Evelyn Groenink

‘Change will be possible if we expose abusive leaders’

Ten African investigative journalists who participated in ZAM’s Kleptocracy Project look back on months of risks, hardship and revelations.

Bettie Johnson-Mbayo’s worse moment came when she had to print a Freedom of Information request at a print shop in Monrovia, her Liberian hometown. ‘I live in a society where people are interrelated. The print shop owner could be related to a subject in my request’. At the time, Johnson-Mbayo was already receiving threats. Journalists have been killed before in Liberia. And she was exposed, sometimes lacking expensive data for communication, and having to physically slog along roads to identify mansions and farms in her quest to report on the wealth of Liberia’s political elite. On one occasion, having been wrongly directed, she had to sleep on the road.

Johnson-Mbayo is only one of the ten journalists who went around in their countries, from Liberia to Zambia and from Uganda to Mozambique, lifting the lid on their kleptocratic rulers’ ill-gotten possessions, money and contracts. John Masaba, in Uganda, worked sixteen-hour days to unveil the extent of official theft of teachers’ salaries in his country next to his day job at an established newspaper, after his editor told him in no uncertain terms that he would not get any time off to do his investigation. Estacio Valoi went partly undercover to trace the wealthy recipients of diverted COVID funds in Mozambique, while Taiwo Adebulu in Nigeria and David Dembélé in Mali, spent weeks trying to convince fearful sources to speak out about the plunder of funds and services meant for citizens that was taking place all around them.

Meanwhile, Nigerian Theophilus Abbah was unearthing ‘hundreds of documents’ in reports that had been deliberately kept away from the public by his country’s authorities, carefully reading through each one; Andrew Mambondiyani was stealthily moving to identify Zimbabwe’s ruling party-related diamond dealers and Charles Mafa, in Zambia, obtained details on the kickback-inflated price paid by his government for a corrupt contract by posing as an interested company in emails with the supplier in China.

Debunking

In the end it was worth it. Adebulu and Masaba discovered how even ‘corruption-proof’ online systems can be, and are, manipulated as long as kleptocrats control the departments where these are contracted; Abbah meticulously described how powerful politicians can even derail parliament and the courts; Johnson-Mbayo used open-source tracking (OSINT) skills to find supercars and mansions, funded with stolen money, on Facebook (and in doing so debunked the claim by formal anti- corruption structures that it was simply too difficult to ‘verify (politicians’) assets’). Fiacre Salabe traced and photographed a road sign in the Central African Republic that had been billed by local authorities at hundreds of thousands of American dollars; Dembélé and Valoi accessed business and NGO’s information to break through government silence; and Nazlee Arbee in South Africa pulled off a detailed anatomy of this country’s incompetent and fraud-riddled social grants system.

Honest civil servants helped the journalists.

Mindful, in Arbee’s words, that they should not play into ‘stereotypes’ of ‘African corruption’, their reports made clear how the African public itself, as well as many honest African civil servants, are victimised by the kleptocrat politicians’ schemes. It was a former Immigration Service official who guided Theophilus Abbah through what he would call the ‘very complex system of corruption’ in the agency and surrounding state sector in Nigeria, with its ‘many structures, commissions, and regulations’.

And, of course, the journalists themselves are Africans too. From their responses to an ‘How We Did It’ evaluation questionnaire ZAM asked them to complete it is clear that the kleptocracy in their poverty-ridden countries is more than simply one more ‘theme’ to them: it is a miserable and unjust state of affairs, foremost in their minds as they live it daily. ‘It is not a ‘theme that appeals to me’, I chose it, as Bettie Johnson-Mbayo would put it. Taiwo Adebulu and Charles Mafa explained in their responses that they ‘had had (their stories) in mind for a long time’, just waiting for the support to do them. Mafa said he had long been focusing on ‘the governing elites and their supporters’ in Zambia and Theophilus Abbah said that the project had ‘helped (him) to focus on, not just corruption, but to fish out those who played active roles in perpetuating it’.

Godsend

John Masaba narrated how he wanted to expose the Ugandan salary theft of teachers by their own government department so fervently, that he did it in his free time during weeks of covering a political candidate during an election campaign. The campaign assignment was ‘a Godsend,’ he wrote. ‘It meant I was to travel across the country covering (the candidate). (…) So I took it. On the campaign trail I “stole” some time off the campaign to interview as many sources (teachers) as possible, from all corners of the country.’

