A PERVERSE TRAJECTORY AMID GLOBAL POLICY FLUX
In the mid-1980s, historian Lee Cassanelli wrote a seminal chapter on khat in northeast Africa for a book on the cultural dimensions of commodities. This chapter analysed the regional economy of the substance and the politics surrounding its production, trade and consumption at a time when Somalia had recently banned it. In this chapter he referred to khat as a quasilegal substance, one whose legality is distinctly ambiguous. In some jurisdictions it was illegal (Somalia, Tanzania), while in others it remained legal (Kenya, Ethiopia), although even in the latter contexts there remained great suspicion over its physical and social effects.
This article looks at khat’s quasilegality, showing how it has become ever more ambiguous over the intervening years, as countries around the world have prohibited the substance, while in its growing regions – and certainly in Kenya – khat remains solidly legal. All this in an age where global drug policy is in flux, and substances like cannabis – once seen as unambiguously illegal – are themselves becoming more legally ambiguous.
In Yemen, Ethiopia and Madagascar, often just the leaves and tender stem tips are chewed, whereas in Kenya small leaves and the bark of stems are also chewed. The stems are a mixture of green and purple hues depending on the variety
Before turning to its varying legal status, it is worth introducing khat in some detail. It consists of the stimulant stems and leaves of the shrub Catha edulis, which is found from the Middle East down to the Eastern Cape, and is now cultivated intensively in Yemen, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Northern Madagascar, and consumed in that region, as well as globally through the region’s diasporas. In Kenya the substance is more commonly known as miraa.
THE BETTER THE KHAT, THE SWEETER THE TASTE
Catha edulis favours an altitude between 1,500 and 2, 450 metres, and can grow over 25 metres tall, although the farmed variety is kept much shorter through constant pruning. In much of the production zone, high esteem is given to old trees; this is certainly true in Kenya, where old trees are reckoned to produce the finest khat. The actual harvested commodity varies in what is considered edible: In Yemen, Ethiopia and Madagascar, often just the leaves and tender stem tips are chewed, whereas in Kenya small leaves and the bark of stems are also chewed. The stems are a mixture of green and purple hues depending on the variety. They can taste bitter, although the better the khat, the sweeter the taste.
Chemical analysis of khat has revealed several alkaloids, the most potent being cathinone, which acts in a similar manner to amphetamine. Generally, chewing khat renders one alert and acts as a euphoric, making it popular in recreational and work contexts. Khat has also been associated with religious expression, for example devotional Muslim ceremonies in Ethiopia. A crucial factor is its perishability: Cathinone rapidly degrades into a weaker alkaloid post-harvest, and once khat dries it loses potency and value (though there is a growing international trade in dried khat). Wherever it is used, therefore, consumers usually want it as fresh as possible.
COFFEE, COCAINE OR ME? SEX ENTERS THE DEBATE
Chewing khat is associated with some adverse health consequences, though the scale of these is disputed and the evidence ambiguous. Still, supporters and opponents of the substance tend to take extreme positions — that it is relatively innocuous like coffee, or much more potentially harmful, like cocaine. The most serious health concerns include a link between heavy consumption and cardiac problems, especially when chronic consumption is combined with other cardiovascular risk factors, and an association with liver damage is supported by a small number of cases in the UK. Khat is also commonly linked to sexuality, negatively and positively: It is described by consumers and in the literature as both an aphrodisiac and a cause of male impotence. There is a strong association of khat chewing with dental problems. These are likely to be most prevalent where consumers use chewing gum, sweets or sugary drinks to mitigate the often bitter taste of cheap khat varieties.
Khat is also said to be the cause of a number of social harms: It is linked to family breakups, as chewers – generally but by no means exclusively male – reportedly spend too much time away from home; and it is often cited as a cause of unemployment, as khat is associated with idleness. Income diversion is also seen as a major problem in countries such as Djibouti where a large proportion of household income is spent on khat. What evidence there is in respect to social harms suggests demonising khat as their source is simplistic, falling into the trap of ‘pharmacological determinism,’ where all agency is given to the substance rather than the wider social context. One should therefore be cautious when attributing causality to khat – and indeed all such substances – while ignoring wider factors.
