How governments are ‘weaponising’ surveillance

Surveillance technology: used and abused

African states have been deploying surveillance capabilities to spy on and intimidate youth movements and activists

Egyptian army officers monitor local and
international TV stations and websites at the
military press office department in Cairo in
June 2012. Egyptians were voting in a run-off
presidential election, pitting an Islamist against
Hosni Mubarak, amid political chaos, highlighted
by uncertainty over the future role of the army.

On 20 August, 2016, a group of mostly young social media activists gathered at a property in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, to discuss national political affairs. The political climate was tense in the central African country following brief, intense protests against the continued rule of long-time strongman Pierre Nkurunziza, politically motivated killings, repression of the media and an attempted coup the year before, in May 2015. As the gathering got under way, police swooped in and 46 of the activists, who had organised the meeting via the messaging app WhatsApp, were arrested. Eight of them were kept in jail for a while. “Police accused them of tarnishing the image of Burundi by spreading defamatory information against public authorities,” said a civil society activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Before the arrest of those WhatsApp group members, the minister in charge of public security had issued a threatening statement against social media activists,” the activist told Africa in Fact.

“On 17 May, 2016, he said that those using social media tools to spread rumours should not feel safe; that security services have now acquired the capacity to monitor them, to locate them and arrest them.” The Burundian activist said that in the wake of the incident suspicions grew that the regime had acquired sophisticated digital surveillance capabilities to monitor and intercept the communications of citizens. As a result, with the traditional media sector, especially broadcasting, effectively captured or destroyed by the Nkurunziza regime, and with many journalists having fled the country and now operating from exile, a heavy culture of self-censorship enveloped the country, even on social media platforms. Since the youth-led uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring of 2011 that toppled authoritarian regimes across North Africa, indications are that many African governments have sharpened their communications and digital surveillance capabilities, especially seeking to clamp down on political expression on popular social media platforms that are primarily used by the youth.

In September 2019, the Uganda-based Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) Institute released its ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019’ report, which found: “The continued surveillance of the public, with limited oversight, in addition to the increased surveillance capacity of governments, and the interception of communication, including that of critics and human rights activists, threatens internet freedom. These measures have been coupled with regulatory control of the internet, including now widespread and restrictive measures such as censorship, filtering, blocking, throttling and internet shutdowns evident in several countries.” The report mentions that while most of the repressive surveillance practices uncovered were primarily perpetrated by authoritarian regimes – of which there are apparently 23 among the 55 African governments – even those countries classified as “flawed democracies”, such as South Africa, engaged in highly questionable surveillance activities.

Since 2011, countries such as Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the list goes on, have “weaponised” the internet and social media platforms through surveillance and repressive computer misuse, social media tax, and cyber security and terrorism laws. This has been especially noticeable following similar youthful outspokenness online like that which preceded and fuelled the Arab Spring. And some states have even gone as far as deploying troll armies and state sponsored disinformation campaigns – what the Oxford Internet Institute calls “organised social media manipulation campaigns” – to counter narratives on social media platforms that are perceived to be anti-government. In its September 2019 report, ‘The Global Disinformation Order’, the institute identified 10 African governments involved in or running “organised social media manipulation campaigns” – specifically, Angola, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.

The growing spectre of harm and alarm represented by such tactics, and the increasingly pervasive nature of state surveillance practices, along with the very real threat of surveillance overreach and abuse – as well as the ease with which surveillance and hacking technologies can be acquired internationally – have given rise to a global climate of widespread repression before expression. This was flagged as a burgeoning global human rights concern by United Nations special rapporteur David Kaye in June 2019. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, in a report submitted before the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), stated: “We live in an age of readily available, easy to abuse and difficult to detect tools of digital surveillance. In his groundbreaking surveillance report in 2013, the previous mandate holder, Frank La Rue, noted that weak regulatory environments had provided fertile ground for arbitrary and unlawful infringements of the rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression.”

Many of the examples of abuse and infringements that Kaye was referring to undoubtedly emanated from the African continent, where some of the more repressive and authoritarian, as well as some seemingly democratic, states have been active over the past decade or so in global digital surveillance technology markets and have been caught out engaging in murky and unlawful surveillance activities. One such country is South Africa. “There’s plenty of evidence that South Africa’s security agencies have put resources into monitoring and interfering with democratic formations, particularly during the Zuma administration,” says Murray Hunter, a surveillance researcher who formerly headed the influential Right2Know (R2K) campaign’s state surveillance monitoring project. “This includes civil society groups, student protest movements, dissident unions, and media organisations. “A few years ago, there was also reporting on a leaked SSA [State Security Agency] document that revealed the agency’s official national security estimates, i.e. what it perceives to be the biggest genuine threats to state security,” Hunter explains.

“As this report shows, the state was frankly and seriously anticipating an Arab-spring style uprising in the lead up to the 2014 elections. In other words, the state had reframed what many would consider to be legitimate and unrelated social protest as a potential existential threat.” South African civil society and the media have exposed such practices over the years and even taken the state to court. In September 2019, the investigative journalism initiative, the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by R2K and others, won a high court judgment that effectively scrapped the primary law enabling communications surveillance and interception, the notorious Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) of 2002. With SSA expected to appeal the high court decision, and the South African Police Service (SAPS) already having lodged an appeal, it’s unclear how the case will eventually end. But the decision reverberated around the world and has emboldened international calls for reform of state surveillance practices globally.

