I’d been on the hunt for former U.S. security firm Blackwater owner, Erik Prince, for Newsweek. At the time Prince’s Malta-based logistics company, Frontier Services Group, was sending supplies and repairing oil production facilities. Contrary to some reports, sources said he’d also been training police and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – SPLA – to fight rebel leader Riek Machar and to protect Chinese-owned oil fields. The U.N. spokesman at the time was not keen to host me apparently because a Newsweek had published an article three months previously that reflected poorly on the U.N.. They seemed to try just about everything to dissuade me from heading to the Upper Nile state, the only region producing oil at the time. I stubbornly persisted and they eventually relented. UNMISS turned out to be particularly accommodating.
Erik Prince has since pulled out of South Sudan.
A Nuer IDP camp I visited was cramped and lacking in proper health care as compared with a Dinka camp. Dozens live in a small compound in open spaces. Intimacy is more or less impossible.
LONG GOODBYE 07.27.15 2:20 PM ET
By MARGOT KISER
To keep his visit to Kenya and Ethiopia upbeat, Obama declined to address some of the really big problems in both countries.
NAIROBI — In what may give the term “birther” new meaning, it’s rumored that in Kogelo, President Barack Hussein Obama’s father’s hometown on the shore of Lake Victoria, boy babies born over the weekend were named “Air Force One” and “POTUS.”
All part of the long kwaheri, Swahili for “good-bye,” as Obama leaves Africa.
In Kenya, when he walked onstage at the Kasarani stadium to deliver his final speech, the crowd of 5,000 cheered the president as if he were a rock star. As the helicopter known as Marine One delivered the president to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for his departure to Ethiopia, photos appeared on Facebook of grown Kenyan men in tears.
While in Nairobi, the President got and gave a lot of love—some of it of the tough variety delivered to his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta. Obama pressed the Kenyan leader on such sensitive issues as gay rights, which Kenyatta called a “non-issue,” and corruption, about which he made no comment.
The top item on their agenda was Kenya’s fight against Al Shabaab, the Somali-bred Islamist group that has, in recent years, come of age with attacks inside Kenya. After warming up with the kidnapping and murder of tourists, al-Shabaab advanced to devastating acts of violence at malls and universities. Since Kenya invaded Somalia, in 2011, the Somali faction’s retaliation against soft targets on Kenyan soil has left more than 600 dead. And that figure doesn’t include those hundreds who perished when al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998.
Saturday, in a joint press conference held at the statehouse here, Obama announced that the United States is providing Kenyan security forces additional funding and assistance to deal with terrorism and to make sure that the efforts made to root out terrorist threats do not create more problems than they solve.
The question left unspoken, however, is one that’s been weighing heavily on the minds of analysts, policy makers, and rights groups: What to do with Somali refugees at the Dadaab camp in Kenya’s northeast province, near the Somali border, which allegedly is used as a prime staging ground for al-Shabaab’s attacks.
Dadaab refugee camp, now in operation 23 years, has grown from a tented village to become a small city that houses over 300,000 stateless people.
Kenya’s refugee problems are not new, dating from the ’90s when Somalis fleeing the brutal dictatorship of Muhammad Siad-Barre put down roots in an area of Nairobi now called Eastleigh. It is home to over 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers, yet over time has become an important East African trade hub for the Somali diaspora in Nairobi.
Dadaab, now in operation 23 years, has grown from a tented village to become a small city that houses over 300,000 stateless people. According to Human Rights Watch, Kenyan security forces deployed to Dadaab since the 2011 invasion of Somalia have committed abuses and human-rights violations against refugees.
Shortly after April’s al-Shabaab assault on Garissa University, which left at least 147 dead, Médecins Sans Frontières took the precautionary measure of evacuating 42 members of its staff from Dadaab. The withdrawal had an immediate impact on MSF’s ability to provide medical care to the camp’s mainly Somali residents.
Kenya has since demanded that the UN move the camp’s population back to Somalia, and given a three-month deadline to do it. Human-rights groups pointed out that the move is, under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, illegal.
