Between a rock and a hard place

The Sahel: Africa’s Great Green Wall

The African Union’s ambitious plans to revitalise the Sahel region face daunting challenges, including financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic

Acacia trees planted in Senegal’s Louga region, as part of the Great Green Wall Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP

It is a project that doesn’t lack ambition. The African Union’s Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI) aims to create a new living world wonder, an 8,000 km tree line across the 21 countries in the Sahel region of Africa. A project this size needs the funding to match and so far, more than $8 billion has been pledged. But conflicts, capacity, direction and ensuring capital remain huge challenges standing in the way of the GGWI. This has led the initiative to refocus away from merely planting trees to developing climate-resilient communities that will be protected from droughts, famine, conflict and migration, restoring degraded land to provide food, jobs and other products that people can use to make a living.

“Planting trees just to restore the land is not the right methodology and this is why we’re looking at income generation as a key aspect,” said Camilla Nordheim-Larsen, programme coordinator at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “The communities need to have a reason to take care of these trees, whether it’s to use or sell products coming from  the trees or an agro-forestry project, or being able to sell carbon credits, for example,” she says, explaining the GGWI’s new direction.

The project’s aims, however, are vast in terms of land restoration, carbon offsetting, beneficiaries, and the number of trees planted by the end of this decade, with progress on many targets stalled and hovering around the 15 to 18% mark. Completion within the decade is ambitious, but Nordheim-Larsen remains confident the initiative can achieve its  goals  on time, which under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is 2030.

Nordheim-Larsen’s optimism is based on her belief that a significant increase in investment, from a variety of different sources, both public and private, could make a drastic difference to the funding gap and help to upscale projects. However, Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the GGWI at the African Union Commission, is less optimistic about that date, which he sees as a UN rather than African Union (AU) target.

“Most of the programmes of the UN are based on the SDGs [for 2030], but for the African Union we have Agenda 2063,” Tangem says. “As far as achieving it by 2030, it’s very, very unlikely. We did an extrapolation and we looked at the possibility of attaining that objective by 2030, but we had to be restoring almost 2.5 million hectares of land a year, which is not possible… with the financial and resources situation [as it is] we cannot say it can be achieved in the next 10 years. When you look at Agenda 2063 it’s more realistic, as we’re talking about restoring less than one million hectares of land a year.”

The GGWI is led by the AU, with the World Bank, UN, European Union and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) as its main funders. Another revenue stream UNCCD is trying to tap is private funders and it supports projects that make the GGWI self-funding by producing products that can be sold on international markets such as oil from the moringa tree, baobab and superfoods type of products, and shea butter. Tangem claims there are as many as 27 products and commodities that could be sold on international markets in the GGWI to benefit communities, in addition to eco-tourism.

Although exploitation of such commodities and eco-tourism, along with addressing climate change, are all issues that may seem to be more of a focus of the western or developed world rather than the countries of the Sahel, Nordheim-Larsen is keen to emphasise the initiative is not being donor-led but was started in the region; the project ultimately builds on the vision of late Burkina Faso President Tomas Sankara.

A 3D movie about the Great Green Wall at the Chad stand at the COP21 UN conference on climate change in Paris, 2015 Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP

“It started with African leaders and was adopted by African leaders in 2007 [after the idea was conceived in 2005] with no push from donors. We’ve come much later to try and support the initiative,” she says. Now, though, the main concern facing the GGWI is funding and searching for different revenue streams, the most significant of which would be carbon offsetting. “The potential carbon sequestration that this project could generate would have global benefits,” adds Nordheim-Larsen.

“There’s been interest from many companies in terms of offsetting projects in the region. At the moment there’s not a lot, but there’s some with the potential to be upscaled, both agroforestry and in the renewable energy sector.” Those companies include carbon polluting giants such as BP and Shell, who are believed to be very interested in offsetting through the GGWI, which could offset up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, says Tangem. But private financial interest is not limited to the globe’s big polluters.

“During UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ climate change summit in September [2019], we had serious engagement with companies like Timberland, who were ready to invest a good chunk of their corporate social responsibility funds in the Great Green Wall,” he adds. The recent coronavirus pandemic, though, has already begun to have an impact on this funding of the GGWI, as Tangem explains: “We successfully raised €1 million for the locust issue in the Horn of Africa, but because of Covid that money was diverted into supporting these countries to buy facemasks and sanitisers.”

This has not been a one-off issue as following last September’s UN Climate Summit in New York, the Great Green Wall has made engagements with both the public and private sector in the pursuit of additional funding that Tangem claims were successful. “We had many other pledges from private-sector partners, big and small, but many of them have withdrawn because they need to take care of their workers and help their investors during this Covid time when everything is shut down. But we are very confident that between 12 and 15 months down the line we will come back and have the support because these engagements are there,” he says.

Besides the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the GGWI has faced several other problems, as can be expected with a project of this size, the most serious of which is security. Extremists, traffickers and terrorist organisations are all operating in various countries of the Sahel where the GGWI has been working, forcing them to retreat. “Burkina Faso, for instance, was one of our best and most successful practices, but we had to abandon about 60% [of our work] because of the security issues. We abandoned most of the areas that were being intervened in Mali, such as Timbuktu.

These are key areas but we had to abandon [them] because of security issues. In Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad as well,” says Tangem. These are all issues that simply weren’t there, certainly on this scale, in 2005 when the programme started. In addition, Somalia forms a large part  of the initiative’s strategy, but the GGWI is unable to operate there because of extremist organisation Al-Shabaab. Not only are these groups having a disastrous impact on the ground on the GGWI’s ability to carry out its programmes, but they have also discouraged funders, says Tangem, although he also points out that countries that are more secure have demonstrated more long-lasting results.