Khat is also commonly linked to sexuality, negatively and positively: It is described by consumers and in the literature as both an aphrodisiac and a cause of male impotence
Whether khat is a relatively harmless mild stimulant or an addictive curse on society is fervently debated, yet it is unrealistic to expect any conclusive argument either way, as with most such substances, however mild – ambiguity reigns. There are ‘problem users’ who chew at the expense of food (khat – like other stimulants – reduces appetite) and oversleep, making it hard for them to hold down a job; however, evidence suggests that many chew more moderately and with relatively few ill effects. More positively, some point to its link to cultural identity and its role in bringing people together in peaceful gatherings where amity is generated and advice proffered. Going even further, some have described khat as playing a contributory role in uniting people in the context of Somaliland’s post-war path to peace. This contrasts strongly with khat’s presentation to the outside world as a drug associated with war in Somalia, where some suggested it was a significant factor in the conflict in the early 1990s.
It is important to describe these debates about khat and its potential for medical or social harm or benefits, as the ambiguities in these areas matter for how states treat it under the law. As Cassanelli emphasised, these ambiguities mean that policy makers have been able to argue both for banning it and not banning it, depending on their instincts or interests at any one time, generating an extremely varied internationals legal situation: although khat is not under international control, it has come to be prohibited in numerous countries throughout the world, while remaining legal in others.
MERUS GOT RHYTHM, SOMALIS DON’T: WHO SAID RACISM MAKES SENSE?
The colonial government of Kenya attempted to prohibit it through what was known as the ‘khat ordinance,’ a piece of legislation that owed much to the efforts of colonial official Gerald Reece, a DC and later officer-in-charge of northern Kenya who saw khat as an alien introduction that was polluting the pastoralists of that region. This law was crippled from the start by khat’s ambiguities. Debates raged among colonial officers about its addictiveness or otherwise (and which substance to best compare it to – opium, gin or tobacco), while a racialised view emerged of khat harming pastoralists such as the Somali, while being innocuous for agriculturalists such as the Meru of central Kenya who were and still are the main cultivators of the crop in Kenya. These ambiguities led to fuzzy law: Trade in the substance was prohibited in the north while Meru cultivation and consumption was protected as a cultural right. These colonial attempts failed to curb the substance, and awareness of its value as a commodity eventually trumped concerns over use, although traces of the ordinance remained in place into the postcolonial era. Bans imposed in this era, including in Somalia (which banned it in the 1980s), also failed through lack of legitimacy, ever-increasing demand, and inability to police multiplying smuggling routes. It is these varied attempts to prohibit khat alongside the ambivalence with which many view it that led Cassanelli to term khat quasilegal back in 1986.
KHAT GOES GLOBAL, MINNEAPOLIS CAUGHT UNPREPARED
Since Cassanelli’s writing on khat, it has become yet more ambiguous a commodity. Khat went global in the 1990s and 2000s with the spread of the Somali diaspora and consequent demand for the crop in places like Minneapolis, encountering more illegality as several Western countries had banned it not so much because of its alleged harm, but because its individual compounds cathinone and cathine were scheduled internationally in the late 1980s. This scheduling applied only to the isolated compounds, and was not intended to subject khat itself to international control. Nevertheless, scheduling led first to Sweden and Norway prohibiting the substance itself; the USA, Canada and a number of European countries soon followed their lead, also banning the substance, perhaps imagining these first bans were the result of judicious policy-making, rather than an overzealous interpretation of international obligations.
Some point to khat’s link to cultural identity and its role in bringing people together in peaceful gatherings. Going even further, some have described it as playing a contributory role in uniting people in the context of Somaliland’s post-war path to peace.
However, khat’s exact legal status and penalties for those caught with it in these territories is far from clear, especially in the US. There, defence lawyers often use the argument that fair warning of khat’s illegality has not been provided as khat itself is not listed as a scheduled substance under federal law, or that defendants are unaware that khat contains cathinone and therefore do not understand its status. Further confusion is caused by differences between states. For example, the District of Columbia had never added cathinone to its scheduled substance list. Consequently, those charged under state law for khat possession could only be faced with the minor offence relating to a Schedule IV substance (cathine). However, if the quantity of khat was very large and the federal drug authorities were asked to handle the case, the charge would be upgraded.