One country in particular need of reform is Zimbabwe, just north of South Africa, which has a long history of repression of legitimate dissent and political expression. While invasive state surveillance was already an uncomfortable fact of life for political activists and journalists up until then, since 2016 the situation has become much worse, according to political activist Henry Munangatire. He was one of the core organisers and strategists of the July 2016 #thisflag pro-democracy protest movement – run primarily via various social media platforms on mobile phones – spearheaded by young Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, who attracted a large youth following and international attention, as well as state harassment, intimidation and repression. Munangatire said that at the height of the #thisflag movement, which called on people to stay home in protest at the state of the country, state security operatives used the state’s communications surveillance capabilities to hunt down and imprison youth movement leaders, many of whom managed to evade capture and had to be smuggled out of the country.

“All of a sudden you had young people using this hashtag to talk about their economic and social situations, which at that point were a result of 36 years of corruption and mismanagement of the country by Zanu-PF,” he says. “The success of this movement culminated in building social media activism and on-the- ground activism, which, of course, led to the creation of other hashtags, such as #Mugabemustgo, which were created online and led to civil disobedience and people expressing discontent at the system. “So it was at that point that the Zanu-PF government realised it didn’t know what to do with the internet and they started crafting a cyber security Bill. And that Bill basically sought to criminalise the use of social media in politics and social activism, even if it is peaceful activism,” Munangatire says. He added that while the cyber security Bill had moved onto the back-burner since the 2017 military coup that removed long-time Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe from office, it has since been revived by the Mnangagwa regime, which has pushed for its urgent enactment into law.

The Zimbabwe Cyber Crime, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill was approved by the Mnangagwa cabinet at the beginning of October 2019 and has been sent to parliament for enactment into law. The Bill has already attracted criticism for its provisions that enable a clampdown on social media. The 34-year-old Munangatire said he lives under constant and invasive state surveillance and has been arrested twice for his political activities over the years. His experiences are unfortunately not isolated ones on the African continent. The warning signs for Africa are clear and everywhere, as articulated in the CIPESA ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019’ report: “While digital authoritarianism has been in existence for decades, it is clear that its use by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations is a tool of state control over their rights. If left unchecked, democracy and internet freedom will continue to regress.”

However, according to Hunter, the situation was not all doom and gloom. “While pervasive surveillance may be a fact, we should not assume that it’s an inevitable fact,” he says. “As societies, we need to raise the political and social cost of security-statist thinking. That means helping raise public awareness of the issues and the threats and the costs of surveillance. We can march for privacy, and vote for privacy, and debate and discuss for privacy, and pay for privacy and donate for privacy and design for privacy and litigate for privacy and legislate for privacy – and we should.”

Frederico Links is a Namibian journalist, editor, researcher, trainer and activist. Research associate of Namibia’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). He is primarily concerned with democracy and governance, particularly corruption and maladministration. He is chairperson of the Access to Information in Namibia (ACTION) Coalition of civil society, media and social activists.

Opaque and difficult to quantify

Light weapons: a roadmap

Africa has made some innovative interventions to reduce illicit small arms flows, despite a scarcity of data and challenges on several fronts

A member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) armed forces sings moments before casting his vote at a polling
station in southern Sudan’s regional capital, Juba, on 9 January, 2011 in the first hours of a week-long independence referendum, which led to the formation of South Sudan. Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP

In January 2017, the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union adopted its Master Roadmap for Silencing the Guns in Africa (AUMR) by the year 2020. The AUMR recognises that the use of small arms and light weapons continues to destabilise the continent – while the causes and factors driving conflicts in the continent have changed. The document encompasses a number of steps and modalities for action, with a focus on preventing the illicit flow of weapons throughout the region. Among those, reliable information and analysis are critical to understanding the nature, extent and impact of illicit small arms proliferation. It is against this background that the AU Commission and Small Arms Survey undertook the first ever continental mapping of illicit arms flows, with a view to promoting transparency and stronger commitment among African states to use evidence-based approaches to controlling the proliferation, circulation, and trafficking of small arms.

The report, “Weapons Compass, Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa”, published in January 2019, unpacks trends in illicit small arms proliferation, reviews examples of existing good practice and summarises recommendations to tackle illicit flows. Defining these illicit arms is not easy because they take many forms. In outline, illicit arms are those “weapons that are produced, transferred, held or used in violation of national or international law” and can include both military-style small arms and light weapons and commercial firearms. The report draws on a review of existing knowledge combined with new research, including consultations with and contributions received from multiple stakeholders, such as AU member states, regional economic communities, regional bodies, and specialised UN and civil society entities.

In particular, between 2017 and 2018 21 African countries and a number of international actors responded to data requests and questionnaires previously prepared by the Small Arms Survey. The mapping that resulted from the analysis identified six major sources of illicit weapons, originating both from within and outside Africa. For better data visualisation and analysis, the continent has been disaggregated into the five regions as designated by the AU (northern Africa, western Africa, central Africa, eastern Africa and southern Africa). Action is required on several fronts, notably at the regional and national levels. The implementation of international instruments such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and the United Nations Programme of Action (PoA) can contribute to significantly preventing and reducing illicit arms flows on the continent.

Moreover, a number of subregional organisations have been mandated to tackle one or several aspects of small arms issues: in 2016, 22 organisations out of 52 worldwide working to implement the UN PoA were based in Africa. Nevertheless, very few African states have put mechanisms in place to keep track of arms trafficking. Data on illicit weapons is scarce and the scale of the phenomenon can only be roughly estimated. Illicit flows are opaque and difficult to quantify, given the concealed, multifaceted and context-specific nature of the trade. Despite increased international attention to small-arms related issues, to date there has been only limited progress in states’ reporting and transparency on the core issues relevant to arms control. Firstly, information on both the authorised industrial production and transfer of small arms is patchy.