Ethiopia, for instance, has managed to restore 15 million hectares of degraded land. One other challenge facing the GGWI is a need to upscale domestic investment and unlock further finances from the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDFC), as it cannot rely solely on development aid, something about which both Tangem and Nordheim-Larsen agree. But, as Tangem points out, he accepts there is a domestic shortfall in funding, while many of the fund’s beneficiary countries are dealing with more pressing short-term issues than land restoration. The security issues detailed are the most pressing of these, though as Covid-19 continues to eat into the budgets of GGWI’s biggest funders, such as the World Bank and EU, it may well, at least in the short-term, fall to second behind financing.

Workers water the Widu tree nursery in Senegal’s Louga region, 2011 Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP


Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He primarily writes about the environment, energy and the green economy, as well as politics and society for British publications including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.


Vast, vital and often criminalised

Charcoal: the grey trade

If forests are properly managed and harvested, charcoal could be a renewable energy source that does not destroy the environment

Congolese charcoal dealers push their bicycles up the hill as they transport their produce to the market in Sake, North Kivu, in democratic republic of Congo’s Goma province on December 3, 2011. Much of the charcoal in Goma is produced from trees in the Virunga National Park, which is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in this troubled region. A sack of chalrcoal sells for approximately the equivalent of USD20 in the market. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Charcoal is one of the most important commodities in sub-Saharan Africa. In southern and East Africa, the tall, stiff sacks of charcoal propped up by the side of road are one of the most ubiquitous sights when driving along even remote rural roads; likewise, the evening smell of any town is always partially composed of the smoke of charcoal fires. According to the most recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Africa produces nearly 60% of the world’s annual charcoal supply, most of it for domestic use by as much as 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban consumers.

The road-side sacks speak to its vital role as a rural employer; the evening smells to the huge reliance of urban dwellers on charcoal as their primary energy source. The charcoal economy is vast, vital, and often criminalised and corrupt. Its negative impacts are well-known: it contributes to lung disease and forest degradation, and sometimes to deforestation. It has been taxed by Al-Shabaab, and attempts to ensure access to woodlands for charcoal have led to the killing of forest rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by local militias.

For most people, charcoal is either so ordinary it’s invisible, or it is seen as so dangerous that it must be demonised. But this is really a “grey” trade, straddling the legal and the illegal, the legitimate and the illegitimate, and it is too important to remain in this inbetween space. To make charcoal, wood, usually harvested from nearby forests, is burned over several days in an artisanal kiln. Most charcoal producers are poor and often illiterate rural people, who produce charcoal on their own homestead. The process is extremely inefficient – as little as 10-15% of the wood used in this method is actually marketable as charcoal; the rest goes to waste.

From these “backyard” kilns, charcoal is collected and transported to towns and cities, and sometimes across regional borders. The highest-quality charcoal, made from particular tree species, may also be exported off the continent. Along the way, the charcoal trade involves a large range of people: loaders, truck owners, truck drivers, small transporters, creditors, wholesalers, retailers, stove makers, stove retailers, tool retailers, and charcoal exporters. Seen like this, the industry provides income to millions across the region – if not tens of millions. According to a report by the World Bank published in 2018, in rural areas of Mozambique, the industry generates jobs for 136,000 to 214,000 people.

In 2018, Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry estimated that the charcoal trade was the largest informal-sector employer, employing 700,000 people, who in turn were believed to be supporting 2.3-2.5 million people. The charcoal value chain ties the fate of the rural poor to the quality of life of millions of urban residents. For the households in towns and cities who consume most charcoal, it is a cheap and efficient energy source. Other energy sources, when they are available, are simply not as affordable. Combine this reality with the fact that, according to the UN, Africa’s urban population is the fastest growing in the world.

Charcoal vendors in Zimbabwe stand beside their wares in Harare, 2019 Photo: Jekesai Njikiz ana / AFP

According to a meeting held by a UN expert group on urbanisation and migration in 2018, urbanisation in east and southern African countries is expected to increase by 74.3% and 43.6% respectively by 2050. While many hope that investment in energy infrastructure – renewable or not – will reduce the urban reliance on charcoal, this seems extremely unlikely to happen soon. Dr Casey Ryan, who researches charcoal production and land-use change at the University of Edinburgh, points out that even if investments come to fruition in the region’s capital cities, most urban growth in Africa is happening in so-called secondary cities: “So, all those cities, which are growing very fast, are mostly going to run on charcoal – and they’re also quite far down the queue for, say, piped gas or electricity, investments which are normally focused on the capital,” he told Africa in Fact.

However, the current dynamics of charcoal production result in environmental degradation, threatening biodiversity and carbon sinks, and some profits from the industry accrue to corrupt and violent groups. The DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique all show alarming rates of loss of forest cover. Charcoal is not the only culprit: deforestation is also happening as land is cleared for farming, and through logging for timber. But charcoal is a significant contributor to this phenomenon, often in a dynamic relationship to other causes of deforestation.

Charcoal production is currently often locked into a damaging cycle with rural poverty, as extended droughts and low agricultural productivity push many away from farming and towards charcoal production, which in turn degrades the environment for agriculture further. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way: wood fuels are renewable resources which, if properly managed, can regenerate through the planting of new trees. Their impact on carbon emission is more complex: scientists are split on whether wood-based fuels are carbon neutral or not.

