt by the new leader in power, but rather a credible effort by independent bodies, answerable to the legislative institutions and not the executive. So while it’s not clear whether the arrest warrant against Banda is politically motivated, the ongoing probe and revelations around Cashgate do say a lot about the advantages of a change in governing party and the potential it has to bring accountability.

In Nigeria, massive corruption has been uncovered by the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission following the presidential win by Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. The latest scandal involves former oil minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, who has been charged with siphoning off millions of dollars in cash from revenues that should have gone into state coffers. 

A network of corruption has also been uncovered in the usually tightly controlled Ethiopian bureaucracy. So far 55 government officials, business people and middlemen have been arrested.

In other countries, proceeds of corruption are ploughed back into the economy- not so in Africa

In the cases of Malawi and Nigeria, the fight against corruption has clearly been favoured by changes in government. Small donor-dependent countries like Malawi also experience strong pressure and threats of sanctions by international donors and the International Monetary Fund. In other cases, counter-terrorism and increasing international pressure to trace fraudulent transactions and money laundering have brought corrupt practices to light. 

Whereas most African countries rank poorly on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, a few, such as Mauritius and Rwanda, don’t do too badly. An interesting feature of corruption in Africa, however, is that unlike many other developing and developed countries, the continent remains poor while its leaders put their money in overseas banks, buy luxury real estate abroad and their children live it up in the world’s capitals.

Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), noted while launching his new book Fate of the Nation that although developing countries elsewhere might have experienced the same levels of corruption as in Africa, the proceeds were ploughed back into the economy rather than stashed offshore.

In South Korea, for example, the heir of Samsung has been jailed for corruption and former president Park Geun-hye has been impeached due to charges involving the same company. Despite this, the country experiences huge economic growth. In South Korea, like elsewhere, the proceeds from corruption were generally reinvested in the economy, thus still greasing growth, Cilliers said. 

The list of scandals in which corrupt African leaders have stashed their gains in Europe, the United States or, increasingly, the Gulf States, is long. An ongoing investigation into the way the children of first families like the Bongos of Gabon, the Obiang Nguemas of Equatorial Guinea and the Sassou Nguessos of the Republic of Congo stashed money in property, luxury cars and yachts in Europe also shows the propensity for corrupt leaders to ‘invest’ their proceeds elsewhere. 

Will the AU focus on capital outflows by non-Africans or the governments and businesses that enable them?

In a few cases, money has flowed southward to South Africa, like some of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’swealth; and to Kenya, through Somali piracy. Most of it, however, has left the continent.

Cilliers says tracing ill-gotten gains is increasingly facilitated by globalisation, the internet and electronic communication ‘that leaves a trace of everything’. This will become even more so if instruments like the Financial Action Task Force, aimed at combating money laundering, become the norm, he says.

It remains to be seen what the AU plans for its discussions on corruption at the 30th heads of state summit in January 2018 in Addis Ababa. Will it focus mainly on outflows by non-African companies or the government and business networks that enable these outflows? The 2015 Thabo Mbeki report notes that up to US$50 billion is lost through illicit flows out of the continent every year.

The AU, which has a responsibility for continental norm-setting, has instruments to fight corruption. So far, 37 of Africa’s 55 countries have ratified the AU’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption that was adopted in Maputo in 2003 and entered into force in 2006.

It is now up to credible anti-corruption bodies, governments and law-enforcement agencies to make sure these norms are adhered to.

Those attending the first YouthConnekt Africa summit in Kigali, Rwanda, earlier this month, heaped praise on the country and its president Paul Kagame.

Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu, who spoke about his foundation’s empowerment of African entrepreneurs, said Kagame ‘makes Africans very proud’. Other speakers included Vera Songwe, the newly appointed head of the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and South African mining magnate Patrice Motsepe.

Upbeat discussions about youth employment, bringing power to Africa and using Africa’s vast arable land were among many such meetings held in Rwanda’s new conference centre, where the 27th African Union summit took place last year. Kagame has become something of a champion of connectivity, entrepreneurship and kick-starting Africa’s development.

The youth conference also came at a good time for Kagame, who is running for a third-term re-election on Friday 4 August. It can do no harm to have your citizens witness the world lauding you as a visionary leader. Not that Kagame needs any extra support to win.

Kagame has become a champion of connectivity, entrepreneurship and kick-starting Africa’s development

As with the previous two presidential elections in 2003 and 2010, and the December 2015 constitutional referendum to ensure Kagame a third term, there is little opposition to him this time. Those who might have been able to challenge him have been removed or frightened away.