Despite gaps in reporting, though, there is evidence that several countries maintain capacities to produce small arms or ammunition. Curiously, capacity seems to exist in at least 19 states, with most of them located in northern Africa (capacity in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda is, though, to be confirmed). Secondly, authorised trade in small arms is also relatively poorly documented as statistics are based on states’ voluntary reporting and less than half of African states report to the main platform, the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database. The available statistics, however, suggest that the value of reported imports to Africa has been increasing since the beginning of the century, with northern Africa as the subregion that imports the most small arms, averaging $62 million per year, followed by western Africa ($35 million). Thirdly, data on both licit and illicitly held weapons is similarly scarce.

Small Arms Survey’s estimates indicate that civilian actors hold more than 40 million of the small arms on the continent; by contrast, armed forces and law enforcement agencies hold less than 11 million small arms. Past studies used to give an overall figure of 100 million arms in the continent, but the numbers could thus be larger. West Africa has the largest number of both licit and illicit civilian-held firearms on the continent (roughly 11 million), followed by north Africa (10.2 million). Staggeringly, Africa seems to host relatively few small arms compared with other global regions: its rate of 3.2 civilian-held small arms for every 100 people compares well to the rate in the Americas, which is 46.2. Illicit weapons in Africa enter the market at virtually every stage of the weapons’ life cycle.

Legacy weapons from past conflicts in the continent, and in particular from the peak of Africa’s late 1990s/early 2000s civil wars, still constitute the main source of illicit firearms in circulation. However, research indicates other important sources, ranging from recently manufactured weapons to weapons imported recently from outside Africa or diverted from legal commercial flows. The iTrace System, developed by Conflict Armament Research, shows, for instance, that between 1% and 3% of illicit small arms documented in Somalia and Burkina Faso and between 9% of ammunition seen in Burkina Faso and 17% in Somalia have been manufactured since 2010. The source of these weapons is both internal to Africa and external. Cross-border trafficking is a major source of weapons across all of the African sub-regions.

Documented weapons often reflect small scale smuggling of arms and ammunition, but this so-called “ant trade” can involve large volumes of arms trafficked into conflict theatres. As a result, weapons are often trafficked between countries without contiguous borders, or re-circulated across large geographical areas. Smuggled weapons also include weapons that were recently diverted from national stockpiles. Outflows of looted national stockpiles followed the collapse of the Libyan government in 2011, for instance. Weapons of Libyan origin were reportedly trafficked to a number of neighbouring countries and as far as the Central African Republic (CAR) and Somalia. Diversions from national stockpiles remain a primary concern in the Sahara-Sahel region as well as in central Africa.

Weapons from Ivorian stockpiles, for instance, have been recovered in a range of countries, including the CAR, where weapons formerly belonging to Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have also been found. Diversions from national stockpiles are also a concern in African sub-regions less affected by conflict, as media reports in Madagascar and South Africa show. Diversions from national stockpiles include weapons lost or seized from troops deployed in the context of peace operations. The main actors of land-based trafficking are typically armed groups, criminal gangs, local manufacturers, corrupt security officials, as well as peacekeepers returning from international duty. Smaller-scale trafficking can also involve local border communities. Pastoralist groups in Kenya (Turkana), Uganda (Dodoth) and South Sudan (Toposa), for example, have traded arms across borders to protect themselves and their cattle.

Interestingly, intelligence-based information sharing is currently helping to reveal that terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda-linked groups have acquired capacities to move equipment across borders in western Africa. Arms can be also diverted from civilian holdings, although the extent of this phenomenon is particularly difficult to measure. As of June 2018, only 12 African countries had provided statistics to Interpol’s illicit arms record and tracing management system, which allows police agencies worldwide to record detailed information on firearms lost, stolen, or trafficked. Other sources, however, show that the diversion of civilian holdings can be significant. In South Africa, for example, during the year 2015/2016, an average of 20 firearms per day were stolen from private individuals.

The proliferation of unlicensed craft producers represents an enduring threat throughout Africa. Craft production appears to be concentrated in West Africa, where at least 12 countries appear to host craft producers. The weapons produced range from rudimentary hunting weapons to sophisticated firearms, including copies of assault rifles. In some of these countries, the possession of craft-produced weapons is common. Such weapons are involved in 80% of gun-related crimes in Ghana, whereas in Nigeria 17% of rural gun owners hold them. The nature and extent of craft production capacities is less clear in eastern and southern Africa. However, it is known that capacities exist in almost half of AU member states, with the exception of northern Africa. Overall, craft production is the second-most prominent source of illicit weapons.

Many of the illicit small arms circulating in Africa originate from the continent. However, external sources of illicit arms have gained prominence over the past few years. Arms transfer diversions are well documented in the context of arms embargoes. Africa is both a recipient and source of embargo-breaking arms transfers. Violations of the arms embargo imposed by the UNSC on Libya, South Sudan, Ivory Coast, the CAR and Somalia have been documented. Analysis carried out by UN experts and monitoring groups shows that the largest cases of transfer diversions have been directed to Libya, before the strengthening of the arms embargo in 2014. Middle Eastern states have been repeatedly identified as points of origin for several cases of illicit transfers of small arms to embargoed countries.

