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Executive Disorder: Unpacking Illegal Presidential Directives

8 min read.

The 2010 constitution does not support an all-powerful president. Presidential orders or directives are not supported by the constitution, which is more concerned with the rule of law, good governance, inclusiveness in decision-making and dispersal of state power.

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President Uhuru Kenyatta has the tendency of issuing orders and declarations. These directives, which in State House jargon are often referred to as executive orders, are issued from all manner of venues and events but commonly from State House, when he is delivering his speeches during national holidays and often during the State of the Nation address given in March every year in parliament.

The language the president uses when issuing these orders is deliberate. It is one of “I have directed”, “I have instructed” or “I have ordered”. That choice of language communicates a number of things. One, that the president has the legal authority and power to make the order and two, that those directed to undertake the action must do so. The orders also take various forms. Some are formally written, but some are just that – verbal orders made during a televised address or at a moment of excitement during a political rally.

Situating executive orders in history

In Kenya, executive orders are not new. President Daniel arap Moi was notorious for issuing executive orders. In fact, his executive orders were often referred to as “roadside declarations” because they were issued randomly and unpredictably, often by the roadside when he stopped to greet people. Often he would stop to “buy” vegetables by the roadside and would demand that a government officer or a state agency undertake a certain action. He seemed not to care about the implications, often issuing orders which sometimes would require billions of shillings to implement. The orders were issued with no prior government planning. Some would be petty or vindictive, including ordering the detention of those who questioned his regime. But regardless of how petty or costly his orders were, he expected nothing less than full implementation of them. Luckily, Moi ruled at a different time, when it was hard to distinguish between him and the law. Kenya law was what Moi said the law was and most of those who thought differently either ended up in detention or with their collar bones broken by the ruthless anti-riot police.

The language the president uses when issuing these orders is deliberate. It is one of “I have directed”, “I have instructed” or “I have ordered”. That choice of language communicates a number of things. One, that the president has the legal authority and power to make the order and two, that those directed to undertake the action must do so.

On the global scene, even though past American presidents have issued executive orders, Donald Trump is perhaps the first US president to be most associated with popularising executive orders. On the day he was sworn into office, he wore an adolescent grin as he signed away tens of executive orders. The excitement he felt at finally having the power to use the presidential pen was palpable. As fate would have it, he would get a rude awakening later when a number of his key executive orders were challenged, including those imposing a travel ban on persons from a number of select Muslim-dominated countries.

Uhuru’s orders

So what are Uhuru’s executive orders? There are countless but a few examples will suffice here. Early this year, Uhuru issued an executive order creating the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (NAMATA), a multi-billion-shilling agency that is intended to integrate the transport of four counties – Nairobi, Machakos, Kajiado and Kiambu – in order to ease traffic and bring order to public transport in the Nairobi metropolitan area. In his 2015 State of the Nation address, he had issued an executive order creating a ten-billion Restorative Justice Fund, which was meant to compensate victims of historical state injustices, including the victims of the 2007/8 post-election violence. In the same speech, he ordered the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the Director of Public Prosecutions to finalise the processing of pending anti-corruption cases within sixty days. Earlier he had issued Executive Order Number Six (6) on Ethics and Integrity in the Public Service with directives to various state organs on what they must do to fight corruption.

What the constitution says

But are the President’s executive orders legal or constitutional?

Because of Kenya’s history of misrule – during the Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki regimes – Kenyans learned that it was a fundamental mistake to concentrate power in one individual or institution.

Kenya has one of the most progressive and transformative constitutions in the world. The constitution is value-laden, with some of the critical values being the rule of law, good governance, separation of powers, transparency and accountability and respect for human rights. Two additional values are devolution of power and participation of the people.

Because of Kenya’s history of misrule – during the Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki regimes – Kenyans learned that it was a fundamental mistake to concentrate power in one individual or institution. Though the independence constitution had modestly dispersed power, including by creating regional governments, Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, was quick to weaken the institutions of state and concentrate power around him. The president, not even the presidency, became synonymous with the law. Moi would perfect this, and although Kibaki was slightly shy about it, he never failed to use this privilege, especially whenever it suited him personally.

Because of this sad history of autocratic domination, when Kenyans promulgated a new constitution in 2010, they dispersed state power as much as possible, first, vertically by deconcentrating power through devolution and ring-fencing the functions of each level of government, and second, by dispersing power horizontally by entrenching a strong separation-of-powers regime between the executive and the legislature and by structurally providing for one of the most powerful and independent judiciaries in the world.

The net effect of all this is that, constitutionally, we have a relatively weak national executive – in fact, very weak by the 1969 constitution’s standards. Note this: the constitution created a president who is both the head of national government (the national executive) and the head of state. The titles are colourful, but constitutionally the institution of the presidency does not have much power. This is for three reasons.

First, the constitution created many safeguards to check the president’s power. For example, hardly any of the president’s appointees (except his personal staff) can take office without parliamentary vetting. Even when – as has been with the current parliament – parliament fails to appreciate the enormity of its power of oversighting the executive and allows mediocre appointees by the president to take office, the courts can constitutionally intervene and can even invalidate the president’s appointments.