Kenya’s Christians and Muslims have historically coexisted peacefully. Since counter-terror efforts were ramped up under George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, Muslim communities along the country’s Swahili coast see themselves as having been marginalized and made victims of state-sponsored terror.
In May, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kenya and mediated talks between President Kenyatta and the UN on the issue of Dadaab. Afterwards, Kerry said that the refugee camp would remain open, pledging $45 million to the UN High Commission for Refugees and continued efforts for voluntary repatriation.
Obama’s final speech at Kasarani stadium amounted to his welcoming acceptance of the country’s embrace, as a son of Kenya. It was probably not lost on the American president, however, that last year police had rounded up thousands of Muslims—mainly women and children—and detained them for three weeks on a soccer pitch a few hundred meters from the stadium where Obama was speaking. The mass detention came in reaction to a series of explosions in Eastleigh that killed six and injured more than 20 people.
Rights groups reported that police extorted money from men in Eastleigh and sexually harassed female detainees. Kenyan Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku said in a press conference in Nairobi at the time that all undocumented Somali refugees in Eastleigh would be deported back to Somalia.
Over the weekend of Obama’s visit, the two countries’ leaders spoke of “deepening of ties” on the matter of counter-terror.
Kenyatta declared that the war on terror is an “existential fight” of a kind Kenya has not previously experienced. The Kenyan president’s point was that Nairobi must have partners like Washington.
In the absence of an efficient judicial system, a major question in Kenya remains whether security forces will continue to use the hard-line, abusive approach in dealing with terror threats. Since 9/11, the U.S. has applied at least $200 million in aid money, disbursed through various agencies, to East Africa’s counter-terror efforts. During his visit in May, Secretary Kerry committed an additional $100 million to Kenya, an increase from $38 million the previous year.
Over the weekend Obama and Kenyatta came up with a plan that will further increase financial aid for the military, police, and judiciary under the Peacekeeping Operations program through the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism. It’s still unclear the amount of funding that Obama has promised to Kenya and what strategies will be promoted.
Following the big roundup that led to lengthy detention at Kasarani, The Daily Beast established contact in Eastleigh with Lul Isack, chair of Umma, a community organization that had created a safe house for dozens of female detainees who reported being sexually assaulted and abused by police. In Somali societies women who’ve been raped are typically unable to find a husband, and married women are abandoned. Umma provided victims psychological counseling and surgical care.
sked now whether she is worried about how the Kenyan government plans to use monies donated by the United States to Kenya for counter-terror operations, Lul said she was pleased that Obama had announced that the U.S. pledges $1 billion to support women and youth entrepreneurs worldwide and increase technical and financial support for young women entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa. “I believe this is where we as a civil society organization come in, and we women now have a platform and our voices will be heard,” she says. “Kenya has challenges, but Obama is president of the most powerful country in the world and we believe the Kenya government will listen to him.”
Kenyan police continue to extort money from Somali businesspeople, says Lul, but the women she cared for managed to return to Somalia via voluntary repatriation—towns and cities like Mogadishu, Kismayo, and Hargeisa in Somaliland—and have succeeded in opening businesses, such as beauty salons.
After departing Kenya, Obama made his first trip ever to Ethiopia. There, he met with officials of the government, the African Union (AU) and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to discuss trade, the political crisis in South Sudan and the ongoing battle against Al-Shabaab.
The new mantra in Kenya, as elsewhere, is “trade, not aid.” Obama’s visit to East Africa is said to demonstrate the U.S. government’s firm commitment to the battle against terrorism in the region, and to help Ethiopia develop from an aid-recipient nation to a partner in a mutually beneficial trade relationship.
The president drew fiery criticism over the astronomical costs of his traveling to a conflict zone, but throughout his African journey he has appeared to be his usual cool, unflappable self, and already he is talking about returning to Kenya as a private citizen, when he can have more freedom to connect with his extended family and have hands-on engagement with poor communities.