Yet at the same time, illicit weapons from Libya before 2014 were destined not only for Africa but also for the Middle East. Illicit transfers to Africa, including in violation of arms embargoes, originate also from Europe, notably eastern Europe. A relatively recent phenomenon is the proliferation of converted imitation firearms, which enables the circulation of illicit handguns at a much-reduced cost. While this was initially particularly significant in North Africa, major shipments of readily convertible imitation guns from Turkey have recently been intercepted in, or on their way to, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia. In 2017, 25,000 Turkish imitation pistols were seized in Port Kismayo, Somalia. External sources of illicit small arms include the diversion of recently authorised imports of arms and ammunition.

Such diversions were a regular occurrence in Africa in the 1990s, but the phenomenon has decreased to some extent because conflict actors are increasingly relying on more sophisticated ways of procuring small arms already available on the continent. The limited participation of African states on international information-sharing platforms has not prevented the continent from hosting innovative interventions to tackle illicit arms flows, which in a number of cases have proved to have a positive impact on illicit flows. Joint border initiatives represent an emerging area of good practice, such as the joint border commission established between Kenya and Ethiopia and the cooperation agreement between Chad and Sudan. Joint commissions are also being established such as that between the CAR, Chad and Sudan on the one hand and Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria on the other.

Sub-regional, cross-border security strategies, such as the Mano River Union Strategy, and regional joint operations are also gaining traction. An example of the latter was Operation Trigger III, a firearms seizure conducted simultaneously in nine North and West African countries by Interpol in cooperation with UNODC and WCO in 2017. Other notable arms-control measures relate to sub-regional and national end-user controls. States such as Burkina Faso and South Africa, as well as regional organisations such as ECOWAS, have developed national and sub-regional end-user control systems. Addressing gaps in the certification and verification of end uses and end users is key to preventing the diversion of arms. The approaches discussed above are, however, limited to specific sub-regions.

The mapping study mentioned earlier has provided a typology for categorising broader illicit arms flows, but many knowledge gaps remain, especially in the area of policy planning. We need more information in a range of areas, such as studies of the demand factors driving illicit arms flows and the scale and nature of illicit arms flows in non-conflict settings. The study also shows that there is room for improving current practices in a number of areas, for instance as regards the disposal of surplus and collected weapons, including those recovered in the context of peace operations. More attention needs to be paid to the quality of national legislation on the enforcement of arms embargoes, as well as emerging threats such as convertible imitation firearms.

Continental and sub-regional instruments designed to reduce illicit small arms flows are in place, but fulfilling such commitments requires engagement at international, regional and national levels. It is recommended that the AU’s political bodies engage with external players to encourage, for example, the main arms exporters to Africa to report their exports. Strengthening cooperation and information exchange at the regional level by establishing sub-regional and national databases to monitor trends will also be key to generating actionable weapons intelligence. Last but not least, national authorities need to change their approach to the coordination of assistance and capacity building efforts, and better support capacity-building initiatives in these areas.

Africa has made some innovative interventions to reduce illicit small arms flows, in line with efforts at the international, regional and sub-regional levels. Raising awareness about them could be a valuable asset in countering the major drivers of illicit weapons flows, and contribute to the successful implementation of the Silence the Guns agenda in Africa.

Sigrid Lipott is an associate researcher at the Small Arms Survey, where she works on illicit arms proliferation and trafficking, arms embargoes, and peacekeeping. She holds two master’s degrees in diplomacy and a PhD in transborder policies from the International University Institute of European Studies. She has worked at the European Projects Association and at the European External Action Service in Brussels

Untapped treasures for future generations

Africa’s megaliths

From Sudan to South Africa, archaeologists are only just beginning to properly explore the remnants of Africa’s magnificent ancient past

Meroitic pyramids at the archaeological site of Bajarawiya, near Hillat ed Darqab, some 250 km north-east of Khartoum. PHOTO: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP

“Pyramid diving” is an activity that you’d be forgiven for thinking was a dangerous extreme sport dreamed up by a reckless millennial. In fact, it refers to a new archaeological endeavour in the Nubian desert sands of Sudan. In early July 2019, the National Geographic television channel premiered a documentary about exploration of an obscure pyramid in Nuri, northern Sudan. Below the 2,300-year-old pyramid are tunnels and chambers that lead to the last resting place of a pharaoh named Nastasen. The problem for inquisitive archaeologists of earlier times – not to mention grave robbers – was the underground labyrinth flooding with water seeping through from the adjacent Nile River. “I think we finally have the technology to be able to tell the story of Nuri, to fill in the blanks of what happened here,” egyptologist and underwater archaeologist Pearce Paul Creasman told a National Geographic editor, Kristin Romey, in July.

Creasman, a professor at the University of Arizona, is working with National Geographic to discover the secrets of this ancient African civilisation that probably rivalled the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians in advanced intellect, creativity and governance. Just weeks before, the intrepid professor had donned wetsuit and goggles, descended a flight of steps and plunged into the now watery tomb of Nastasen, the pharaoh of the Kingdom of Kush from 335 BC to 315 BC. “It’s a remarkable point in history that so few know about. It’s a story that deserves to be told,” he said. Visibility in the water at the entrance to the subterranean tunnel was zero due to the sand Creasman stirred up, but eventually he discerned stone features in the light of his torch as he swam through a series of chambers. Suddenly, he spotted what looked like a royal sarcophagus. It looked unopened and undisturbed. A glimpse inside that tantalising stone coffin must wait until 2020 when the excavation team hopes it will be logistically possible to open it.

