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WOMEN IN POLITICS: Not Just Pretty Faces

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Sex and Politics
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The Churchill Show that airs on NTV network is the biggest comedy stage in Kenya. The comedy format show has performed consistently as the highest viewed TV show on Sundays on GeoPoll ratings across the networks, with estimates of 2 million viewers. On the evening of 16th April 2017, the affable host Daniel Ndambuki, known by his moniker Churchill, had special guests. A series of high chairs were arranged on the front stage and strobe lights lit up the background. An excited crowd ushered in the four guests who were aspiring for the women’s representative position in Nairobi County.

The aspirants were led by the incumbent women’s representative for Nairobi County, Rachel Shebesh, and included contenders Esther Passaris, Karen Nyamu and Millicent Omanga. They took their positions on the high stools that mimicked an American town hall TV debate format to the loud cheers of the rival supporters. The Churchill show is an entertainment show that does not take itself too seriously, so no one was expecting a serious gender policy discussion. The first question was a soft ball thrown to the aspirants:

“What was your most memorable Easter holiday?”

Churchill tried to get serious with questions on the policy priorities in the first 100 days upon election and the challenges female politicians encounter on the campaign trail. Eventually he rounded it off with the burning question of the night:

Do women love each other? Do guys love each other?”

It was play on an old stereotype: women are their own worst enemies. But the aspirants challenged the sexist context of the question. Shebesh’s response was sharp and quick.

“Yes we do and we are tired of this old line that women do not support each other”.

Ever since it was enacted in the new 2010 Constitution, the women’s representative position in the National Assembly has been marked by tired old stereotypes.

The women’s rep position was introduced to address the underrepresentation of Kenyan women in politics. It was enshrined with a two-third gender rule aimed at ensuring women would have a legally mandated say in the country’s political affairs through affirmative action. The membership of the Kenyan National Assembly now consists of forty-seven women, each elected by the registered voters of the counties.

The run-up to the political party nomination provided a good indicator of the attitudes held by Kenyans on social media. Campaign billboards were deemed too sexy or cheesy, depending on who you talked to.

But despite the new political dispensation, media coverage of women politicians has been slow to adjust. The media has prioritised their looks over their policies and put immense pressure on female candidates to be seen as likable. The run-up to the political party nomination provided a good indicator of the attitudes held by Kenyans on social media. Campaign billboards were deemed too sexy or cheesy, depending on who you talked to. The gossip sites played up the physical appearances of women’s reps by lining them up on a beauty comparison ladder. Campaign slogans that would have passed as a cool identity reference for Nairobi’s urban youth swag, came under sharp criticism. Aspirants were accused of glamming up to draw voter attention instead of selling their policies.

Not that any of the male politicians were reading out their manifestos. Parody campaign posters of sexualised models began doing the social media comedic rounds. Sex appeal became a hot topic of fluff content sites and the tag flower girls turned into a euphemism for the women’s position.

Political campaigns are all about swaying public perceptions but those perceptions are constantly shifting. A good example was the flak that met the campaign slogans. Adopting Sheng, Nairobi’s urban youth language of choice, and appealing to their touch points is a standard political branding strategy. Rachel Shebesh upped her street credentials in 2013 claiming the title “Manzi wa Nai” (Girl from Nairobi) and she won the vote. For the 2017 election, she toned it down to “Mama Nai, Jenga Nai” (Nairobi Mother, Build Nairobi), perhaps cognisant of her seniority when compared to the younger aspirants. Millicent Omanga went for the slogan Supa na Works” (Beautiful Woman who Works). Bernadette Wangui Ng’ang’a, the nominated member of Nairobi County Assembly, hit the campaign trail with the slogan, “Ms B Tosha”(Miss B is enough). Nairobi County Assembly member Beatrice Kwamboka, formerly of the Mountain View Ward in Westlands constituency, went by the slogan “Mrembo wa Jiji” (The Beauty of the City). Karen Nyamu was labelled “Bae wa Nairobi” (Babe of Nairobi) by her admirers and she suffered image nightmares before her campaign strategists put forward the more kosher “Wakili na Mahustler” (Lawyer for the Hustlers), playing up her professional credentials as a lawyer. The message of the critics seemed clear: to be be a women’s representative you have to play the femininity card.

It did not escape keen observers that male candidates are expected to play up their masculinity attributes without the consequences that face female candidates. Every woman entering politics braces for gender bias and stereotypes that are deeply steeped in Kenya’s male-dominated political tradition. The entertainment media storylines and the social media reaction perpetually reduce the women’s rep to a beauty parade, and the level of scrutiny of a female candidates’ moral character is harsher. The female politician would be crucified for the slightest social transgressions where men get away with a slap on the wrist.