Likewise, Andrew Mambondiyani just wanted to do his investigation because of his outrage at the poverty and misery in his country, Zimbabwe, that loses ‘billions of dollars each year through illegal activities in the diamond sector’, while Nazlee Arbee had met so many people in communities living in extreme poverty that they simply had to highlight their plight, and the South African government’s failure to help, at a time when COVID funds were being plundered by top officials in the ruling party.

Most of our colleagues concluded that, even though honest civil servants, many business people and the public at large supported their quests, to get rid of kleptocrat-riddled government systems will undoubtedly take more than a few series of journalistic investigations. A lot of work will still be needed, for at least as long as government departments whose funds were and are siphoned off only waffle in response to questions or simply don’t even comment at all. From the Finance Ministry in Mali, to the provincial commissioner for health in Cabo Delgado and the social welfare agency and its ministry in South Africa, the journalists repeatedly emailed and telephoned questions and requests for clarifications went largely unanswered. ‘You can declare my wealth for me’, Liberian Senator Koung WhatsApped in response to a detailed list of questions. ‘Since you know all about my life. And don’t ask me such questions ever again.’

The World Bank kept mum.

Sadly, even western donors who help fund the kleptocratic regimes that were exposed in the stories would often not engage with the journalists’ questions either. The World Bank in Mali, a prominent source of funds that ended up in ruling politicians’ pockets in that country, kept mum in spite of weeks of efforts to elicit a response. UNICEF in Uganda, which runs a program to provide sanitation in Uganda’s defrauded schools, declined to comment on the theft from teachers by the very education department it supports, saying that ‘we are of the view that you (should) liaise with the police and other anti-corruption agencies’. The donor-funded Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission, after giving Bettie Johnson-Mbayo the run around for months, finally responded by claiming that its budget was not ‘ideal’ and that there was a ‘lack of a legal basis to ‘robustly implement dissuasive sanctions’ (against failure by political leaders to declare their assets). It also mentioned ‘very little urgency by national leaders in all branches of government to make asset declarations a priority’.

COVID funds

There was some hope for a dialogue with at least one western grantor to the kleptocrats when, after Valoi’s story about the embezzlement of COVID funds meant for Mozambican citizens by their political bosses, the head of that country’s World Bank branch emailed ZAM. In his email, World Bank Mozambique Senior External Affairs Officer Rafael Saute asked for a meeting with Valoi to ‘improve our understanding’ of the story. Sadly, after ZAM welcomed the approach by offering to facilitate a meeting, while expressing hope for a discussion about the role played by the World Bank in supporting political elites in African countries, and mentioning how difficult we had found it to elicit comment on this from the institution, we did not hear from Saute again.

Nevertheless, all the participating journalists in the Kleptocracy Series said they would and will dig into the plunder systems in their countries again, in an effort to amass more pressure for change from national and international audiences. ‘My hope is that my (future) stories will help to continue exposing the illegal activities and possibly force the government to act’, said Andrew Mambondiyani, while Bettie Johnson-Mbayo wrote that she intends to use ‘more FOI requests’ to expose the ill-gotten wealth of those politicians who ‘were living in one room but have (suddenly) moved to a house’ as well as ‘judges who are involved in businesses when there is a canon that prevents this.’

The public pressure is starting to bear fruit.

And there are glimmers of hope, since all this work – informing increasingly upset and angry populations of just where their money goes – is starting to bear some fruit. Anti-kleptocratic public pressure, in which investigative journalists were lauded for the role they played (hyperlink https://mg.co.za/article/2018-03-19-how-investigative-journalists-helped-turn-the-tide-against-corruption-in-sa/), had already led to the demise of Jacob Zuma’s plunder machine in South Africa in 2018. In response to our current series, accountable authorities in Nigeria and South Africa – even though they had ignored the journalists’ emails and calls – felt the need to address their exposed failures in public: a press conference in Nigeria and an op-ed in a South African newspaper pledged improvement. Ugandan colleagues started to team up with our Zambian reporters to address resource plunder in their countries. And in Zambia itself, the ruling party that had indebted the country to over US$ 30 billion to mainly benefit a wealthy elite lost in elections to an opposition candidate who, at least in his promises, has declared that he will focus on competence and delivery in his government.