For the moment, Creasman’s focus is on securing the safety of the lengthy piped air-supply system to divers because the tunnels are too narrow for oxygen tanks, as well as locating and removing easily accessible burial artefacts before teams start to excavate through the sediment and fallen roof stones. Given enduring public fascination with the likes of Egypt’s young pharaoh Tutankhamun, the opening of Nastasen’s sarcophagus has the potential to be a momentous global event – and could even be a turning point in international perceptions of Africa. The outside world’s view of Africa – and particularly its cultural heritage – is notoriously limited, not to say biased. “There is a way of seeing Africa in terms of poverty and conflict – the coup, the war, the famine, the corruption – which has become a kind of shorthand for the continent,” BBC World News presenter Zenaib Badawi observed during an African history series that she presented in 2017.

This pervasive view – in the West and East – is informed by current events and takes little account of the rich heritages of earlier civilisations on the continent. Reasons for this include a paucity of paper-and-ink historical records and a legacy of European colonial attitudes of superiority and “civilising” zeal that swept away the memory and markers of the past. This situation was reflected in an infamous 1965 remark by the prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who declared that Africa is “no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit”. He went on: “There is only the history of the European in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre- European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.” Most scholars nowadays agree Africa does indeed have “history”; some argue that comparing it to European history is poor academic methodology.

Much of this history is slowly being revealed at ancient megalithic sites such as the pyramids of Sudan, the fabled Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe in South Africa and the Walls of Benin. Many of these sites are relatively unexcavated and under-explored and we can only wonder what revelations about ancient Africa await future generations. Sudan actually has many more pyramids than Egypt – about 300 of them at various sites in Nubia in the Nile Valley. The earliest examples date back to 2,500 BC and they were built by people who belonged to three great Kushite kingdoms. Made of sandstone and granite, sometimes looming black against the pale desert sand, they are generally smaller and steeper than Egyptian pyramids. The Kushites were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, commerce and the military – and competed with them; Kushite pharaoh Piye and his successors ruled Egypt for more than a century.

Unesco has described Sudan’s pyramids as masterpieces “of creative genius demonstrating the artistic, political and religious values of a human group for more than 2,000 years”. With such rare antiquities, Sudan should be a modern tourist magnet, with foreign cash bolstering the struggling economy. But decades of violent regional conflict have deterred all but the bravest tourists. The Tripadvisor website, for example, carries just eight visitor reviews of the Nuri necropolis from the past five years – most of them enthusiastic about the visual experience and complete lack of other tourists, but lamenting the abandoned and crumbling state of the sites. Similarly with Axum in neighbouring Ethiopia. The ancient city was the historic capital of the Aksumite Kingdom, a great naval and trading power that ruled a million square miles of the Red Sea region from about 400 BC through to the 10th century, and it is crammed with remarkable relics.

The Aksumites had their own written language, Ge’ez, and a distinctive architecture that incorporated giant obelisks, known as steles, the oldest dating back to about 5,000 BC. Christian and Muslim influences permeate through to the present day, while the place is trapped in something of a time warp, with camel caravans still to be seen setting off into the surrounding desert. The stele park in Axum contains an awesome collection of these towering stones, marking royal burial sites. Skilfully carved with doors at the base and storeys of windows above, stele look like sculptures of skyscrapers – though the idea of such buildings lay many centuries into the future. The tallest, the 33 m Great Stele, lies in pieces; it probably fell and was shattered during construction. In 1937, the invading Italian army removed the 24.6m-high Obelisk of Axum and installed it in Rome; it was returned in 2005 and re-erected in the park.

Ethiopians are adamant that the biblical Ark of the Covenant is safe and sound in Axum – in a small chapel built in the 1960s beside the ancient church of Our Lady Mary of Zion of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. Also in Axum are the largely unexcavated 4th century Ta’akha Maryam and 6th century Dungur palaces. There is also a great pool reputed to be the bathing spot of the Queen of Sheba, who is said to have lived here. Other antiquities are the Ezana Stone, written in Ge’ez, Greek and Sabaean, and King Bazen’s Tomb, one of the earliest of all African megalithic structures. Then there are the astonishing stone-hewn churches of Lalibela and the secluded monasteries of Lake Tana, some of which are said to have links to early Christianity. With its historical marvels, Ethiopia has the potential for a tourism industry to rival Egypt’s.

But the decades-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, the economic and societal devastation of the communist Derg regime of the 1970s and 80s and proximity to the Sudan conflicts have severely constricted Ethiopia’s tourism dividend. However, recent signs of political commitment on various sides to resolving conflict in the Horn of Africa might see the situation change. Indeed, a flowering of peace and democracy across the entire continent might open eyes to an Africa different to the one routinely portrayed internationally. Great Zimbabwe is well known, such is its magnificence, but it might be regarded as something of a megalithic “outlier” when African heritage is considered. Few people outside Zimbabwe know of the spectacular ruins of the Kingdom of Khami to the south, near Bulawayo. These were built from 1450 onwards and contain the longest-known decorated wall in sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa, there are the remains of the 11th century Mapungubwe civilisation in Limpopo province, which pre-dates Great Zimbabwe, which have only been partly investigated in recent decades; the site was kept hidden during the apartheid years. This community had a sophisticated trading economy, powered by gold and ivory, which is epitomised in the golden rhino sculpture that has become an icon of democratic South Africa. These and other lights of ancient African history and culture are beginning to shine on the international horizon. A recent claim that the oldest man-made structure on Earth has been located in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province might attract some disbelief. In 2003 researchers announced the discovery of a meticulously arranged rock circle, dubbed “Adam’s Calendar”, which apparently constitutes a heavenly timepiece.