Simply stated, the positive case rests on the idea that newly planted trees absorb carbon dioxide, making up for the emissions caused through burning them. While Europe has come under fire for counting wood fuel used in wood- chip fuelled energy plants as carbon neutral, charcoal production in Africa is much more artisanal and does not necessarily result in large-scale conversion of forest to, say, agricultural land. If trees were selectively harvested, or replanted, forests would fare much better. Much of this calculation ultimately rests on the exact nature of the forest use, fuel production, fuel consumption, and their regulation.

The most extreme impact of the charcoal trade occurs in places where governance is contested, or where there is large-scale criminalisation of the sector. This is the case in the Virunga region of the DRC, where profits from the charcoal trade – amongst other things – flow to militias like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), leading to violent, lethal conflict over access to national parks. Effectively regulating the charcoal industry involves balancing competing interests in preserving forests and sustainable resource use, rural livelihoods and the needs of urban consumers. Yet, in sub-Saharan Africa, policies regulating the charcoal trade, if present at all, are typically paper tigers.

Charcoal vendors in Zimbabwe stand beside their wares in Harare, 2019 Photo: Jekesai Njikiz ana / AFP

When faced with criticism about forest degradation and the charcoal trade, states often talk big, but act little. Most states already have laws stipulating a licensing regime for charcoal production, which are intended to keep environmental degradation to a minimum while allowing production to take place. But weak state capability (especially in rural areas), corruption, and the way these things square up against the vital role that charcoal production plays in rural economies, mean that these laws are often barely enforced. The result is that most charcoal production, transport, and sale becomes informal and often illicit, and transporters become a prime source of petty bribes for police.

This is often to the benefit of large entrepreneurs who have “captured” a large slice of the urban market, often by buying state protection. Such clumsy, ineffective, and even insincere, attempts at regulation have the effect of making a massive industry largely illicit. The World Bank’s research in Mozambique, for example, estimated that only about 5% of the charcoal sector was operating under formal regulation. Other researchers have estimated that 80% of production in Tanzania is illicit. While weak regulation fails both at protecting the environment or upholding the interests of rural producers or urban consumers, the use of outright bans is even more destructive.

In Kenya, for example, the production and sale of charcoal is currently under a blanket ban, despite the fact that it remains vital to the basic needs of millions of Kenyan citizens. Other countries also periodically place total bans on the trade when pressure to curb forest degradation becomes intense, but then cannot meaningfully impose the regulation. Ten years ago, research by the World Bank on  East African charcoal value  chains  demonstrated  that bans can make criminality and corruption  in  the industry worse. Urban consumers simply cannot find alternatives to charcoal, as other fuels are far more expensive or unavailable.

Bans mean that a vital industry has to be conducted entirely clandestinely, increasing corruption and state collusion, and transporters pass these costs onto the consumer, driving up prices, which remain high even after bans are lifted. Yet to this day, bans continue to be a popular government reaction. Likewise, academics Esther Marijnen and Judith Verweijen, writing about their research for the London School of Economics, have challenged the idea that strict law enforcement can ever be a solution to the FLDR’s profits from the charcoal trade using trees from the Virunga National Park, as local inhabitants have no other sources of income, and the demand  from the nearby city of Goma is unceasing.

“With little collaboration from the population, can operations to dislodge armed groups from production areas be successful?” these authors ask. “With no alternative livelihoods, will further impoverishing offenders with arrest work as a deterrent?” There is, however, scope for intervention and reform. Researchers such as Mary Njenga from the World Agroforestry Centre argue persuasively that, if forests are properly managed and harvested, charcoal can be a renewable energy source that does not entail environmental destruction. Technical and value chain interventions, Njenga argues, have already been identified in improving the efficiency both of the kilns that are used to produce charcoal and in the stoves that burn it.

A woman sells charcoal in Asosa, Ethiopia, 2019 Photo: Eduardo Soteras / AFP

But regularising the charcoal economy will also be political. It will require tackling interests that benefit from the current (corrupt and poorly regulated) status quo, including powerful entrepreneurs who control profits in urban markets and resist state regulation of the sector. To regularise the trade in a way that is fair and supportive of the poorest, such measures will also have to take into account the realities of rural livelihoods and address highly contentious issues such as access to land. It is in these measures, perhaps counter-intuitively, where the most sustainable intervention will be found in even highly violent situations.


Simone Haysom is a South African writer and researcher, currently based in Geneva. She is the author of The last words of Rowan du Preez : murder and conspiracy on the Cape Flats, published by Jonathan Ball. Her research covers the political economy of crime and corruption in southern and East Africa.

Never waste a crisis

Africa: agriculture and environment

Climate change will hit Africa hard, but it also offers the continent an opportunity to build resilience and diversify livelihoods

A young man stands among stationary boats at the dried inland Lake Chilwa in Zomba District, eastern Malawi, October, 2018. Lake Chilwa is the second-largest lake in Malawi after Lake Malawi. The dying lake is having an adverse effect on the livelihoods of communities.
Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP

The changes ahead for Africa’s environment, which form the foundation of the continent’s societies and economies, will be challenging, but bright spots abound. Africa is a continent of contrasting environments absent a singular definition. A mosaic of terrains, the continent weaves together tropical forests, grasslands, savannahs, deserts and mangroves, ice-capped mountains, rivers, lakes and coasts across 55 countries, 1.2 billion people and 30 million square kilometres of land. This enormous landmass contains a quarter of global biodiversity, supports the world’s most prodigious gatherings of large mammals, and its diverse animal, plant and marine ecosystems drive economies and shape societies, cultures and development.

Human actions have played a central role in changing the African environment and its landscape over a long and complex history. African indigenous knowledge and practices include shared cropping systems and zai rain-fed irrigation methods that have mitigated droughts and famine for centuries. Yet, much of the more recent environmental history of Africa is dominated not by stories of Africans managing a challenging environment in harmony with ecosystems, but rather of foreign-driven exploitation of its people and resources, including minerals, fossil fuels, farm and forest produce for export.