The objectification of the female candidate in public office is an occupational hazard, especially when one is perceived as good looking. It is what women’s rep Wambui Nganga termed as having to endure the stereotype of beauty without brains.

This mistreatment of women in politics is as old as the republic. A female politician has to fulfil the social requirements of the male gaze to succeed in this dirty game.

All of Nairobi’s women’s reps were drawn into defensive positions battling against character perceptions that were based on their appearances and rumours. Rachel Shebesh’s marriage was subject of running gossip mills. Esther Passaris’s battles with her estranged husband have been played out in the public court. Karen Nyamu endured repeated sexual innuendo and at one point had to defend herself against a cheeky mistaken identity clip of a Rwandese video vixen whose sole focus was a prominent derriere.

The online Nairobi News had a blazing headline: Beauties for Women Rep seat who Nairobi men can’t stop ogling- Photos!! Tuko.co.ke went with the click bait: , “Meet the beautiful women’s rep aspirants everyone is talking about (photos).

Columnist, Njoki Chege, who pens the popular City Girl column that runs in the Saturday Nation, called the women’s aspirants pathetic and did not hide her disdain for campaign posters that positioned them for the male gaze.

This mistreatment of women in politics is as old as the republic. A female politician has to fulfil the social requirements of the male gaze to succeed in this dirty game. The picture-perfect female politician has to be modelled in the image of Mother Teresa – known for her compassion and respected for her quiet resilience amidst criticism. The vocal woman who raises her voice immediately earns the masculine tag “Iron Lady” and only earns respect when she has proven to be as “strong as a man”.

Women in Kenyan Politics: Running the gauntlet

The women’s rep position, seen through the cultural patriarchal lenses and an established male gaze, is deemed a lesser political office solely because the occupant is female. It is not common knowledge that a women’s rep has similar functions to an MP and, unlike an MP who only represents a constituency, she represents an entire county. It is obvious that the role of the women’s rep is yet to be understood.

In 2013, a record 86 women parliamentarians joined the National Assembly, a historical achievement by any measure, 47 as women representatives from every county, 16 elected as Members of the National Assembly (MNA), 5 nominated MNAs and 18 nominated Senators. They were not just filling the numbers; many these women had taken up leadership roles and asserted their influence on state affairs. The most prominent was Joyce Laboso, who rose to the rank of Deputy Speaker, the first female deputy speaker in Kenya’s parliament. In her wake are the Senate Majority Chief Whip, Beatrice Elachi of the Jubilee party and the Minority Deputy Chief Whip Janet Ongera of CORD on the opposition’s side. Not to forget the 8 women listed as committee chairwomen.

The Mzalendo website that tallies parliamentary participation, places women’s representation in parliament at 21%, which though short of the constitutional threshold of 33%, is an incredible testament to work of the pioneering African feminists who fought for the right to representation and equal treatment of women in all sectors of society.

There is more to be celebrated than denigrated but only if one remains aware of the history of the women’s movement and the sacrifices of the pioneers. The pioneer leaders of the feminist movement in Kenya bore a heavy cross in their individual attempts to pave the way for numerical presence of women in the National Assembly.

Between 1963 and 1969, there were no women representatives in the Kenyan parliament. The first woman to be elected as MP was Grace Onyango of Kisumu Town, who was a member of the second Parliament in 1969. In the last ten Parliaments, Kenya has had a total of 75 women, 50 of whom were elected while the other 25 were nominated. Therefore, the leap in representation spurred by the new constitution cannot be underscored enough. It is a testament to the steady work of various actors in the progressive feminist movement whose contributions never made the front pages.

It is not common knowledge that a women’s rep has similar functions to an MP and, unlike an MP who only represents a constituency, she represents an entire county. It is obvious that the role of the women’s rep is yet to be understood.

The history of women agitating for political leadership is a lost chapter in Kenya’s democratic evolution and shift towards inclusivity for marginalised groups. The contribution of women parliamentarians, whether elected or nominated, has a long historical precedence and we have to look back to understand the distance that been covered. For women in leadership, it has never been a question of competence but rather gender prejudice.