Second, the constitution places little trust in the presidency; this is evident in Article 135, which requires a “decision of the President in the performance of any function of the President under this Constitution shall be in writing and shall bear the seal and signature of the President.” The effect of Article 135 is that any decision of the president that is not in writing is illegal.

The president cannot take over a function constitutionally given to the counties and direct them on what to do or how to do it. If he does this, he is usurping the powers of the counties, which is illegal.

Finally, the president cannot tell anything to most of the critical state organs. On this, for example, the president has no power over county governments, because, constitutionally, the heads of those governments are county governors, who through ingenious but important constitutional provisions, are co-equals of the president. Additionally, constitutionally, the president cannot direct state institutions, such as the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and independent commissions, such as the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) or even the Office of the Inspector General of Police. In other words, the president is more a head of state (which constitutionally is more of a ceremonial office) than the head of government.

Illegal executive orders?

So how legal are executive orders? The quick answer is that they are mostly illegal. Why?

It is easier to answer the why question by looking at the various executive orders I outlined earlier.

Let’s start with NAMATA. The illegalities here are numerous. First, local transport under the constitution is a function of counties. The president cannot take over a function constitutionally given to the counties and direct them on what to do or how to do it. If he does this, he is usurping the powers of the counties, which is illegal. Not that the constitution excludes the president from having a say on an institution like NAMATA. No. He can, as a citizen, participate in demanding the creation of such an organ to address what is obviously a genuine and critical need. He can also, as president, through constitutionally created intergovernmental mechanisms, find ways to work with the counties involved to develop such an organ. He could also, using his clout as the head of national government, request parliament to grant conditional grants to the counties to develop such a facility.

Interestingly, some of the institutions targeted by the president are the very independent commissions and offices that are supposed to be insulated from state or presidential interference.

Second, NAMATA becomes problematic when it is created through an executive order. This problem also arises in regard to the executive order creating a Restorative Justice Fund. Both require significant financial outlay (at least Ksh10 billion for the Restorative Justice Fund, and more in the case of NAMATA). The institutions that have the power to allocate state revenue are parliament and county assemblies, not the presidency. Parliament and county assemblies were not involved, at least initially, either in the conceptualisation of the idea or in the issuance of the executive orders. Hence later attempts to create a legislative framework to facilitate these efforts are nothing but sanitising an illegality. And a sanitised illegality still remains an illegality.

What of the orders to the EACC and DPP to process corruption cases within sixty days? Also illegal. The constitution says both of these institutions are independent – in fact, the constitution refers to them as independent offices and commissions. This was done deliberately. Kenyans knew that public officers and state institutions have tendencies to violate the law. They needed strong watchdogs to check the excesses of public officers and state institutions. They also had to insulate these watchdogs from the potentially offending public institutions and officers, including the president. One such insulation was to require that the independent commissions and offices undertake their mandate independently and without being directed by anyone external to them. When the president issues directives to these independent bodies, he is compromising their independence and violating the constitution.

Creating an image of an all-powerful office, which is communicated by the choice of words that commonly feature in the president’s speeches, is an act of executive brainwashing on citizens. The intention is to create a state of mind among the public that the president can ask for anything to be done and it must and will be done.

Interestingly, some of the institutions targeted by the president are the very independent commissions and offices that are supposed to be insulated from state or presidential interference. Unfortunately, some of these institutions have not responded adequately to illegal executive orders. In his 2015 State of the Nation address, the president issued investigatory and prosecutorial directives to the EACC and the DPP; both frantically tried to implement the executive order. In fact, with the exception of the Office of the Auditor General (and here it is more the Auditor General himself than the office), hardly any of the commissions and independent offices can be regarded as having the spine to fight the illegality of executive orders. The National Police Service Commission (NPSC), despite its strategic constitutional mandate of enforcing the rule of law, was perhaps the first to buckle under the weight of the executive’s demands. Other commissions are similarly eager to turn a blind eye on the executive’s transgressions.

Executive brainwashing

The 2010 constitution does not support an all-powerful president. Presidential orders or directives are not supported by the constitution, which is more concerned with the rule of law, good governance, inclusiveness in decision-making and dispersal of state power.

When you read the State of the Nation address or any address by the president, the impression you are left with is of a very powerful office. The terms, “direct”, “order”, “require”, litter such statements. Creating an image of an all-powerful office, which is communicated by the choice of words that commonly feature in the president’s speeches, is an act of executive brainwashing on citizens. The intention is to create a state of mind among the public that the president can ask for anything to be done and it must and will be done. Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi secured their dictatorial regimes through this kind of psychological sabotage. Unfortunately, Uhuru seems to be hanging on to a dwindling warmth of history, a history long banished by the constitution.

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Waikwa is a constitutional lawyer and co-founder of Katiba Institute.

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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.

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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 or 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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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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