Africa today is no less dependent on its environment than in the past. This is especially true in rural areas. Approximately 57% of Africa’s population, or 740 million people, live in rural areas. Agriculture is the continent’s biggest employer, supporting the livelihoods of 51% of the population. The majority of the population working in agriculture is engaged in smallholder agriculture that is undertaken in harsh environmental conditions with limited and highly variable natural rainfall. The high dependence on agriculture and the environment has significant and far-reaching consequences, not just for the 740 million rural people of Africa, but for the continent as a whole.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that nearly a quarter of the population, or 224 million people, in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, with 31% experiencing food insecurity. Food shortages and malnutrition result in stunted growth and permanent damage that has long-term impacts. On a continental level, Africa is not feeding itself. According to the African Development Bank, net food imports to Africa are costing on average $35-$42 billion per year and are predicted to reach $110 billion by 2025. As stated by Akinwumi Adesina, the bank’s president, in 2017, “Africa’s annual food import bill weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.” This food bill does not represent investment – these are sunk costs.

The consequence of this heavy reliance on challenging and unpredictable environmental conditions by such a large proportion of the population is a significant downward pressure on human and economic development. With two thirds of every country’s human capital beholden to the environment, and more specifically unpredictable rainfall to provide livelihoods, the opportunities for entry into skilled employment such as teaching, business, the health profession and trading are curtailed.
Climate change is making these challenges worse. The facts and figures on global climate change are startling. Prior to 1800, the global level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm).

Data drawn from ice cores show that CO2 varied within a relatively narrow range, roughly between 180 and 280 ppm, over the past 800,000 years – never moving above 300 ppm. Currently, CO2 is above 416 ppm. Over this same 800,000 years, methane has never been higher than 750 parts per billion (ppb), but now this gas, which is 22 times more powerful than CO2, is 1,873 ppb. The unprecedented speed and scale of these greenhouse gas emissions brings us into a new era of uncertainty with regards to their impact on the environment and our planet. According to the UN, Africa is the continent that will be hardest hit by climate change.

The key word, however, when attempting to understand climate change in Africa, is uncertainty. One of the challenges in predicting the impact of climate change on the continent is the extremely complex, yet poorly understood, large-scale weather systems that interact across the landscape. While rainfall patterns have been exceptionally difficult to predict, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that temperatures have risen by about 0.5°C over most of the African continent during the past 50-100 years. While this increase in temperature may seem insignificant, it is accelerating and will have a widespread impact on agriculture.

Many staple crops such as wheat, maize, millet and sorghum are especially susceptible to changes in temperature. Scientists predict that by 2050 the agricultural production of millet and sorghum in West Africa will potentially decrease by 13% in Burkina Faso, 25.9% in Mali and 44.7% in Senegal. Even if a quarter of these decreases in production are actualised, they will amplify shocks and stresses in those countries that today face food insecurity that will have an impact on up to five million people, according to the World Food Programme. Higher temperatures will also likely cause desert areas to encroach further south, also limiting agricultural options.

This may have unexpected consequences on migration and food insecurity, forcing people into conflict and causing an increase in bush meat consumption that may encourage new zoonotic diseases to emerge. Climate change will further impact biodiversity. An assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa, published by the independent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), estimates that by 2100 climate change could have caused the loss of over half of Africa’s bird and mammal species and a significant loss of plant species.

That will have a substantial impact on livelihoods, water and food supply and reduce people’s resilience to shocks and stresses because these ecosystems are the foundation of healthy societies and economies. Another area of clear impact occurring along coasts due to rising sea levels and warming. Sea levels have risen between 13-20 cm over the past 100   years and this is accelerating. Rising sea levels are caused by warming seas that expand as they increase in temperature and melting land-based ice flows into the ocean. Africa has just over 30,000 km of coastline that is undergoing increasing population growth and urbanisation.

These urban areas will be susceptible to more flooding due to storm surges. But warming sea levels are also impacting the environment in other, unpredictable ways. The devastating locust swarms currently destroying crops and livelihoods across East Africa may be linked to climate change. The warming Indian Ocean has contributed to 2019 being one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades. This drove eight cyclones across the region in 2019 – the most since records began – and enabled desert locusts to leapfrog into East Africa where they have now laid eggs and are hatching in their trillions.

David Hughes of the UN’s FAO, told the BBC in May that they “threaten the food of 23 million people. It is the number one food security issue in East Africa at the moment.” Climate change is not the only factor leading to this uncertain future, however. Many scientists posit that we have now entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. The African environment, for example, has suffered significantly from human-led degradation that has accelerated over the past century. This includes the over-exploitation of wildlife and fisheries and natural habitat loss, especially from agricultural expansion.

The Anthropocene is characterised by an increasingly interconnected and accelerating world. These characteristics have significant implications for how we understand risks. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how a zoonotic disease that emerged from wildlife to humans in a city in China is having an enormous and rapid negative impact on people and economies in Africa and around the globe. When we combine the interconnected and rapidly changing nature of the Anthropocene with the uncertain impacts of climate change in the context of Africa, the future looks challenging.

African leaders are not to blame for the impacts of climate change against which they must build resilience. Africa has 17% of the world’s population, but has only contributed 4% to global carbon emissions, and much of this has been to supply export products for higher-income countries. But regardless of where the blame for climate change lies, the reality is that the global public and private sectors have a shared responsibility to address the interconnected and uncertain risks it poses.