“I can guarantee you I will be back,” the president said. “And the next time I am back, I may not be wearing a suit.” He won’t be on Air Force One, either.
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives aboard Air Force One at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi July 24, 2015. U.S. President Barack Obama flew into Kenya late on Friday for his first presidential visit to his father’s homeland, aiming to boost trade and security ties in east Africa. Obama’s Air Force One plane landed in the evening in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where he will co-host a conference on boosting entrepreneurs on the African continent before traveling on to Ethiopia. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst – RTX1LP61
By Margot Kiser 07.24.15 4:40 PM ET
Obama Lands to Controversy in Kenya
Before he was president, Obama would come to Kenya to see family. Now, his trip looks to be all business.
NAIROBI — Air Force One landed in Nairobi this evening, bringing Barack Obama back to his father’s homeland. This will be Obama’s fourth visit to Kenya, but his first as President of the United States. He made his last as a senator in 2006.
Rumors have been swirling about POTUS’s schedule, his lodgings, and the “real agenda” of his three-day stay.
“We fear Obama is coming to teach our children to be gay,” the owner of a beauty salon in a Christian town on the coast told me. In reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last month to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, one anti-gay-rights fringe group reportedly plans to protest in Nairobi—and, for reasons as yet unclear, to do so in the nude.
Such signs of unrest notwithstanding, Kenya’s capital is in the throes of a full-on Obama-rama. Weeks ago, in efforts to beautify the bustling city, the government deployed members of the National Youth Service to patch the potholed route of the president’s motorcade, to relocate street urchins, and to clean sewers near the State House, where President Obama and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta are expected to have a closed-door meeting.
“Look! They’re even forcing the trees to grow,” a taxi driver exclaimed, noting the mature palms planted on the boulevard leading toward the UN compound.
This VIP visit is also a prime opportunity for otherwise impoverished citizens to make some fast money selling Obama souvenirs.
Much to the glee of “birthers” in the U.S., Kenya is proud to claim President Barack Obama as one its own.
Past Kenya trips by Obama focused on his ancestral home on the shore of Lake Victoria. This time, however, U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec dispelled such expectations when he Tweeted that the President will not be visiting Kogelo, where his father was born and died. Instead, the full three-day itinerary keeps Obama in and around Nairobi.
If the President’s restricted itinerary is any indication, the emphasis is on creating job opportunities and easing business relations between the countries. The U.S. and Kenyan governments are co-hosting the 6th annual Global Entrepreneurs Summit Youth and Women’s Group (GES Y+W). But above all there will be talk about security cooperation: international, national, and local.
President Obama is expected to lay a wreath at the site of the old U.S. embassy, destroyed in 1998 by Al Qaeda bomb blasts that killed hundreds of people before most of the world had ever heard of that terror organizaion.
Obama’s last stop, on his third day in the country, will be t the indoor arena of the Moi International Sports Complex, also known as Safaricom Stadium Kasarani. There, he’ll address a crowd including members of Kenya’s parliament, leaders of the country’s women and young people, tribal elders, and select citizens carefully vetted by the U.S. embassy.
The vehicles for the presidential motorcade—a flotilla of Chevy Suburbans, including the president’s personal armored vehicle, “The Beast”—were flown in two weeks ago, along with security personnel. Helicopters that saw service with Blackwater in Iraq are part of the force as well.
In all, over 5,000 Americans, from 200 U.S. Marines to diplomats and conference attendees, have descended on Nairobi, taking up all the first-class accommodations in town. The luxury Sankara Hotel has become communications command center. Attack helicopters patrol the skies. Police have compelled journalists to delete photos taken of the Kasarani Stadium.
It strikes some as odd that Obama’s first presidential trip to Kenya will likely be his last. It strikes others as odd that he’s coming at all to a country that has over the last few years been rocked by Islamist militant attacks, the worst being those at the university town of Garissa and Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. A visit to Kenya is, in multiple ways, a visit to a conflict zone.