It is said to be 75,000 year’s old – far older than either Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The truth of these claims is to be determined. Yet this strange place will surely eventually stake a claim in the world’s consciousness of its history too, along with the pyramids of Nuri, the Stele of Axum, the Nok Caves of Togo and a myriad other megalithic marvels across Africa.

Mike Moon is a freelance writer, editor and researcher living in Johannesburg. He has been involved in journalism for 50 years, holding senior positions at the likes of the Sunday Times, Business Day, Rand Daily Mail and magazines. Henhas written for the World Economic Forum for 20 years and has edited several books on a variety of subjects. His sporting interests include horse racing – as a breeder of thoroughbreds and as a columnist in The Times.

Up in the air

African airlines: the good and the bad

A history of government interference in African state-owned airlines has led to inefficiency and unsustainable debt levels, but Ethiopia’s done it differently

The arrival of the Iberia Airlines first
flight from Madrid to the city of Bata in
the colony of Spanish Guinea
(today’s Equatorial Guinea).

Running an airline is a complicated and expensive business. Pundits argue it is best left to those who know what they are doing. But governments across Africa seem to disagree, with most refusing to relinquish the reins of state-owned enterprises and, in most cases, compromising their ability to succeed. The African aviation space has been dominated by state-owned airlines over decades, and the continent is littered with the carcasses of many that have crashed and burned. Ghana Airways (1958-2004), Nigeria Airways (1971-1993), Zambia Airways (1964- 1995), Uganda Airlines (1977-2001) and Air Afrique (1960-2002) were just some of those that didn’t make it. However, there have been some exceptions. South African Airways (SAA) is one of them. In its heyday, it benefited from regulatory measures that afforded it the pick of routes and it was once regarded as the “high-flier” of African aviation, sought after by passengers travelling around the continent.

Its service was professional and safety record solid. But years of poor leadership, political meddling and overspending have eroded its advantage. By 2019, the airline had pulled back on many loss-making routes, and it was surviving on large taxpayer-funded bailouts. Another exception is Ethiopian Airlines, which has slowly and steadily become Africa’s biggest carrier, serving nearly 60 destinations in Africa, compared to SAA’s 25, and more than 100 cities on five continents. In its 2016-17 financial year, it generated $2.7bn in revenue, up 11% from the previous year. Passenger numbers rose by more than 18%. State ownership has been the kiss of death for most African airlines. National flag carriers continue to be desired in Africa by governments regardless of the cost of running them. Though they are regarded as a proud symbol of statehood to be maintained at any cost, most have ended up in the ashes, brought down by substantial financial losses.

African airlines have also historically battled to compete with European carriers and, since the 1990s, Middle Eastern airlines with deep pockets and an eye on the underserviced African market. In addition to the examples above, a few others have survived. Air Zimbabwe, launched in 1967 as Air Rhodesia and renamed Air Zimbabwe after independence in 1980, has done so against the odds. It has all the hallmarks of failure but the government refuses to let it die. Kenya Airways, founded in 1977, is another. It was privatised in 1996 but has battled to build on its position as a leading African airline, a weakness compounded by the aggressive push into the continent by international airlines, one of which was a key stakeholder – KLM. Its financial woes led the Kenyan government to announce in 2019 that it planned to nationalise the airline to rescue it from bankruptcy.

With SAA cutting back routes and raiding the fiscus to survive while Ethiopian thrives, the obvious question is what are the factors that have led to such divergent outcomes for these airlines? Why has Ethiopian been able to make state ownership work for it and SAA not? There are several reasons to consider. One is history. For all its success today, Ethiopian Airlines had a turbulent past rooted in its country’s challenging political and economic fortunes. Its management spent the better part of the 1980s and 90s fending off aggressive state interference in its operations. Political meddling brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. But, ironically, this experience has served it well in later years, creating a resilient and problem-solving management that remains focused on maintaining the carrier’s hard-won autonomy and allowing it to run the business as a commercial enterprise. The government does, however, retain an oversight role through a presence on the airline’s board.

SAA, state-owned for more than 80 years, had a comparatively easy ride, with guaranteed market dominance until the 1990s that put it well ahead of later competition. But instead of building on this early advantage, it has been weakened by poor leadership and overzealous expansion efforts. Management stability and performance has been compromised by increasing political meddling in later years, as it was with Ethiopian in the early days. Ethiopian Airlines has been constant but careful in its expansion, particularly in fleet upgrades. SAA’s current problems are said to have gained impetus with a big push into the African market in the late 1990s by the then CEO, American Coleman Andrews. The airline spent lavishly on fleet expansion to underpin this expansion plan, and sold off a stake in the airline to Swissair to give it access to Swissair’s then-extensive network within Africa and Europe. But by 2002, SAA had suffered massive hedging contract losses. Moreover, Swissair went bankrupt, forcing SAA to buy back its stake.

SAA also battled to build links with other African carriers. Its attempts to set up regional airline Alliance Air in East Africa and establish joint ventures with Nigeria Airways and Uganda Airlines were unsuccessful. Plans to establish a hub in West Africa never materialised. Ethiopian has always prioritised the African market, with a view to positioning itself as a hub for traffic into international markets. The airline has managed to build solid relationships with other African carriers to pre-empt rivals eyeing Africa and to provide secondary feeder hubs for the airline into the main hub in Addis Ababa. The country, a proponent of greater African unity, has put itself in pole position for a new push for intra-continental trade by providing an ever-growing network of air links. A stable, visionary and disciplined management is another factor that separates the fortunes of SAA and Ethiopian Airlines. SAA has had nine CEOs in the decade from 2009.