The warning against those who might dare oppose Kagame and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front came early on in his presidency. But it was accentuated when former president Pasteur Bizimungu was jailed in 2002 for allegedly fomenting dissent after he tried to form a political party. He was pardoned in 2007. Victoire Ingabire, who opposed Kagame in the 2010 elections, is still in jail, having received a 15-year sentence in December 2013 for wanting to overthrow the government and promoting ‘genocide ideology’ – a favourite term to discredit dissenters in Rwanda.

In the run-up to this week’s vote, three of the five candidates who were planning to run against Kagame were disqualified. Among them was the 35-year-old Diane Rwigara who was told some of the 600 names on her list of supporters – a prerequisite for independent candidates to participate in the poll – were fake.

A new Amnesty International report details human rights abuses and the atmosphere of fear in which these elections are being held. Opponents to the regime regularly disappear, claiming they have been tortured; independent non-governmental organisations find it difficult to operate and the independent media is being closely monitored, the organisation says.

Is this the price to pay for the development miracle? Are unchecked power at the top and political repression the necessary prerequisites for stability, economic growth and ‘making Africa proud’?

The warning against those who oppose Kagame came early on in his presidency

David Himbara, Kagame’s former adviser, says the president is offering the international community, and a large part of Rwandan society, a ‘Faustian bargain’: ‘Overlook my brutal behaviour, and I will offer you a model for economic growth in an African nation.’

But some researchers and commentators, including Himbara, are questioning the figures of Rwanda’s GDP growth and poverty reduction since the end of the genocide in 1994, saying they are based on false calculations. Statistics are particularly important as Rwanda remains something of a ‘donor darling’ 23 years after the 1994 genocide.

Up to 40% of Rwanda’s budget is made up of foreign aid – according to Himbara’s figures the highest level of donor dependency per capita in East Africa. Rwanda’s trade deficit is growing and annual per capita income is also lower than Kenya and Tanzania, he says.

Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, a post-doctoral fellow at the Louvain School of Political and Social Sciences who has done research in Rwanda’s rural areas, says even if some of the official figures add up, there are many questions about the quality of government assessments and whether people are free to respond truthfully.

Even when it comes to political freedoms in Rwanda, some organisations prefer to buy in to the official line. A study by the Wits School of Governance in South Africa and the Africa Regional Office of Open Society Foundations says ‘democratic culture’ in Rwanda is seen to be greater than in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia and Ethiopia. ‘Democratic culture’ pertains to ‘the necessary legislative, social and policy frameworks to support and protect multi-party democracy, open debate and peace’.

But researchers say civil society organisations in Rwanda – who are tightly controlled by the state – were hesitant to participate in the study. And when they did, respondents to the Wits survey gave the Rwandan government full marks on almost every score.

Donors could argue that at least Rwanda isn’t a predator state ruling solely through corruption and violence

Donors and international organisations could argue that good statistics are hard to come by in many parts of Africa. They could claim that at least in Rwanda there’s some push by the government to ensure economic growth, rather than merely being a predator state that rules solely through corruption and violence, with no effort to uplift the poor.

Kagame clearly has nothing to fear from most observers and donors, especially within Africa. At the last summit in Addis Ababa he was elected chairperson of the AU for 2018 – no one even considered the possibility that he would no longer be Rwanda’s president.

According to the constitutional amendment in Rwanda, Kagame may be able to stand for president again in 2024 and then serve another two five-year terms.

To stay in power, he will have to continue surrounding himself with star-studded supporters and prevent any serious dissent from getting in his way. Ironically, with more connected Africans seeking greater freedom of expression, this might become more difficult to pull off as time goes by.

Two months ago, a private contractor working for the United States (US) military posted a photograph on Facebook. It was taken at the Salak military base in Cameroon’s far north, where Cameroon’s elite Rapid Intervention Brigade (Brigade d’Intervention Rapide, or BIR) has its headquarters, and where the US military maintains an outpost. An unidentified number of American troops are also stationed there.

According to Amnesty International, which included it in a recent report on war crimes committed in Cameroon’s fight against terrorism, the photograph shows American soldiers playing football at night with their Cameroonian counterparts, all using night-vision goggles to see where the ball is.

It looks like fun.

Visible in the background of the photograph is a small building, known as the DGRE room (named after the Direction Générale de la Recherche Extérieure, Cameroon’s feared intelligence agency). In here, just metres from the makeshift pitch, Amnesty documented the illegal detention and torture of dozens of Cameroonian citizens suspected of involvement with militant group Boko Haram. Victims included underage boys and people with mental and physical disabilities.