Security on the national and regional levels, along with efforts to contain the Islamist militant group Al Shabaab—and the pattern of human-rights abuses resulting—are of course major topics on the minds of Kenyans, and East Africa observers.
Obama will give his big speech on his final day in the country a few hundred meters from the football field where, last year, police detained nearly 4,000 Somalis, mostly women and children. Operation Usalama, as it was called, began on April 1, 2014, with mass roundups in reaction to deadly grenade and gun attacks, carried out by unknown forces, in Mombasa and Nairobi. Detainees were reportedly held at this locale near Kasarani for more than three weeks, and much of that time denied food and water.
The detainees were from the predominantly Somali Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, whose residents told Human Rights Watch they paid bribes to avoid arrest or to be released.
Kenya security forces place the blame for current security problems squarely on Somalis, and have announced that all urban refugees will be relocated to Kenya’s refugee camps. But that may only make matters worse. The April attack in Garissa, which left hundreds dead, was said to be carried out by Al Shabaab militants hiding out in the nearby Dadaab camp, a sprawling site that is home at present to 500,000 refugees. Kenya ordered the UN to move the camp within three months.
Security at Dadaab was high on the list of topics that Secretary of Defense John Kerry discussed with the Kenyan and Somali governments when he visited in April, and Obama’s visit coincides with African Mission in Somalia’s [AMISOM] latest offensives, as well as Ethiopia’s cross-border surge and Operation Jubba Valley.
Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research, told The Daily Beast, “Al Shabaab has emerged as one of the top Jihadist priorities in American and Western security.” Bryden adds that Al Shabaab cannot be contained by launching all-out offenses within Kenya. “Al Shabaab is killing as many people as before, and its operational tempo remains the same. Obama’s trip is in part a reaffirmation and further upping the ante in saying that we [the West] have to do more and we have to stand by the regions that are doing more.”
“The challenge in Kenya, is going to be addressing the grievances [of Kenyans, mainly do to with land and religious discrimination] that Al Shabaab is exploiting,” Bryden concludes. “The Kenya government has to be seen as taking action and to seriously address these issues in order to deny Al Shabaab opportunity to present itself as the only or best solution for people who share those grievances.”
Obaba is to depart Kenya soon after delivering his speech on Sunday. Next stop, Ethiopia, which has for the last decade been Kenya’s ally in the fight against religious extremism. “All part of an amplified effort in attempt to push back Al Shabaab,” concludes Bryden.
July 24th 2015 Obama Lands to Controversy in Kenya
BIG GAME 08.01.15 12:03 AM ET
South Sudan’s civil war has been a disaster for humans and animals alike. Soldiers on both sides have turned the slaughter of giraffes and other animals into an industry.
By MARGOT KISER
JUBA, South Sudan — A hopeful myth persists in this region that “wildlife refugees”—fauna in flight from war-ravaged habitats—will return one day when the conflict is over. Would that it were so. But in South Sudan, no end of the conflict appears in sight, and amid vast human suffering, nature is being ravaged as well.
The great icons of the wild—the elephants, the rhinos, the leopards and lions (so beloved of trophy hunting dentists and the heedless offspring of the outrageously rich) are gone or going fast. Conservationists say the “charismatic megafauna” are nearly wiped out here. No northern white rhino has been spotted in the region since 1981; only 2,500 elephant remain in all of South Sudan.
But in a saga reminiscent of the novel and film The Roots of Heaven 60 years ago, environmentalists nevertheless go on fighting the good fight. “Anyone who’s seen the great herds on the march across the last free spaces of the earth knows they’re something the world can’t afford to lose!” says a defender of the elephants in the movie. “But no… We have to capture, kill, destroy. All that’s beautiful has got to go. All that’s free! Soon we’ll be alone on this earth with nothing to destroy but ourselves!”
Welcome to South Sudan.
I am in a Cessna 206 flying over Bandingilo National Park—which has been passing below us for almost two hours. The savannah is orange and green in the hues of camouflage cloth. Except for a few pairs of ostrich and a couple of giraffes standing in the shade of spindly acacias, we’ve seen precious little animate life.