The revolving door of CEOs was almost matched by a similar trend in key government ministries such as finance. These changes undermined the potential success of turnaround strategies, which were almost as numerous as the CEOs. Mostly, the executives were brought in from outside the airline, lacking the requisite skills and history to counter political meddling. This was at its height during the 2009-2018 tenure of former president Jacob Zuma, whose close friend Dudu Myeni was appointed chair of SAA in 2012. Myeni presided over years of mounting losses, wasteful expenditure and procurement fraud, becoming untouchable until her removal in 2017. During this period, Ethiopian Airlines was run by experienced hands who had grown their careers within the airline. One of these is current CEO Tewolde Gebremariam who has been there for the best part of 30 years. Since becoming CEO in 2011 he has steered the airline through its greatest period of growth.

Ethiopian Airlines has prioritised cost containment, which underpins its long-term business plan. It has also successfully cross-subsidised passenger services with revenue-generating businesses that support its core operation and give it greater control of costs. These include the establishment of training academies, an aircraft maintenance centre and an in-house catering business, which are now core to its operations. Ethiopian’s cargo operation is now the biggest in Africa. In the case of SAA, cost issues appear to have been overtaken by political expedience. Now its extravagant spending and its inability to implement a sustainable, long-term plan have led it to the brink. Its other services, such as SAA Technical and Air Chefs, contribute little to the bottom line – 2.29% and 0.41% respectively in the 2016-17 financial year. SAA’s freewheeling expenditure on free tickets for civil servants does not exist in the Ethiopian stable.

Moreover, the South African airline is vastly overstaffed but held hostage by militant trade unions that are steadfastly against privatisation and staff cuts. SAA also has growing domestic competition; by 2017 its domestic market share had declined from 98% in its heyday to about 23%. With both SAA and Kenya Airways in trouble, Ethiopian Airlines is likely to continue its dominance of the African skies, but it is not without challenges. One is managing its rapid growth, which is having an impact on service delivery. It also needs to bed down its new African acquisitions and ensure these airlines add value rather than drain resources. But SAA remains a force in Africa’s aviation landscape. It has a fleet of 64 aircraft, 10,000 staff and flies to 25 regional destinations and eight cities outside Africa. Its demise would not be good for already patchy connectivity in Africa and passenger convenience. With a business-friendly president in place and professional ministers now in key posts, SAA’s $2bn turnaround plan may gain some traction.

Analysts have urged the airline to follow the Ethiopian model. Researcher Andrew Barlow, writing for the Helen Suzman Foundation, says: “The lessons for SAA’s shareholder are manifold and yet straightforward and easy to implement. An entirely new board should be appointed with a mandate to operate along business lines. The senior management team should be strengthened by the appointment of people with industry experience, who can develop the strategic vision to take the airline forward as a business. Then allow the managers the freedom to do their jobs. It’s not complicated.” Brenthurst Foundation Director Greg Mills echoes this sentiment. “The [Ethiopian] airline’s formula is quite simple,” he says. “They have a plan, they are cost conscious, and they are constantly exploring new routes and partnerships. In South Africa there is little appetite for doing things properly.”

The lesson Ethiopian Airlines offers is not necessarily how to run a successful state owned business. Rather, it highlights the importance of having a strategic plan and the willingness to implement it without having to pander to political expedience in what is already a tough operating environment.

Dianna Games is a leading commentator on business trends and developments in Africa. She is the author of many published reports on African business and is a columnist on Africa for Business Day newspaper in South Africa and African Business magazine in the UK. She also heads the SA-Nigeria business chamber.

No war, no peace

Ethiopia and Eritrea: sustainable peace?

The recent thaw in relations between the two countries is embodied in the fears and hopes of people living in a disputed border town

Genet Gebremedhin poses at her bar in Badme, a disputed town on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, on 14 June 2018. Badme is a dusty grid of bars, coffee houses and little hotels that Ethiopia controls but which a UN-backed boundary commission says is Eritrean soil.

At first glance, Badme – a dusty border town between Ethiopia and its northern neighbour, Eritrea, with an estimated population of several thousand people – looks an unlikely place for a border clash. Yet the savannah grasslands surrounding the town saw pitched battles that started in May 1998, involving tanks, heavy artillery, war planes, landmines and small arms, that left thousands from both sides dead and thousands of others maimed or wounded. A memorial for dead Ethiopian soldiers at the entrance to the town symbolises the emotional baggage that remains 18 years after the war ended. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant member of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition with the Eritrean Liberation Front (EPLF). The two were allies from the 1970s, when they sought to overthrow the military government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, and cooperated until the defeat of Mengistu’s forces in May 1991.

The new TPLF-dominated coalition government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was the first to recognise Eritrean independence in April 1993, after a referendum saw an overwhelming number of Eritreans voting to secede from Ethiopia. The TPLF said it fought for the creation of a federal Ethiopia, and did not seek independence for Ethiopia’s northern territory, Tigray. The confrontation between the two countries that started in Badme was fought along a common border some 1,100 km long and went on for two years at a cost of an estimated 70,000 lives on both sides. The conflict ended formally in December 2000 after the two sides signed a peace agreement in Algiers – but 18 years of tense armed standoff followed, right up until July 2018.