Domestically, African governments and the private sector need to recognise the impact of climate change and champion green growth that works with nature to build resilience and supports people, especially rural populations, to adapt through improved early warning systems, agricultural investment and diversified livelihood options. The current Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications provide an opportunity to employ the old adage of “never waste a crisis”. As Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda stated: “We are not making a choice between environment and prosperity; but we are rather looking at how we combine both.”

This is the opportunity to invest in recovery solutions, such as job programmes that directly invest in natural capital like nature-based tourism, that will help the continent to come back stronger. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates, for example, that 3.6 million people in Africa are employed in the nature-based tourism industry, which was worth $29 billion in 2018. These programmes can also build the capacity of local communities and drive forward opportunities for women and youth.
Navigating this uncertain future will also require an improved understanding of environmental and human interactions through investing in science and education.

For Africa to thrive amidst the shocks and stresses that lie ahead, it will need leadership and cooperation from governments, the private sector and people that builds resilience to upcoming challenges by supporting growth and development that protects and works with the environment. As South African climate activist Ndivile Mokoena said: “Climate change is largely viewed as an environmental issue. However, it encompasses everything: it is a developmental issue, it is a human rights issue, it is a social issue.”

Nathanial (Nate) Matthews is a political and environmental scientist and Director of Programmes at the Global Resilience Partnership. He holds a PhD in geography, has published two books and authored over 55 scientific publications and reports. He has 16 years’ experience in international development across 30 countries. Twitter: @Nate_Matthews_

C-19: Zimbabwe and the rule of law

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions, which the UN has warned may escalate global suffering and jeopardise lives and livelihoods “for years to come”. But in Zimbabwe, senior government officials and their associates have taken advantage of the pandemic to suppress the opposition while looting public funds.

The high-level corruption, which has resulted in the arrest of Health Minister Obadiah Moyo, has also sucked in the first family and left authorities in Harare exposed to some ridicule on social media after a series of ridiculous own goals in a cover-up bid.

In Zimbabwe, senior government officials and their associates have taken advantage of the pandemic to supress the opposition while looting public funds.

A $2 million payment by the government to a two-week-old Hungarian branch of Swiss-registered Drax International in March has attracted the interest of Interpol and Hungarian officials, who have commenced money laundering investigations. Drax International – whose Zimbabwean frontman, Delish Nguwaya, is a convicted criminal and an associate of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son Collins – is at the centre of a Covid-19 procurement scandal, which has seen Moyo arrested.

Nguwaya was also arrested following unrelenting public pressure. He has been pictured with Mnangagwa, his sons Collins and Sean, as well as first lady Auxilia Mnangagwa. He is also known to have attended functions at State House despite failing a security clearance conducted by the Central Intelligence Organisation.

Collins was not arrested or questioned over the matter. In a statement released on 29 May, he denied any association with Drax. “I have no business or personal relationship with any of Drax International’s representatives, including Mr Nguwaya,” Collins said. “Legal action will follow any current and further statements made to slander my name, reputation and that of the first family.”

Zimbabweans laughed off the claim he had “no business or personal relationship” with Nguwaya, sharing more pictures on social media to prove the personal relationship. On 28 May, Drax International, through Illir Dedja, listed as the managing partner of the company, issued a statement denying any “partnership and/or association with Zimbabwe’s first family”. The company said Nguwaya was their sole representative in Zimbabwe. It also threatened to sue “all individuals propagating these falsehoods on social media”.

On 4 June, the acting spokesman of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu PF, Patrick Chinamasa, warned journalists and the public against “attacking members of the first family”. “[T]hese baseless attacks … need to stop forthwith,” he said.

The acting spokesman of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu PF, Patrick Chinamasa, warned journalists and the public against “attacking members of the first family”.

Was Drax awarded a $60 million contract to supply Covid-19 medicines and sundries in violation of the country’s procurement regulations, because of Nguwaya’s relations with the first family? Zimbabweans want an answer.

Drax was supplying medical supplies at grossly inflated figures, as revealed by official invoices. For example, the company was providing N95 face masks at $28, yet the average cost of the product is $4 in local pharmacies. A letter dated 8 May, 2020 from Finance Permanent Secretary George Guvamatanga to then Health Secretary Agnes Mahomva authorising procurement, revealed the purchasing figure.

Zimbabweans want an answer.

Curiously, however, when he received a consignment from Drax on 11 April, Mnangagwa claimed the supplies were a “donation” after he made a “personal appeal”. “I am happy that after my personal appeal to Drax, they have [given a] tremendous donation to support the mobilisation effort we are making currently,” he said at State House. “They have donated $60 million to us to procure medicines and equipment.”

To save face, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information, Nick Mangwana, later said the president had been misled into thinking he was receiving a donation. This was after Zimbabweans took to social media to demand answers on his strange statement.

In another embarrassing procurement scandal, the Zimbabwean government confused citizens by claiming it had received testing kits from Namibia. On 21 April, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said Zimbabwe had received 4,499 tests kits from Namibia. Mutsvangwa’s revelations raised eyebrows: Namibia does not manufacture Covid-19 test kits. The country was also receiving donations and struggling to roll out mass testing because of a shortage of test kits.

In another embarrassing procurement scandal, the Zimbabwean government confused citizens by claiming it had received testing kits from Namibia.

Namibian Health Minister Kalumbi Shangula denied any knowledge of the donation when contacted by the Namibian Sun. Shangula asked: “Where would we get those tests from? How can we donate when we don’t have enough?”

Clearly, one of the parties here wasn’t being honest. Questions, therefore, continued to be asked in both countries, prompting Namibia’s Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation to issue a formal statement on 26 June flatly denying the donation and revealing that Zimbabwe’s authorities had apologised, saying that the “allegations” of the donation had been “unfounded and erroneous”. Senior figures in the government in Harare were left with egg on their faces.