The UK became the most recent country to ban the substance, in 2014, after a long review process in which the chief body advising the government on drug policy – the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – recommended it not be banned, but the government, under pressure from UK-based Somali anti-khat activists and other European countries whose illegal khat imports were routed through the UK, banned it anyway. Khat became a ‘Class C’ substance, a relatively low classification, but one that stopped the legal import of over 56 tonnes of khat that were coming in from Kenya and Ethiopia. There have since been seizures of the substance, although how actively policed it is remains in doubt as the substance is unlikely to be high up the list of priorities for overstretched police forces. Obtaining khat – especially dried khat, which is easier to smuggle – is still reckoned to be reasonably straightforward, as some of my informants have confirmed.
A racialised view emerged of khat harming pastoralists such as the Somali, while being innocuous for agriculturalists such as the Meru of central Kenya who were and still are the main cultivators of the crop in Kenya.
Thus, while its legal status still varies greatly, if anything khat is moving towards the more illegal side of the spectrum, certainly in the West. Yet in most producer countries back in Africa it remains legal, although often treated as illegal. For example, its production has risen in recent decades in Uganda and Madagascar, where it is technically legal, yet there are continual rumours that the substance is banned or about to be banned such is its conflation with other drugs, and various local by-laws add further ambiguity in Uganda, as researcher Susan Beckerleg showed some years ago. Indeed, as Beckerleg suggests for Uganda, there is often much conflation of khat and other drugs, including cannabis, that further muddy the waters concerning the legality of the substance.
KENYA FACES UP TO POLITICAL REALITY
However, in one jurisdiction at least the situation appears to be clarifying: Kenya. The crop was long subject to ambiguity in Kenya as the government kept aloof from either encouraging or discouraging its production fearing international disapproval, and in my early research on the substance in the early 2000s, there was sufficient ambiguity about the substance for security officers to once threaten me with arrest in the hope of a bribe when they spotted me carrying some; they felt the substance sufficiently ‘quasilegal’ that a European would believe them that it was in fact illegal.
The UK became the most recent country to ban the substance, in 2014, after a long review process in which the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended it not be banned, but the government, under pressure from UK-based Somali anti-khat activists, banned it anyway
However, the recent ban in the UK has ironically made the substance if not ‘respectable,’ then at least more unambiguously legal. This is because the Kenyan state came out in support of the crop under pressure from Meru growers and traders, now a powerful voting bloc since the introduction of devolution in 2013. Khat has been designated an official cash crop – something the Meru have campaigned for for decades – while a task force has been established to see how its farmers can further benefit from the crop and be protected from the negative effects of the ban in the UK. Thus, paradoxically, the UK ban on khat has meant that in Kenyan khat is less quasilegal than it used to be.
However, all these changes should be seen in the wider context of changing global drug policy. Cannabis in particular is interesting in this regard. Recently, it has been legalised in various states in the US, while many other countries have decriminalised its possession. Of course, cannabis in the Netherlands has long been an example of quasilegality, as loopholes were exploited to allow its consumption in coffee shops. These debates about cannabis law are also becoming more potent in African countries, all the more so as cannabis has long been an important crop in many rural parts of the continent. In Kenya and South Africa, there are growing calls for legalisation.
We live in interesting times where the repressive drug policies of the past are being increasingly questioned, and substances like cannabis are apparently travelling a path from illegality through quasilegality to legality. Meanwhile, khat, if anything, appears to be travelling in the opposite direction
Thus, we live in interesting times where the repressive drug policies of the past are being increasingly questioned, and substances like cannabis are apparently travelling a path from illegality through quasilegality to legality. Meanwhile, khat, if anything, appears to be travelling in the opposite direction, becoming more unambiguously illegal around the world. Aside, that is, from countries like Kenya and Ethiopia where it remains such an important crop and commodity.
 Appadurai’s edited volume, The social life of things (Cambridge University Press: 1986).
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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.
Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.
The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.
The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.
The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He or she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.
KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.
IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?
The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.
Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.
In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.
My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.
Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.
When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.
Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.
According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?
Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.
Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.
The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”
The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”
With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.
A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”
The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.
The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.
However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”
These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.
With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.
#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.
Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.
But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.
East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’
African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.
In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.
Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.
Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.
In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:
We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.
In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”
If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?
Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.
A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.
Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.
Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.
The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”
But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)
Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.
Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”
What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.
Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.
Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.
While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.
As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.
But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.
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