Nairobi’s most glamourous years, the Golden Age, when it was known as the Green City in the Sun and the safari capital of the world, was under Margaret Kenyatta, the daughter of the first president Jomo Kenyatta. Nairobi in the 1970s was hailed as a modern and efficient cosmopolitan African city, one that Julius Nyerere of Tanzania described as “good as going to London”. Margaret Kenyatta served as Mayor of Nairobi from 1970 to 1976. Before that she was elected as Councillor for Dagoretti Ward in Nairobi in 1963 where she served for four consecutive terms.

She was the first African woman to become the mayor of Kenya’s capital city but she was not the first woman to be elected mayor in Kenya. That honour is reserved for Grace Onyango, a school teacher at Kisumu Union Primary. Grace Onyango was the first woman councillor of Kisumu Central ward before she become Kisumu Mayor following the death of the incumbent Mathias Ondiek in 1965. She was elected mayor of Kisumu in 1967 and as Kisumu Town MP in 1969, making her the first woman elected to the Kenyan parliament – the single woman in a club of 158 male parliamentarians. Grace Onyango also served as the first woman Secretary General of the Luo Union (East Africa).

The 1970s saw the emergence of Dr. Julia Ojiambo, who became MP for Busia South in 1974. It was also the decade of a phenomenal force in the name of Chelagat Mutai who got elected in 1973 as the youngest Member of Parliament in Kenya’s history at 24 years of age. Mutai, a two-term MP, was a fierce critic of the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes; she embodied integrity in a corrupted system.

The 1980s would see the rise of Hon. Phoebe Asiyo and Grace Ogot. Pheobe Asiyo, who also held the distinction as the first African Chairperson of the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation, was elected to Parliament to represent Karachuonyo in 1980 and held the seat till 1983. Hon. Asiyo was elected back to Parliament in 1992 in the multiparty system and served until 1997. Grace Ogot, who had already earned fame as a renowned storyteller and post-colonial feminist writer, entered Parliament in 1984 as MP for Gem after a by-election following the murder of the sitting MP, Horace Ongili Owiti. She was the only woman assistant minister in the cabinet of the then President Moi.

There was also Nyiva Mwenda who served three times as MP, the first time in 1974 and then returning after a long sojourn in the multiparty era to win the Kitui West constituency seat in 1992 and 2002. Nyiva Mwenda holds the distinction of being the first woman to serve as Minister for Culture and Social Services under Moi in 1992. The late 1990s into the early 2000s would introduce the formidable characters of Martha Karua, Beth Mugo and Wangari Maathai, who came to embody the greater feminist struggle of gender equity in governance.

Without an acknowledgement of the contribution of the pioneers, the two-third gender rule could be mistaken for tokenism, which it is not. The road to this representation has been long and hard. The efforts of a collective of concerned women drawn from the legal and academic fields and from civil society and NGOs increased gender sensitivity and awareness that eventually paid off in a gender-sensitive new constitution.

The Mzalendo website that tallies parliamentary participation, places women’s representation in parliament at 21%, which though short of the constitutional threshold of 33%, is an incredible testament to work of the pioneering African feminists who fought for the right to representation and equal treatment of women in all sectors of society.

The momentum towards the liberation of women began in earnest following a United Nations General Assembly proclamation in 1972. It was at this assembly that the year 1975 was chosen as the start of the International Women’s Year, back in an era where no one thought an all-women conference would be taken seriously. The first UN Conference on Women in 1975 was hosted by Mexico City and established the period between 1975 and 1985 as the Women’s Decade. The close of that decade would be commemorated in the third UN Conference on Women held in Nairobi in 1985.

The outcome of the conference would be the Nairobi Forward- Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women. The Nairobi Conference declared that gender equality was part and parcel of human activity, not an isolated or fringe issue, and that it was necessary for women to participate in all spheres, not only those relating to gender. The notable contributors of that decade were renowned feminists such as Thelma Awori, then deputy director of UNIFEM and chief of the Africa section and Professor Micere Mugo, who used poetry that drew from a feminist perspective to raise awareness and consciousness about the women’s movement. Other prominent names in the women’s movement in Kenya were Eddah Gachukia, Julia Ojiambo, Phoebe Asiyo, Wangari Maathai, Jane Kiano, Margaret Kenyatta, Maria Nzomo and Wambui Otieno.

Many of these highly educated women would often be accused of elitism. The Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO), then known as an NGO dealing with issues of women’s rights and gender equity, would be responsible for changing the perception of the women’s movement from just another elitist agenda to a grassroots movement. MYWO gained ground with its social welfare policies that targeted hundreds of small self-help groups in rural communities. In the 1980s the MYWO suffered an image problem after it became part of the ruling KANU party’s mobilisation agenda and a conduit for the populist propaganda that defined the Moi regime.