Currently held by Ethiopia, but claimed by Eritrea, many on both sides will have wondered what the town’s fate would be after Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and longtime Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace agreement in July 2018. A boundary commission established after the December 2000 Algiers peace agreement ruled that Badme, which sits on the edge of a triangular strip of Ethiopian land surrounded by Eritrea, belongs to Eritrea, and the country had been calling for Badme’s unconditional handover for 16 years. In June 2018, Eritrea changed its uncompromising position on negotiations after the senior party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition EPRDF declared its unconditional commitment to the Algiers peace agreement. This was seen by many as an implicit admission that Badme belonged to Eritrea. One year later, Badme residents are suspended between the hopes of the peace agreement and fears about the town’s uncertain status.

Meanwhile, though, the town and its significance are rarely discussed in either Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, or Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The citizens of the town used to live “under the protection of the Ethiopian army”, with the ongoing possibility of conflict with Eritrea looming over their lives, says Beyench Belay, 60, a long-time Badme resident and mother of one who lives by selling basic commodities from her small shop. However, tension has eased somewhat since the July 2018 peace agreement, she adds. Nevertheless, Belay believes that Badme should remain in Ethiopia if there is to be a sustainable peace between the two countries. “We haven’t been told to vacate the town, although I have heard rumours on its ‘planned handover’ to Eritrea,” she told Africa in Fact. She added that, in her view, the transfer of Badme to Eritrea “would not be done easily”, given the lives that had been lost.

Belay’s view, however, is not shared by 18-year-old Martha Hadush, who has lived in Badme all her life. Martha (Ethiopians don’t have family names, but use first names and the father’s name) lives with her family in Badme and makes ends meet by selling a traditional alcoholic drink known as tella. She would “sacrifice” the town if it meant a better future, she says. “I look eagerly to see the day I can visit Eritrea,” she told Africa in Fact. “I wish for there to be sustainable peace and love, and if that means giving up on Badme, I’m ready to do it.” But she added that she didn’t intend to stay in Badme anyway; she plans to move elsewhere in Ethiopia in the hope of getting employment in the public sector or in another business. Such different views go back to the start of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, according to Martin Plaut, a former BBC Africa editor and observer of Eritrean politics since the 1980s, when Eritrea was still part of Ethiopia.

Differences between the two former liberation groups, the TPLF and the EPLF, are at the heart of current disagreements, he told Africa in Fact. “The immediate causes [of the war] were many, including petty disputes between farmers along the border and Ethiopia’s belief that the [region’s] coffee crop was being sold off at a profit by Eritreans,” he said. “The EPLF’s attitude towards the TPLF (whom they treated as ‘little brothers’) and theoretical differences over Marxism also laid the seeds of future disagreement.” But the thaw in Ethiopian-Eritrean relations has slowed, with four border points that had re-opened since September 2018 closed on the Eritrean side without explanation. The peace deal needs to go beyond the personal chemistry between the countries’ two leaders, Plaut urges, and be institutionalised to avoid any repeat of the misunderstandings that led to the Ethiopia- Eritrea war.

Landlocked Ethiopia says that it wants a closer economic union, so that it can direct some of its foreign trade through Eritrean ports. This has been met by a stony silence from Eritrea, fuelling speculation that the peace has stalled after 18 years of “no war, no peace”. Eritrea has a much smaller population than Ethiopia and a stagnating economy and, according to a BBC report, some townsfolk fear being overwhelmed by Ethiopian goods. It is also thought that tens of thousands of Eritreans may have taken advantage of the temporary border opening to ask for asylum in Ethiopia. Some of these migrants may be using Ethiopia as a transit point to travel to other African countries in search of freedom and better economic opportunities. Much of the unpredictability of the situation may be due to the Eritrean leader, according to Plaut. “Isaias is notoriously fickle in his opinions, and it suits him when the situation is fluid and complex rather than rules-based. He wants to manipulate and control.

Abiy, meanwhile, has too many issues on his plate to really concentrate on his ties with Eritrea.” Plaut added that the border closures might have been avoided if civil servants had been tasked with reaching agreement on how the formerly disputed territories should be dealt with, and with drawing up proper rules and regulations. In a recent interview disseminated on YouTube, Abiy indicated that he thought that the need to “harmonise trade customs matters and the non-return of Eritrean opposition groups” were reasons for the closures. An Ethiopian government official recently told Africa in Fact, on condition of anonymity, that Ethiopia believes the closures from the Eritrean side are a temporary measure. The country has stationed customs officers at three border checkpoints with Eritrea in anticipation of a resumption of border trade. Plaut says Isaias will probably resist getting Ethiopian-Eritrean ties on a stable footing, but he is optimistic about the prospects of improved relations between the two East African countries.

“It is self-evident that the future requires both nations to cooperate and work on joint projects for their mutual benefit,” he told Africa in Fact. “Little really divides their peoples, who are energetic and dynamic.” Plaut’s optimism is shared by Belay, who has enjoyed a personal benefit from the diplomatic thaw between Ethiopia and Eritrea: she was able to reunite with her sister after 30 years. “She came across the border from Tekemobia, in Eritrea, to meet me,” Belay said. Other Badme residents say that people from the two countries are moving relatively freely across the border to trade in gold, livestock and basic commodities, despite the border points being formally closed from the Eritrean side. This is probably an indication that the rigid separation between the two countries introduced after the 1998-2018 war will not return.

Elias Gebreselassie is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa who has written for a host of international media outlets including Xinhua, Al Jazeera English online, AFP, Alertnet and Reuters. He is interested in topics related to the environment, politics, social and current affairs.