Of course, that opposition candidate, now president, will need to be kept on his toes, as do all those other political leaders and important role players, in power and in opposition, on the African continent. The journalists are determined to continue to play their part. ‘Naming those involved in corruption sounds tough and risky, but it helps to generate debates and set in motion process for change’, said Theophilus Abbah. David Dembélé concurred: ‘Change will be possible, if we journalists work on different levels to expose our abusive leaders.’ Which is why ZAM will continue to support journalists like the ‘Klepto Ten’.

People at the top

What has been learned from the journalists’ feedback, for now, is that even more support will be necessary. In their responses to our questionnaire all colleagues made the point that funds for travel, data and time off (regular) work would be indispensable to continue. Estacio Valoi said, for example, that with more travel expenses, he could be prepared to move from his provincial region to the ‘central level where the money comes from’, then ‘use undercover tools to acquire more information’ about ‘the people involved at the top and (find out) how deep is their involvement.’ Taiwo Adebulu, similarly, said that travel funds could enable him to ‘(fly) to other cities with federal (marriage) registries to (…) establish the fact that the corrupt act is a national issue.’ John Masaba expressed the hope that more funding would help him take time off for investigations, and travel, without having to also work a full day at the newspaper doing regular news.

Besides travel and time, the journalists also identified other needs. Theophilus Abbah pointed out that ‘engaging experts, fixers, (and other) journalists’ to collaborate and help provide information also comes with a need to ‘compensate such individuals’, and Charles Mafa in Zambia proposed that, in case more support would be forthcoming, he could ‘set up and train a team of local journalists to follow up investigations in their areas and feed (findings) into the main story.’

Feedback

Most of the journalists also mentioned that the editorial assistance that they received at ZAM had been indispensable, since several were working as freelancers without any established editorial support, while those who worked at newsrooms found that their bosses weren’t too interested in doing investigations. ‘The editing process and the feedbacks from the editors were priceless’, said Andrew Mambondiyani, and Nazlee Arbee praised the editors for developing their initial proposal into ‘a more comprehensive story’. David Dembélé in Mali confessed that he had often felt disheartened by the critical feedback to his drafts ‘which often seemed to say that I had done nothing, moved nothing’, but added hopefully that the ‘important editorial advice and mentoring’ would guide him to operate ‘faster and more efficiently in the future’.

Another crucial factor in the ZAM support is that its central virtual newsroom helps by accessing information in western and international databases, which is often difficult in the data-poor African media environment. ‘My editor did a lot of good work, digging up information on international companies that I could not access in Nigeria’, said Theophilus Abbah, who added that ZAM’s ‘eagle-eye editing made my stories appear better than they would have, if published locally’.

The story made the front page.

Which is not to say that locally published stories can’t also be good. John Masaba’s investigation into the teacher-robbing education officials in Uganda, for which his editor would not give him time off, in the end made it to the front page of that very Ugandan newspaper.

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The Participating Journalists

David Dembélé is editor-in-chief at Dépêches du Mali/L'Investigateur and a member of the Norbert Zongo Center for Investigative Journalism in the Sahel. He contributed to the Panama Papers and other investigations done by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists as well as to several transnational investigations done by the African Investigative Publishing Collective in partnership with ZAM.

John Masaba, Uganda, works at New Vision. He is a multiple award winner at the African Center for Media Excellence and also won the 2017 National Environment journalism award in Uganda.

Bettie Johnson Mbayo, a senior journalist at the reputable Front Page Africa in Liberia, has won multiple awards Liberia in that country and was nominated for the West African Media Excellence awards in 2019.

Fiacre Salabe, CAR, is a media editor, fact checker and trainer as well as a member of the Museba Project, a collective of Central Africa freelance journalists reporting corruption, organized crime, illicit finances and human rights abuses.

Theophilus Abbah, former investigative editor and now programme director at the Nigerian Daily Trust, a winner of the Editors’ Courage FAIR award. He has also been shortlisted for the Wole Soyinka Investigative Journalism as well as the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism awards.

Estacio Valoi was a runner up for the FAIR award in 2012 due to his work in uncovering government corruption in illegal logging. He won the Environmental Journalism Award from the Worldwide Fund for Nature in 2017. His work has been featured by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, Le Monde, Mail & Guardian, Foreign Policy, Al-Jazeera, Daily Maverick, The Star, Deutsche Welle, CNN, and the Reuters Thompson Foundation, among others.

Charles Mafa is a Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) multiple award winner. He was a nominee for the third African Fact-Checking Awards for 2016, a runner up in the Zambian Investigative Journalism awards in 2011. He works as a BBC Media Action journalist mentor and is managing partner in the Zambia Centre for Investigative Journalism.