The real structural change of the political system began to be felt in the 1990s, largely as a direct result of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action that was adopted unanimously by 189 countries. It was an agenda for women’s empowerment and the key global policy document on gender equality.

There is more to be celebrated than denigrated but only if one remains aware of the history of the women’s movement and the sacrifices of the pioneers. The pioneer leaders of the feminist movement in Kenya bore a heavy cross in their individual attempts to pave the way for numerical presence of women in the National Assembly.

The lobbying and mobilisation for affirmative action began in the 1990s when the push for proportional representation became a global agenda. Kenyan women organised their numbers to demand comprehensive constitutional reform to anchor the feminist struggle in the constitution. The first major light at the end of this long tunnel would be seen in 1996 following a motion moved in parliament by Hon. Charity Ngilu for the implementation the Beijing Platform for Action as envisioned after the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995 that served as a roadmap for the achievement of gender equity. Of particular concern to the male parliamentarians was a gender quota that was roundly rejected. The motion did not see the light of day.

The next woman to take a stab at it was Hon. Pheobe Asiyo, who tabled the Affirmative Action Bill in Parliament in 1997, which was also rejected. Hon. Beth Mugo would face the same fate in the year 2000 when she attempted to lobby for an increase in representation of women in Parliament. Concerted lobbying would take feminist activists another five years before the affirmative action agenda became a part of the draft constitution that was rejected at a charged National Referendum in 2005. The activists went back to the trenches, making a stronger case that would see affirmative action became a legally binding principle in the 2010 constitution.

The dream of a critical mass of women in parliament is within grasp. The significant changes in patriarchal political culture have been felt even as we appreciate that there is still much work ahead in the space of gender equity.

But the discourse of the feminist struggle has been waning over the years and the women’s movement that was vibrant in the 1970s through to the 1990s and dedicated towards total emancipation of women is now playing lip service to the cause. The conversations around women’s empowerment have gotten stuck in a numbers game and the calibre of representatives is worrying in some respects. Many are not guided by feminist grounding principles, which has raised concern amongst activists who question the motivations of the new crop of women leaders. The widespread lack of ideology-based politics means that political leaders become invested only when riding on the crest of a movement that they do not intrinsically support or whose ideals they do not believe in.

The conversations around women’s empowerment have gotten stuck in a numbers game and the calibre of representatives is worrying in some respects. Many are not guided by feminist grounding principles, which has raised concern amongst activists who question the motivations of the new crop of women leaders. The widespread lack of ideology-based politics means that political leaders become invested only when riding on the crest of a movement that they do not intrinsically support or whose ideals they do not believe in.

Increasing numbers of women in leadership positions does not necessarily impact directly on women’s issues. Electing more women cannot be the give–all solution to women’s issues. The wider picture of emancipation is lost in the Kenyan political space where personal gain takes precedence.

Dr. Achola Pala, a feminist scholar and anthropologist warns, We are losing the larger war for the battle.” The battle of the sexes provides a false consciousness partly because it pits tradition against modernisation/Westernisation, she argues. In an article titled The Ground We Stand On, she talks about the limitations of adopting a concept of human rights derived from a supposed universalised Western culture. “So many of us have often accepted the notion of African ‘traditional culture’ as if it were the enemy of women, and the word ‘Western’ as if it contained women’s rights.”

The emphasis on political representation and numbers loses sight of the larger emancipation solution, the cultural contest and the importance of cultivating a feminist consciousness. Many of the new key players lack this consciousness and remain in danger of privatising personal ambition that feeds into a social class disconnect between grassroots women and their representatives.

Feminist writer Lucy Oriang, in an opinion piece, laid out the challenges of the contemporary movement in a column titled “The Liberation is Dead, Long Live the Women of Kenya, “Talking about women is an industry in itself. A lot of words flow in boardrooms, policy documents and the best of Kenya’s hotels. Much of it is packaged so cleverly that it camouflages the fact that there is nothing new under that particular sun.”

Perhaps we should draw some wisdom from the bold African feminist voice of Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, who wrote “We should all be feminists”, for many seem to have forgotten that femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive. May the women who seek equity and equality for all stand up.

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Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan journalist, editor and a curator at The Elephant.

Politics

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.

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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
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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/she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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Philip Kipchirchir Murgor: It is the CJ’s Job or Nothing For the Man Who Knows Where the Skeletons are Buried

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Politics

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?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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