KAMAU: George Soros: Meddler or man with just cause?

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By JOHN KAMAU
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On the day that Kenya’s electoral commission (IEBC) did the dry run for the technology that will be used during Tuesday’s general election, the NGO Coordination Board Executive Chairman Fazul Mohammed was busy accusing an NGO associated with Rosemary Odinga of receiving Sh500 million from Hungarian billionaire George Soros.

Of course Mr Mohammed was playing some politics there since, as Raila Odinga’s family explained, Rosemary has been incapacitated and does not appear on the list of members of the board.

Again, they explained that Key Empowerment Foundation Kenya was “not yet registered” and dismissed Mr Mohammed’s letter to Central Bank Governor Patrick Njoroge as “disgusting, callous and fraudulent.”

But my story is not on Rosemary Odinga – whose passion for the youth and snail farming is admirable – but on the man known as George Soros, perhaps the most feared billionaire world over during election period.

Kenya is not the only country that has raised concern over the Hungarian-born billionaire who moved to New York City in 1956 and whose global political networks are mainly funded through his philanthropy organisation, the Open Society.

The fear of George Soros has been with us for some time, now. It won’t go away soon.

When the IEBC advertised for delivery of voter identification devices, a company known as Smartmatic International tendered to supply the gadgets.

And since its chairman Lord Mark Malloch-Brown sits at the Global Board of the George Soros-funded Open Society, there has always been speculation that George Soros had an interest in the company. On its website, Smartmatic actually takes time to say, in bold letters, that George Soros “has never had any ownership stake in Smartmatic”.

But political bloggers worldwide, especially during the US elections, wrote hundreds of articles accusing Soros, who was backing Hilary Clinton, of planning to use Smartmatic equipment to rig the polls in various states.

There was even a petition to the Congress to have an emergency session to discuss the voting machines and 57,000 people had signed the petition. It was after this that Smartmatic put the disclaimer on its website.

Soros is a key financier worldwide of human rights groups and pro-democracy activists and as a result he has rubbed various governments the wrong way.

Mid-July 2017, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu accused him of “undermining” the country’s democratically elected government by funding organisations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself”.

Soros funds the US-based Human Rights Watch, which is frequently critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its policies toward the Palestinians and that could explain the anger that Israel has towards the billionaire, who advocates for regime change.

In his home country in Hungary, some anti-Soros posters and full page newspaper ads with a caption: “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh” have been displayed in Budapest, criticising him for advocating open borders in Hungary.

Soros is a well-known critic of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government which wants to limit the civil society in the country.

A Soros spokesman told Reuters that Hungary’s nationwide billboard and television advertising campaign against Soros was “reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours”.

But that has not deterred Orban, a right-wing nationalist, from continuing with his clampdown on foreign-funded NGOs including those linked to Soros.

Actually, when Orban’s government lost a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights over its detention and expulsion of two migrants from Bangladesh, the prime minister blamed Soros – regarded as “the usual suspect.”

“It is a collusion of human traffickers, Brussels bureaucrats and the organisations that work in Hungary financed by foreign money,” Viktor Orban told public radio.

In Kenya, the Open Society funds Gladwell Otieno’s Africa Centre for Open Governance (Africog) and its affiliate, Kenyans for Peace Truth and Justice, which is a coalition of various NGOs which convened in the aftermath of 2007 presidential election debacle and which argue that “there can be no peace without truth and justice”.

They say on their website: “Justice requires that we face the truth of our history, and of the 2007 election, to address the deep chasms and inequities in Kenyan society.”

Soros also funded the Ndung’u Wainaina-led International Centre for Policy and Conflict (ICPCC) which came into the limelight in 2012 when it sought to stop President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto from the 2013 general election due to their International Criminal Court trials.

After ICPCC had its petition thrown out, President Kenyatta’s lawyers demanded a hefty taxation claim of Sh170 million from the lobby group.

But the lobby got a reprieve after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s lawyer Evans Monari told Justices Erastus Githinji, Martha Koome and Jamila Mohamed that Uhuru would not pursue the Sh170 million taxation claim against the civil society organisation.

In all the countries where he funds lobby groups, Soros, with a net-worth of $25.2 billion, hardly speaks about the political controversies that are created by his various non-governmental organisations, opting to let his money speak for him.

In the US, Soros is being sued for £7.7 billion for political meddling ostensibly ‘motivated by malice’.

This suit is filed by Israeli firm BSG Resources in New York Federal Court which is alleging a variety of issues over his involvement with a mining contract in the West African country of Guinea.

Interestingly, according to the Panama papers which revealed the complex layering of companies registered in tax havens, BSG which is owned by Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz who held a huge stake in Koidu Holdings.

In turn, Koidu Holdings was partly owned by Energem Resources, which had bought 52 per cent stake in Odinga’s molasses plant in Kisumu before it went under after its CEO Tony Teixeira invested the company’s fortune in a Formula 1-like motor race business.

Back to Soros, when he was asked by his biographer about his “meddling” in various countries, he said he only wants to promote an open society and which he does by stepping on comfortable government toes and conservatives.

So much is the anti-Soros hate in Hungary that the Fidesz government wants to close the Central European University, founded by Mr Soros in Budapest in 1992.

It has also passed legislation forcing non-governmental organisations to declare themselves “foreign-funded” as it happened in Putin’s Russia.

His supporters in Hungary say that Soros is being targeted because he has spent $12 billion, mostly through his Open Society Foundation, on civil initiatives to reduce poverty and increase transparency in the country.

His foundation has also been generous in awarding scholarships and universities around the world, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In Kenya, Soros’ Open Society has been one of the main financier of lobby groups which receives tens of millions to keep the government on its toes.

But his critics say that Soros is so much fixated with regime change in all the countries where his foundation operates that he loses focus on his philanthropic contributions.

In most countries, and this happened in Malaysia, he emerges during the election period.

As a popular Malaysian New Strait Times columnist Baradan Kuppusamy wrote last year, “Soros has been using his Open Society Foundation (in Malaysia) as a front to fund organisations and individuals under the umbrella of democratic movements, hoping to have a say in what direction the country takes…He is obsessed with regime change and the upheavals during a general election are the best time for him.”

And that could be the reason why former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed in 2016 accused Soros of attempting to appoint his own leader as the next Prime Minister of Malaysia.

“He wants to control our politics,” said Dr Mahathir.

“He is going beyond just funding. He is mobilising his networks, engaging outside experts and lobbying for support even in Washington.”

That explains why the name George Soros in the Kenyan politics evokes some fear.

In the US, Soros has always openly called for regime change and throws his support where he wishes.

He once told BBC: “”We have actually been quite effective in bringing about democratisation, democratic regime change in Slovakia, Croatia and Yugoslavia, but that’s by helping civil society in those countries to mobilise.”

In the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Soros assembled other rich liberals and spent millions of dollars mobilising support for Mrs Clinton.

It was not the first time that he had used his billions to dictate elections.

In 2004, he had founded what was known as The Democracy Alliance together with the late insurance mogul Peter Lewis to boost then-Sen John Kerry’s ultimately unsuccessful challenge to then-President George W Bush.

“The donors’ goal was to seed a set of advocacy groups and think tanks outside the Democratic Party that could push the party and its politicians to the left while also defending them against attack from the right,” the Politico, a respected political journalism magazine based in Washington, wrote about this attempt.

And that could partly explain why the name George Soros is evoking fear during this campaign season.

It could also be dangled for political mileage since he has become the usual suspect.

But is George Soros a political meddler or a man fighting and helping the civil society for a just cause?

That is the question that many governments ask. The answer depends on whom you ask.

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