“Gazelle, giraffe and zebra are getting hammered,” says Dr. Paul Elkan, who’s at the plane’s controls. They’re being killed for food. “The bushmeat trade is fueling the civil war,” he says.
“With a giraffe you get more bang for your bullet,” says Elkan, an American who serves as the South Sudan director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). A single giraffe provides up to 600 pounds of meat. Slow-moving and high profile, giraffe are especially vulnerable to poaching, and their dwindling numbers in the park reflect that. These days, Elkan adds, it’s almost as rare to see a zebra or a buffalo as it is to see a rhino.
Elkan and his colleague, WCS Deputy Director Michael Lopidia, are conducting an aerial-recon survey of wildlife, and even as they take a census of the dwindling animal population they keep watch for poachers and their camps.
Overwhelmed by the civil war, the South Sudanese government has outsourced the country’s conservation efforts much as it has outsourced exploitation of its mineral resources. WCS took over management of South Sudan’s six national parks after the 2005 peace agreement that led to the country’s independence from Khartoum in 2011 after decades of civil war, and the job was daunting, given that the country is as vast as Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda combined. Bandingilo alone is 3,900 square miles.
The WCS doesn’t employ rangers of its own, but takes rangers from the government’s forces and trains them in wildlife-crime law enforcement. Its staff has made inroads providing technical and operational support. The organization works with the United Nations to clear land mines in parks, build ranger posts, and run anti-poaching and intelligence operations in partnership with the government.
WCS, as a result, is none too popular. At present, the organization cannot access and survey the northern third of the country due to the civil war.
Bandingilo, just outside South Sudan’s capital, Juba, is the site of Earth’s second-largest wild migration, behind the Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania. Its savannahs, marshlands, and wooded areas are still home to key species of antelope—including reedbuck, tiang and white-eared Kob antelope as well as giraffe. But the herds’ migratory corridors pass through combat zones.
We are heading toward a road cutting through the middle of the park. Elkan banks the plane and holds a tight circle over a stand of acacia, under which sit two white trucks. Hunting is banned in the country so it’s pretty easy to identify such a configuration as a poacher’s camp.
“They’re armed,” says Lopidia from the back seat. He holds up a pair of binoculars. “Bandingilo is a strategic base for the bad guys,” he adds, “not too far from Juba.”
The bad guys are from both sides of the country’s civil war. It’s unclear, so far, whether this crew are government soldiers or rebels.
“Looks like an SPLA camp,” Lopidia says, now snapping photos.
Internecine conflict has plagued the world’s youngest nation since 2013. Leaders of the two rival ethnic groups, Dinka and Nuer, have always agreed on the point that wildlife is a valuable resource. But human lives are, understandably, the priority.
So of course, is trying to win the war, which erupted when President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of being behind a failed coup attempt. The Dinka turned on the Nuer, killing thousands in Juba alone. Tens of thousands more have been killed throughout the country, and well over a million internally displaced. Even the government’s minister of wildlife and tourism left his job—to join the rebels.
The Salva Kiir forces are those of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the SPLA—whom Elkan suspects we’ve spotted under the acacia trees. Although they have Juba’s backing, SPLA troops are not being paid, and their food rations consist of meat from poached animals. Sudan-watchers say the ruling elite are investing oil revenues— oil being the country’s only source of hard currency—in armored Hummers and in real estate outside the country, chiefly in Kenya. Little trickles down to the government’s troops.
As the war began to drag on, soldiers from both sides—the SPLA and the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO)—resorted to subsistence hunting. Bushmeat was sold in villages, with proceeds going to fund weapons purchases, and the troops’ snaring and shooting of animals evolved rapidly from a basic hunter-gatherer economy into a commercial enterprise. Gazelle, “the French fries of the plains” for traditional predators, once were plentiful. Today, the lion must compete with soldiers for gazelle.
