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I Couldn’t Go to Work, Because I Got High: The Political Economy of Khat/Miraa, the World’s Most Ambiguous ‘Substance’

9 min read.

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.



A proud smoker
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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.

WATCH: Miraa / Khat: A Historical Perspective. By John Githongo

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.

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Mr Carrier is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Oxford and a researcher into migration and the diaspora, trade, drugs and society, and the anthropology of photography and film.


The Dictatorship of the Church

From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.



The Dictatorship of the Church
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
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In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.

Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.

Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.

Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.

The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.

Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health servicesCritics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”

Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.

A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.

Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.

In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique

Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.

Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.

The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.

A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.

More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.

In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror

The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.



Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
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Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.

“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”

Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.

Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.

At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.

Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.

Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned.  US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.

The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.

AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.

Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”

Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.

I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.

Sweet home Alabama! 

An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.

Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.

He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.

We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.

What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.

Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”

ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked

King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.

In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.

Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.

Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”

Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.

Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.

“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.

The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.

According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.

A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.

The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.  “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.

These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.

The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.

The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.

The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.

The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”

With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:

And this bird, you cannot change

Lord help me, I can’t change….

Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.

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Breaking the Chains of Indifference

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.



Breaking the Chains of Indifference
Photo by Musnany on Unsplash.
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They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.

This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”

Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.

Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.

Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.

Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.

The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no  retribution against the military for their actions.

During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.

Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.

Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.

Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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