The US continues to fund security forces despite reports of torture and executions by these forces

Sale (not his real name) told Amnesty what he experienced there in late 2015: ‘In Salak, I was permanently chained up. I was only given one meal per day, and I was tortured at least three times. The first two times, men in plain clothes beat me severely all over my body with electric cables. During torture, they asked me in French to confess that I was a member of Boko Haram. The third time, they beat me with a wooden plank and a chain as they tried to force me to eat pork. I am Muslim and I don’t eat pork so I refused, and I was tortured. They beat me several times with the wooden plank, which had a nail stuck into it. I was beaten everywhere, especially on my legs and ankles. I received so many blows that I passed out.’

American soldiers, who had already established a presence in Salak at that time, would have been close enough to hear Sale scream.

‘We can’t be 100% sure that Americans were aware of the torture. But our evidence demonstrates that at Salak these practices occur in places that are accessible and can be visible to US and other foreign personnel,’ said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International’s lead researcher on the report, titled Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers.

In follow-up reporting, The Intercept and research firm Forensic Architecture detailed the scale of US involvement in Salak, and in Cameroon more generally. ‘Over the last decade, the United States has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to Cameroon (more than $111 million in security assistance since 2015) while training its elite military force and providing everything from arms to humanitarian aid to development assistance.’

The Cameroonian government needs to investigate these abuses, and put a stop to them

The Intercept quotes the US Ambassador to Cameroon, Michael Hoza, praising the conduct of the BIR – but from even before the latest Amnesty report, the BIR has been repeatedly implicated in human rights abuses. ‘In their training, conduct, and leadership, the BIR exhibited all of the values we expect in our own armed forces – professionalism, protection of the civilian population, and respect for human rights.’

For long-time observers of the military footprint of the US in Africa, these revelations come as little surprise. Although rarely getting its own hands dirty, the US has been repeatedly accused of funding various African security forces responsible for horrific human rights violations, and of turning a blind eye to war crimes.

Take for example Kenya, where the US continues to fund security forces to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year (in the 2016 financial year, it was at least $120 million). This comes despite repeated reports of alleged extrajudicial executions, abductions and torture committed by those forces.

Or take South Sudan, where in 2016 Barack Obama’s administration re-issued a special waiver allowing it to fund South Sudan’s army despite widespread evidence that child soldiers were being conscripted by government forces.

Or take Nigeria, whose armed forces get US training, arms and cash despite the US State Department’s own findings in a 2016 human rights report that Nigeria’s security services perpetrated extra-judicial killings, and engaged in torture, rape, arbitrary detention, mistreatment of detainees and destruction of property.

On public stages, American officials regularly pay lip service to the ideal of protecting human rights, and domestic legislation prohibits funding or training foreign militaries implicated in human rights violations, but the country’s track record in Africa tells a different story.

This is a mistake, on several levels.

Most obviously, it is a violation of the basic rights of the people who are victims of these human rights abuses – the tortured, the murdered, the kidnapped. It is also a violation of the US’s legal obligations under both international and its own domestic law – never mind the domestic laws of the countries where these abuses take place.

Violating human rights is a driver of radicalisation, which makes it poor counter-terrorism policy

But even more significantly, perhaps, the US’ tacit endorsement of the human rights abuses committed by Cameroonian security forces, and elsewhere in Africa, is also a strategic mistake. Research by the Institute for Security Studies hasrepeatedly detailed how violating human rights is a major driver of radicalisation, which makes it an ineffective counter-terrorism policy.

By turning a blind eye to abuses in Cameroon, the US is only likely to worsen the terrorism problem in the region.

This is not a lesson for the US alone. The Cameroonian government needs to investigate these abuses, and put a stop to them; and France, which also has a close military relationship with Cameroon, must be cognisant that its own counter-terrorism efforts in Africa are fatally undermined by the extensive torture and illegal detentions uncovered by Amnesty.

But the lesson is especially relevant for the US, given its expanding – and largely secretive – military presence on the continent, as reported on extensively by journalist Nick Turse.

While American soldiers are playing night-vision football on torture bases, it’s time for the US to open its eyes to what is happening right in front of them – or risk losing the war on terror in Africa, with Africans left to deal with the consequences.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), mining communities mostly depend on their ability to sell what they mine to make a living. So they explore all options to reach markets – and in this game, the price dictates the source.