A wildlife survey, a difficult undertaking anywhere, is especially hard to pull off in a war zone. One technique is, figuratively,“to dive-bomb an elephant carcass,” says Elkan, taking a quick close look then getting away fast. “With armed men, who are always suspicious, you take lots of photos with a powerful camera and look at them later, to determine the types of weapons.”
We circle back to Juba, and Elkan gets us into position to land. When air-traffic control puts the Cessna in a holding pattern, Elkan is clearly annoyed.
If the number and size of aircraft contracted by various operators reflect a nation’s priorities, then in South Sudan, the humanitarian-aid industry wins hands down. According to South Sudan NGO Forum, there are 160 national and 142 international NGOs that facilitate humanitarian and development needs in the country.
“UN aircraft are taking off and landing every ten minutes,” Elkan notes. “Juba is the busiest airport in East Africa and yet there’s only one radio frequency. This is an accident waiting to happen.”
Indeed, the tarmac below us is blanketed with aircraft: a Russian-made attack helicopter, commercial aircraft, but most of the equipment we see belongs to the UN. This field is home to the largest helicopter in the world. In most corners of Juba the relentless, strained whine of jet engines is audible all day.
At the spot where Elkan parks the Cessna, now that we’re cleared and on the ground, a member of his team retrieves a bullet from the asphalt.
I remark that Juba reminds me of the Wild West.
“Juba used to be crazy,” Elkan answers. “Now, it’s just fucked up.”
With its mix of Kenyan, American, and South African cowboys running private logistics companies, aging alcoholic missionaries, Ukrainian and Chinese UN peace keepers, RayBan- and cowboy-hat-sporting MPs, armed police at the capital’s bars, Juba is part Mad Max and part Graham Greene.
South Sudan’s conflicts are not restricted to military and paramilitary combatants. Environmentalists and developers are also clashing. Supply routes and roads were cut off between Khartoum and Juba after South Sudan won independence, making it difficult for villagers to get basic foods and supplies.
While roads are lifelines for humans, they can be death sentences for wildlife. And oil concessions granted by the South Sudan government—to the French oil giant Total, for example—may expose the park to surveying and drilling.
Bandingilo is a vast reserve, but there are long-established villages, as well as promising potential oil fields, that are within the region enclosed by its boundaries. Both require overland access by heavy vehicles.
Bandingilo falls within Jongelei state, bordering Ethiopia to the east. After President Kiir reached a peace deal with a local rebel group, a new administrative area was carved out of Jongelei. But the region remains isolated. During the rains large humanitarian aid aircraft cannot land on muddy airstrips. Helicopters are too expensive to use with any frequency. Health and education are lacking. So is clean water, and for that matter bore holes are few.
Recently, a 30-kilometer stretch of road was cleared. But the government halted construction because the road passes through a national park.
Villagers at Pibor, a outpost reminiscent of the British colonial era, complain they are running out of food, and blame the government resolution suspending construction of the road for their enforced fast. Peter Guzulu, spokesman for the administrative area, denounces this road closure as unconstitutional, and accuses the director-general of South Sudan’s Wildlife Service, Maj. Gen. Philip Chol Majak, a Dinka, of leading the charge to cut off this vital conduit for food and other goods. Guzulu told a local reporter that animals should not, at such a critical time for the country, be favored over human beings.
I visited Major Chol at his office in Juba. It was festooned with ribbons and trophies from matches he won as captain of weekend soccer teams. Noting the half-dozen heavily armed police outside his building, I asked whether he felt threatened. Chol told me he continues to condemn the SPLA for poaching, and stands by the government’s decision to stop construction of the road in order to protect wildlife.
Given that wildlife in parks in Angola and Mozambique were wiped out during civil wars during the 80s, when the South Sudanese fight for independence was under way conservationists didn’t hold out much hope its wildlife could survive. Pilots and aid workers returning from relief missions told grim stories that the wildlife was all but eliminated. But after the peace deal in 2005, when the WCS and the new government conducted the first aerial survey of the region in 25 years, astonishingly, they discovered vast migrating herds. The those began to be decimated.