John Mukela was Chief Editor of Lesotho’s first daily newspaper, The Nation, and later Editor of The Botswana Guardian before joining the BBC as a reporter, producer and presenter on Focus on Africa. One of four founders to establish the Weekly Post (subsequently The Post), which he briefly edited, he later served for twelve years as Executive Director of the regional Nordic-SADC Journalism Centre. He is a co-founder of the Zambia Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Andrew Mambondiyani has won multiple national and international awards among which the 2018 European Commission Lorenzo Natali Media Award, the PACJA (Pan African Climate Justice Alliance) Africa Climate Change Reporter of the Year in 2016, the 2015 Environment Africa Award for reporting on the effects of global warming and climate change on rural communities in Zimbabwe and the United Nations’ best Developmental Reporter in 2014 (Zimbabwe). In 2010 and 2011 Mambondiyani served as a Knight Science Journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Taiwo Adebulu is an investigative journalist and head of the Fact Check desk at The Cable, Nigeria; he has won multiple awards, among which the Sustainable Development Goals category at the Zimeo Excellence in Media Awards in Ethiopia in 2017. In 2020 he won the PwC Media Excellence Awards and African Fact-checking Awards.

Nazlee Arbee is a multimedia journalist and photographer based in Cape Town, whose investigations centre on the marginalised: women and the LGBTQI community in particular.

ZAM Editorial College

Ruona Meyer is an Emmy-nominated, multimedia investigative journalist, media trainer, and consultant with postgraduate degrees in Journalism from Wits University in South Africa and the University of Westminster, London, UK. She has eighteen years experience in journalism across Africa and Europe and her work has been published notably on the BBC, the Financial Times, Reuters, Deutsche Welle and ZAM magazine as well as in various outlets within Nigeria, South Africa, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany. She was named Investigative Journalist of the Year in Nigeria in 2013. In August 2019, Meyer’s one-hour documentary ‘Sweet Sweet Codeine’ brought a first Emmy nomination for the BBC World Service and Nigeria.

In 2021, Meyer was appointed Africa Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network, which produces evidence-based reporting on solutions to social problems. She is simultaneously studying for a PhD in Investigative Journalism and Media Discourse at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. Her research interrogates the construct of counterpower within African-transnational investigative journalism networks. She coordinated and edited four investigations for the Kleptocracy Project: two in Nigeria, one in South Africa and one in Liberia.

Bram Posthumus has been covering stories in various parts of West Africa for international radio, press and online publications for close to 30 years. He has covered coups in Mali, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso, resource extracting issues in Guinea (bauxite), Burkina Faso (gold), Liberia (timber), Côte d’Ivoire (cocoa) and Senegal (oil and gas) as well as governance issues in all of these countries and a few others. He is the author of a political biography of Guinea.

He has also been keeping tabs on the growing jihadist security threat that started in 1990s Algeria, then spread into Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and is now making inroads into coastal states, specifically Benin and Côte d’Ivoire. His focus is on what he calls the ‘extraordinarily inept’ national, regional and international responses to the phenomenon, which are likely to constitute fresh contributions to another Kleptocracy Project. For the current project he coordinated and edited investigations in Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic.

Stephen Kafeero is an Ugandan investigative journalist who has practiced, contributing to different publications, since 2010. He is an Open Society Foundation fellow for Investigative Journalism at University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and a candidate for an MA in Journalism and Media Studies. He considers himself an activist as well as a journalist and has a particular interest in human rights, the media, politics and the law. He coordinated and edited the investigations for the Kleptocracy Project in Zambia and Uganda.

Evelyn Groenink is ZAM’s investigations and narrative editor. She co-founded the Forum for African Investigative Reporters in 2003 and has coordinated and edited over a dozen transnational investigations on the African continent. She has published seven books, among which an investigation into the assassinations of three southern African freedom fighters, and a five-part series on South Africa’s slide into corruption under the government of Jacob Zuma. She coordinated and edited ZAM’s past four kleptocracy investigations; coordinated and edited the Transnational Investigation into COVID 19 relief funds for the current Kleptocracy ‘Anatomy’ project, while she also served as overall narrative editor.

ZAM’ Kleptocracy Project was co-funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USA and the Triffid Foundation, Netherlands. Previous investigations that contributed to the body of expertise on African kleptocracies were assisted by the Open Society Foundation, the Pascal Decroos Fund, Unesco and others.

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