Mining-trade middlemen in Goma, interviewed by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), say minerals sourced from non-compliant mines cost one and a half times less to buy than conflict-free-certified minerals. They therefore prefer to buy the former, eschewing regulatory measures such as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act).

The artisanal and small-scale mining sites in the DRC have many complexities that Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act has been unable to control. The act is one of several regulatory measures, including certification schemes, aimed at sanitising the mineral trade in the DRC.  

The country holds some of the world’s vastest and most unexploited minerals in terms of variety, quality and quantity. Besides this, the fight over natural resources is one of the biggest reasons for the DRC’s ongoing conflict. Lack of effective governance over the mining sector has created a plethora of abusers, ranging from armed groups to illegal miners and unlicensed traders.

Out of 1 313 companies, only 301 ensured their products were ‘DRC conflict-free’

Many efforts have been made to try to clean up the supply chain of the DRC’s natural resources, particularly those in high demand globally such as tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold.

One of the latest attempts is the Dodd-Frank Act, legislated by the US Congress in 2010. Section 1502 of the act requires companies to disclose whether any of the products manufactured or contracted to be manufactured by the company contain conflict minerals that originate in the DRC or any of its neighbours (Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda or Zambia).

The act’s main objective is to curtail the flow of money to armed groups (including the Armed Forces of the DRC – FARDC) involved in mining and human rights abuses. It requires companies dealing in tin, tantalum, tungsten or gold to conduct supply chain due diligence on minerals sourced from the DRC or its nine neighbouring countries to ensure they’re conflict-free.

It’s one thing for companies sourcing minerals from the DRC to subscribe to the requirements of the act, but a much bigger task to ascertain that the minerals they purchase are ‘DRC conflict-free’. This is because the DRC and the countries of the Great Lakes Region (GLR) lack effective enforcement mechanisms for regional mineral trade arrangements and so are infested with illegal networks involved in trafficking natural resources.

An assessment of the situation in the North Kivu province reveals a range of factors that have made implementing the act difficult.

Some of the DRC’s neighbours have lowered their licensing fees to attract frustrated investors

First, the process of certifying the mines is fraught with unnecessary bottlenecks designed to encourage companies seeking to invest in mining to pay bribes to have their applications approved. This is further complicated by the fact that the mine validation and licensing process is centralised in Kinshasa, and it takes several months, sometimes years, for this process to be concluded.

Some frustrated would-be investors end up abandoning their applications for mining licences and buying from alternative sources. According to comité national de facilitation du commerce et du transit (CNFCT), only 52 of about 300 mines have been certified as conflict-free, due to the bottlenecks.

The dismal number of certified mines corresponds with the outcome of an assessment done in 2014 to establish the effectiveness of companies’ adherence to the Dodd-Frank Act. Of the 1 313 companies assessed, only 301 could confirm that they had conducted due diligence to ensure that their products were ‘DRC conflict-free’.

Under these circumstances, and with the rising demand of some of the minerals on the global market, illegal mining by armed groups and for example the military’s forceful use of children and villagers, has thrived in an effort to meet the demand.

The mine licensing process is centralised in Kinshasa, and can take years to be concluded

The second challenge to implementing the Dodd-Frank Act is that minerals from uncertified mines easily filter into certified mines and get tagged as conflict-free. ‘Most uncertified mines are under the control of FARDC or armed groups, and both are involved in illegal mining, making it easy for them to trade as they wish. They blend their illegally mined minerals with those from certified mines or simply sell them to smugglers across the borders,’ says a senior officer with the Centre d’expertise, Évaluation et de Certification (CEEC).

FARDC guards both certified and uncertified mines, so it holds sway over both, as far as the blurring of mineral sourcing is concerned.

The third challenge for implementing the act is that some of the DRC’s neighbours, capitalising on the misfortunes of the DRC, have put in place policies that are more attractive to investment in mineral trade. The CEEC says some have deliberately lowered their licensing fees and simplified the bureaucracy in the process to attract investors ‘frustrated’ by the DRC’s technicalities.

This has offered an alternative market to artisanal and small-scale miners and their middlemen, who endeavour to circumvent the Dodd-Frank Act Section 1502 to earn a living.

There is an ongoing debate in the US Congress to repeal the act. Part of the argument is that it is unclear if the 1502 rule has reduced the control of armed gangs or eased human suffering in the DRC. Perhaps a repeal would engineer a more enforceable option. Until then, the DRC’s minerals remain awash with blood.

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