Official government documents have exposed that the kits in question had in fact been supplied by a Namibian-registered company, Jaji Investments, linked to Mnangagwa’s aide. Jaji Investments sourced the kits in China, before supplying Zimbabwe at huge cost. Garikai Mushininga, a medical doctor based in Namibia, who said he was the managing director of Jaji Investments, confirmed to the Zimbabwe Independent that he bought the kits in China before they were flown to Zimbabwe by DHL.

Besides corruption, Zimbabwean authorities have been clamping down on the opposition since the national lockdown began on 30 March. On 10 June, UN human rights experts called on Zimbabwe to “immediately end a pattern of disappearances and torture that appear aimed at suppressing protests and dissent”.

Zimbabwean authorities have been clamping down on the opposition since the national lockdown began on 30 March.

This was after three female officials from the country’s biggest opposition party, MDC-A – Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova – were arrested at a roadblock on 13 May and detained at Harare Central Police Station. They had earlier participated in a demonstration against government’s failure to provide a social safety net for those most in need.

They were later abducted from police custody by suspected state agents, blindfolded and driven to Bindura – 86 kilometres north of Harare – where they were allegedly tortured and sexually assaulted. They were dumped at a market place 48 hours later.

They were later abducted from police custody by suspected state agents, blindfolded and driven to Bindura – 86 kilometres north of Harare – where they were allegedly tortured and sexually assaulted.

A police spokesman, Paul Nyathi, confirmed their arrest but the police later did an about-turn on this and denied arresting the trio. The MDC officials were charged with violating Covid-19 regulations on public gatherings, as well as with supposedly faking their own abduction.

The UN pointed out that “targeting peaceful dissidents, including youth leaders, in direct retaliation for the exercise of their freedom of association, peaceful assembly and freedom of expression is a serious violation of human rights law”. It noted that last year, 49 cases of abduction and torture were reported in Zimbabwe.

Last year, 49 cases of abduction and torture were reported in Zimbabwe.

The government also attracted criticism after the police and the military assisted Thokozani Khupe, leader of the MDC-T faction within the opposition party, to take over the MDC-A headquarters, in a dispute between MDC formations. During the lockdown, the police also arrested several MDC-A officials, including co-Vice Presidents Tendai Biti and Lynette Karenyi-Kore, charging them with contravening Covd-19 regulations after they tried to gain entry to their party headquarters following its seizure. They were released on ZW$1 000 bail.

Several lawyers, including Thabani Mpofu who represented MDC-A leader Nelson Chamisa when he challenged Mnangagwa’s victory in the 2018 presidential election, were arrested and charged at the beginning of June for allegedly obstructing the course of justice. Mpofu was charged with allegedly falsifying information by submitting an affidavit by “a non-existent person” (one Simbarashe Zuze) to the Constitutional Court in January 2019, challenging the appointment of Prosecutor-General Kumbirai Hodzi.

Zuze, however, recorded a video and produced his identity cards and travel documents, proving he existed. The matter is still pending in court.

Mnangagwa promised to observe human rights and fight corruption after toppling former president Robert Mugabe in a 2017 takeover that he and his supporters deny was a military coup. To the majority of Zimbabweans, however, the military helped to transfer power to another group of connected people in the ruling party, which hasn’t much changed.

Mnangagwa promised to observe human rights and fight corruption after toppling former president Robert Mugabe in a 2017 takeover that he and his supporters deny was a military coup.

Nguwaya appeared in court on 13 June charged with fraud, but the majority of Zimbabweans believe the Mnangagwa administration has no appetite for reform. They believe that Moyo and Nguwaya were arrested only because of public pressure and that no serious action will be taken.

Dr Alex Magaisa, a UK-based Zimbabwean academic and lecturer of law at the University of Kent, who offers cutting-edge analysis and critical insights into Zimbabwean law and politics through his Big Saturday Read blog, on 14 June described Nguwaya’s matter as “a case that is built to collapse”. The state has presented a weak case, and this was deliberate, he argues. “The government wants to create a false and misleading impression that it is taking action against corruption.” The saga was getting too close to the President’s family and several senior government officials, he says.

Health Minister Moyo was arrested, but the state did not oppose bail when he appeared in court, accompanied by his aides. Unlike most other political detainees, Moyo enjoyed a rare privilege and was allowed to sleep at home. Zimbabweans describe these sorts of arrests as “catch and release” antics. Senior officials are often arrested for serious crimes but not seriously prosecuted.

Senior officials are often arrested for serious crimes but not seriously prosecuted.

In November 2019, for example, Presidential Affairs Minister Joram Gumbo was arrested on charges of criminal abuse of office involving $37 million arising from his time in office as transport minister, but was not prosecuted. In July last year, the former tourism minister, Prisca Mupfumira, was arrested for allegedly looting more than $90 million in social security money when she was the public service minister. She is out on bail.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe is supposed to be fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The country had recorded 567 cases and six deaths as of 28 June, but it has no capacity to fight the spread of the virus. Public health institutions are poorly equipped, while strikes among nurses and doctors over poor salaries and working conditions are also common. In April, doctors took the government to court to compel it to provide personal protective equipment and to adequately equip hospitals.

The country is still in lockdown, but Mnangagwa and his wife continue to travel and to meet people, betraying the lack of understanding of the pandemic at the very top.