How, now, to save what’s left? Elkan advocates a version of the private-game-ranch model deployed in Kenya. There “the government realized what a pain in the ass it is to manage wildlife in parks,” he says, pulling his baseball cap down tight on his head. “Especially during war.”
Private ranches, he explains, have taken a huge burden off the government in efforts to manage South Sudan’s remaining rhino in the forested western parts of the country. His vision is to lead management away from the government-anchored model and decentralize wildlife management.
On July 9, South Sudan marked its fourth year of independence, and rebel leader Machar reportedly vowed to carry on the fight until President Kiir is overthrown. Wildlife may be returning, due to the arrival of seasonal rains, but remain vulnerable.
Africa’s national parks are like states, and only as strong as their security apparatus.
I caught up with Elkan recently by phone. He told me he recently flew over herds of migrating tiang and Kop antelope following the long rains in May and June. He said a second radio frequency has been added for pilots navigating Juba International Airport. “I’m happy about this, because a C-130 Hercules military transport plane nearly crashed into my parked Cessna the other day.”
And in Boma National park, he told me, a WCS-trained deputy game warden and former SPLA commander arrested a group of SPLA soldiers in possession of 150 kilos of bushmeat—and burned it.
Finally the OCS war to save wild animals from war is paying off.
I asked Elkan and Lopedia if I could call them the Blackwater of wildlife. They cracked up. They didn’t say no. “But non-profit,” they said.
While researching Inside the Zanzibar Attack story for Daily Beast I spent a lot of time in Stone Town at Baboo cafe, near the scene of the attack, where two men on a Vespa threw acid at two 18-year old British girls. The cafe, decorated with Zanzibar beds, pillows, and safari camp chairs, was filled mostly with backpackers and a noticeable amount of Tanzanians who didn’t seem to pop in for a leisurely coffee or bite to eat.
A group of sharply-dressed young men with store-bought Oxford shirts and pressed trousers materialized and practically sat at my feet. They didn’t order anything and made no effort to conceal that they were eavesdropping on my interview with the waitress.
I knew perfectly well who they were and what they were doing. I lived in Tanzania for eleven years and it is arguably one of the most oppressed countries on the continent, largely a hangover from decades of Socialism.
Most Tanzanians, especially those working in the government are conspiracy-minded, secretive and deeply suspicious of outsiders.
When the waitress left me on my own I began taking notes of our conversation. The presence of these young men grew annoying since they’d clearly listening in on my conversation with the waitress. One pointed his camera at me to take a photo. I returned the gesture.
Finally, I greeted them gruffly “mambo sema”. More or less translates “what you have to say?”. What I really meant was what do you want.
“Habari zenu?” I asked surprised I continued in Swahili.
“We are here to visit my sister,” one deeply black-skinned man said pointing to the waitress. These men were not from Zanzibar. They looked like mainland Tanzanians. This man, clearly the leader of the pack, had cocky menace about him. The others grinned at me.
“Are you visiting from outside Zanzibar? I asked.
“We work for the government,” the leader said.
“Ah, so you’re spies,” I said smiling.
They laughed heartily, nervously.
“You are a spy,” they said to me.
“Ha, no. I’m a journalist,” I said. “I can’t be a very good spy, because I am not concealing my intent here as you seem to be.”
More nervous laughter.
“What do you guys do with the government? ”
They weren’t quite sure whether to answer.
“We procure imports at the Zanzibar port.” They went on to explain that most of the imports were Chinese products, mostly phones, radios and such.
“Oh, so you import taka taka (garbage); stuff that breaks after three days,” I said.
They laughed and shook their heads. We all agreed that China extracts much precious natural resources from Africa while loading container ships packed with cheap electronic goods to take back to Africa, particularly impoverished countries like Tanzania.
After some more banter, they stood to leave and we shook hands. Seems they decided I was okay.
When confronted with hostile government spies, be sure to disarm them by chatting in Swahili and remember to indulge in some China-bashing, the country a common enemy to many.
I asked the waitress if that man I was talking to was her brother.
“Is that what he said?”