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Owen Gagare is the assistant editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, a weekly newspaper, covering business, politics and investigative stories. He has previously worked for NewsDay and the Chronicle. Owen has also written for the Mail and Guardian and has a passion for investigative and in-depth stories as well as human rights and governance issues. He is based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Rivers of arms

Democratic Republic of Congo: arms flow

Despite an arms embargo, a constant flow of weapons into the DRC from around the globe ensures that peace remains elusive

A Congolese army soldier carries a rocket-propelled grenade launcher as he walks up a road leading to the frontline on the outskirts of the provincial city of Goma in November 2008.

Since the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2003, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been categorised as a “post-conflict nation”. Yet, a low-intensity war is still raging in eastern Congo and despite a UN arms embargo the flow of weapons continues unabated. In the Kivu provinces alone, over the June 2017-June 2019 period, 1,900 civilians were killed and 3,300 others were kidnapped, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the New York University-based Congo Research Group reported in August 2019. Accordingly, some 3,000 violent incidents by more than 130 armed groups were recorded during the period. Dozens of other groups are also active in the Ituri, Upper-Uele, Tanganyika and Kasai provinces.

The main armed groups are the Ugandan led Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in addition to a myriad of Congolese Mai-Mai groups, some of which are supported by the Congolese and Burundian governments, says HRW. These groups are proliferating despite the UN arms embargo. On 28 July, 2003, UN Security Council Resolution 1493 imposed an embargo covering arms supplies and military assistance to all armed groups operating in the eastern DRC. The embargo was imposed in reaction to continued violence in Ituri and North and South Kivu after the withdrawal of foreign armies from the country the year before.

In March 2008, UN Security Council Resolution 1807 lifted all restrictions on arms transfers to the DRC government but required the notification of such shipments to the Sanctions Committee, while the embargo on supplies to non-governmental forces remained in place. Such measures are currently in force. Yet, results have been limited on the ground. Despite the embargo, and after the symbolic destruction of 100,000 firearms in Kinshasa on 21 August, 2010, 300,000 small arms were still in the hands of civilians in eastern Congo, as reported at the time by the Brussels-based Information Group on Peace and Security ( GRIP).

Enforcement of the embargo is problematic because rebels from the government’s Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo/ Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC) manage to buy weapons despite it, explains Jean-Jacques Wondo, an expert and analyst on DRC security issues. Criminal networks are providing ADF rebels and other groups with arms, ammunition and uniforms bought from corrupt FARDC soldiers. In 2012, according to a UN Security Council report, a network led by (FARDC) General Jean-Claude Kifwa supplied Russian-made AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades and mortars as well as Belgian MAG machine guns and ammunition to the Mai Mai Morgan, in the Province Orientale.

According to Wondo, the current FARDC Deputy Army Chief of Staff, Gen Gabriel Amisi, aka Tango Four, now under EU sanctions, is also supporting some rebel groups. It would appear that the strategy of senior officers in the region includes maintaining a certain level of conflict by arming rebels. The aim is to justify additional budgets for military operations, including danger money paid to the soldiers and fuel, which are siphoned off by these officers for their own benefit, explains Wondo. In September 2018, Gen-Major Jean-Luc Ijila Yav, then in charge of logistics for the FARDC, was jailed in Kinshasa following charges of embezzling ammunition and fuel, says Wondo.

On 1 March, 2018, Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported that ammunition used by the FARDC and the rebels sometimes came from the same stockpiles. The French radio report said that since 2013 several armed groups, including the FDLR, the Nyatura Mai Mai and the Patriots Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo, were equipped with ammunition for the AK-47 manufactured by the China North Industries Corporation (Norinco). Curiously, the radio station reported, this ammunition came from the same stockpile as the bullets fired by a policeman that killed a demonstrator on 25 February, 2018 in Mbandaka. RFI also noted the coincidence that Chinese ammunition used during the repression of demonstrations against Kabila’s third presidential mandate in January 2018 in Kinshasa belonged to the same stockpiles as those used by the ADF rebels.

Rebels have also captured weapons from the FARDC, as in October 2008 when the Rwandan-backed National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) looted a FARDC military depot in Rumangabo (North Kivu) and seized large quantities of weapons. Armed groups also obtain weapons and ammunition from neighbouring states. James Bevan from the UK-based NGO Conflict Armament Research says that the Sudanese government has supplied ammunition to the DRC, a substantial amount of which was also acquired by M23 rebels, including Russian-made 2.7 x 108 mm cartridges used by the FARDC. According to a 2012 UN Security Council report, Rwanda violated the UN arms embargo by supplying arms and ammunition to the M23 group, which also procured 12.7 mm machine guns and ammunition for AK- 47s, RPGs and mortars from the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF).

FRPI rebels in Ituri Province also bartered gold for weapons with a UPDF officer. Weapons from all sorts of origins end up in rebel hands. On 16 October, 2006, Amnesty International, Oxfam International and the International Action Network on Small Arms found that rebels in Ituri were using sniper rifle bullets manufactured by the Federal Cartridge Company in the United States and 7.62 mm cartridges manufactured by the Pyrkal Greek Powder and Cartridge Company. The same company also exported ammunition to Sudan and Uganda, two countries that are among the sources of origin of weapons found in rebel hands. South African 5.56 mm R4 assault rifles sold to the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) before the 1994 genocide were also found in rebel hands, say UN investigators.

Serbian arms, such the 7.65 mm Zastava Model 70 self-loading pistol, were also found in Ituri in 2006, after they were delivered from Belgrade to Kigali, says Amnesty International. Prior to that, in 2004, an armed group in Bukavu were found in possession of Serbian anti-personnel mines and mortar shells, while in September 2003, the UN says, most of the weapons recovered from the UPC militia in Ituri were 3,000 Kalashnikov rifles and corresponding ammunition from China and Russia. Rebels also get supplies from other armed groups. According to the UN Security Council report of 2012, the M23 supplied weapons and ammunition to the Raia Mutomboki Mai Mai. Since the FARDC have also been accused of many human rights violations, the supply of arms to the DRC government, even if does not violate the UN embargo stricto sensu, risks stoking the fires of repression against the Congolese.

In 2016, DRC arms imports amounted to $43 million, but the amounts vary considerably from one year to another (for example, $151 million in 2010 and $2 million in 2015). According to Wondo, most of the weapons are stockpiled in the Kibomango and Mbakana camps, near Kinshasa. Only the police and the Republican Guard, which remains faithful to the former president, Joseph Kabila, have access to these weapons. The DRC has a large range of suppliers. The FARDC use Belgian-made FN FAL and FNC rifles and MAG machine guns, US-made M16s and Israeli-made Galil rifles. Russia remains one of the main suppliers with 7.62×39 mm AK-47s or the cheaper AKM-59 version, RPD light machine guns and PKM general-purpose machine guns (7.62×54 mm).

Currently, the FARDC are equipped with 20 T-54 and T-55 tanks, 48 T-62 tanks, about 100 howitzers of various calibres, 107 mm and 122 mm rocket launchers and as many mortars. Russia sold four Sukhoi SU-25 airfighters, MI-24 Hind combat helicopters and Mi-17 helicopters to the DRC as well as Zhuk patrol vessels for the Congolese navy. Besides, according to Wondo, in July 2015 the Republican Guard acquired from Russia T-80 M tanks, new-generation rocket launchers and ground-to-air S-300 missiles. According to the FARDC logistical services, in December 2017 the former chief of staff of the presidency, General François Olenga, purchased several Iliouchine 76 Candid and Antonov 124 Condor transport aircraft from Russia. These weapons were airlifted from Sebastopol in Russian Crimea to Kisangani between December 2017 and January 2018.

Other shipments were made by sea to the ports of Matadi and Boma. Moreover, on 23 May, 2018, Russia and the DRC signed a military cooperation agreement that included a weapons sales deal. According to Wondo, on several occasions weapons for the Republican Guard were supplied discreetly via the port of Banana without notifying the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of Congo (MONUSCO). Another important supplier is Ukraine, which, in addition to 25 T-64 tanks, has sold 50 T-55 tanks to the DRC in the past decade. In December 2015, a Congolese official delegation led by General Olenga travelled to Kiev to purchase more weapons. More recently, in early 2018, the Beltech Export company from Belarus supplied four L-39 C aircraft to the Congolese air force; prior to this the FARDC had procured Sukhoi-25K and Sukhoi-27 flanker C aircraft from Beltech.

Over the years, China has also become an important source of supply. The list includes Type 56 rifles, which are China’s version of the Russian AK-47 assault rifle RPGs, about 30 T-59 tanks and one Shanghai II patrol vessel for the Congolese navy. In 2018, the Chinese Technology Company supplied 10 Phantom DJI drones for the observation of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma. Serbian-made Zastava M92 rifles are also used by FARDC troops. The Yugoimport-SDPR company supplied Premax-39 and Nestin-class river patrol vessels at the end of 2017, which were used in an assault against the Yatkutumba Mai Mai on Lake Tanganyika in November of that year. Another company called CPR Impex Doo supplied 22,000 5;56 mm M-92 assault rifles and 120 20 mm M-55 anti-aerial guns to the Republican Guard.

In 2018, the Serbian company Privi Partizan also delivered, via the ports of Banana and Matadi, about five million cartridges for various assault rifles and for machine guns. The FARDC are also equipped with 90 AML-60 French Panhard reconnaissance armoured vehicles and 60 Panhard M3 armoured personal carriers. The air force has five Mirage 5 airfighters and Puma, Cougar and SA316 Alouette III helicopters, in addition to 12 Cessna 150 and three Cessna 310 transport aircraft. The long list of suppliers to the DRC includes Spain, which sold three Piraña patrol vessels to the Congolese navy; Brazil, which sold 19 Cascavel armoured cars; and Switzerland, which has supplied 9K32 strela-2 Rapier ground-to-air missiles. Egypt has been a provider of Misr assault rifles, used by the FARDC infantry, which are a copy of the notorious Russian AK-47, and of 20 Fahd armoured person carriers, which were delivered around 1990.

Military observers have said that a large proportion of the tanks, vessels and aircraft are not operational. One of the most controversial DRC deals has been North Korea’s secret supply in 2014 of pistols to the FARDC and to the Congolese National Police. According to an official UN document seen by Reuters news agency, North Korea also sent instructors to provide training for the Presidential Guard. This deal violated the arms embargo imposed on North Korea by UN Security Council Resolution 1874 of 2009. It also violated the arms embargo on the DRC, which requires member states to notify the Security Council Sanctions Committee of arms sales or training to the Congolese army, as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1807.

Finally, the FARDC has also received domestic supplies from local manufacturer Afridex in Likasi (upper Lualaba Province), which produces AK-47 rifles and ammunition with the technical assistance of the Chinese company Norinco. According to Wondo, who claims to have accessed a confidential army report from the FARDC army chief of staff in 2016, some of the Afridex weapons and ammunition were diverted by military officers to supply local armed groups such as the Bakata Katanga militias.

François Misser is a Brussels-based journalist. He has covered central Africa and Rwanda since 1981 for the BBC, Afrique Asie magazine, New African, and the German daily Tageszeitung. He is the author of several books on the DRC, including Géopolitique du Congo (2006) and Le Congo de A à Z (2010).