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KENYA: NO MORE, ‘ACCEPT AND MOVE ON’

7 min read.

Past elections in Kenya have been characterised by electoral malpractices; the upcoming elections do not show signs of being any better.

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Election Demons
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In the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007-2008 devastating fall from grace, when inter-ethnic, post-election violence ravaged the country and blighted its reputation as a bastion of stability and peace in an otherwise volatile region, the nation began to gaze inward, reflecting on what wrongs and oversights could have possibly brought it to this point. Far too quickly, however, Kenya shifted its attention upwards, setting its sights on how to regain its position at the “top”: a summit marked by peace, or at least the appearance of it.

Indeed, the 2013 election, the first to be held under a new, internationally lauded constitution – one that sought to guarantee a broad range of freedoms, that was based on a deep commitment to active public participation, that strove to reverse the status quo by requiring and incentivising leaders to work exclusively in the public interest, and that dreamed of moving Kenyans past narrow ethnic groupings and towards a unifying, national identity – provided Kenya with an opportunity to redeem itself.

It quickly became clear, however, that the ascent to redemption was steep and rocky, paved with the bones of past victims of election violence. In many cases, the only way to not slip on these obstacles of history was to offload the weightiest of issues. And so the quest for peace lost much of its substance as Kenya cast aside its commitments to constitutional standards of personal and professional integrity for elected leaders, gender parity rules, regulation of campaign finance, zero tolerance for hate speech and ethnic politicking, as well as its dedication to high standards of administrative and technical electoral processes.

A post-election study revealed that a majority of Kenyans believed that the 2013 election was free and fair, despite the fact that nearly 80 percent experienced irregularities. More than half of Kenyans believed that peace was worth the sacrifice of a free and fair election; those who agreed that the sacrifice was worth it were also more likely to have a positive evaluation of the quality of the election.

By the time the March 2013 election was over, Kenya’s reputation as a stable and peaceful country stood on shaky ground. There had been relatively little violence but did that signify real peace?

Many noticed, but few spoke as the country struggled ever so slightly to keep its balance, the ghosts of 2007 clawing at its ankles, begging for the justice and accountability that they – and their survivors – are yet to see. Moreover, the electoral process had been starved of public discussion, disagreement and debate, the oxygen of democracy.

Behind the façade of political and technical reform lay an unverifiable and incomplete voters’ register, unreliable counting and tallying procedures, dysfunctional and insecure election technology, and dispute resolution processes that lacked public credibility. Indeed, the administration of the 2013 election mirrored the chaotic 2007 process in almost all ways. Although there was little violence, the result lacked broad public legitimacy.

What did ordinary voters think? Had they been swept up in the rhetoric of peace, or were they more mindful of the reality of their flawed election? A post-election study revealed that a majority of Kenyans believed that the 2013 election was free and fair, despite the fact that nearly 80 percent experienced irregularities. More than half of Kenyans believed that peace was worth the sacrifice of a free and fair election; those who agreed that the sacrifice was worth it were also more likely to have a positive evaluation of the quality of the election.

Shockingly, voters’ individual experiences at the polling station mattered little in their assessments. It seemed that voters agreed that nothing was worth a repeat of the violence that engulfed the country after the 2007 election. Is this still the case, even a decade after the carnage? The answer is unclear, partly because research on voters’ and citizens’ assessments of elections is sparse. Some studies link the public’s evaluations to their trust in other institutions – especially the election management body and the courts – but there are few analyses of what specific parts of the electoral cycle form the basis of people’s judgments.

In 2013, the post-election status quo, one of “accept and move on,” normalised silence and the suppression of democratic discussion and debate. Little has changed since 2013; one month before elections, despite the country’s clear failure to confront the unresolved issues of land reform, unemployment, ethnic favouritism, and political elites’ fear mongering, all of which lie at the root of election violence, “peace” reigns supreme.

In 2013, the post-election status quo, one of “accept and move on,” normalised silence and the suppression of democratic discussion and debate. Little has changed since 2013; one month before elections, despite the country’s clear failure to confront the unresolved issues of land reform, unemployment, ethnic favouritism, and political elites’ fear mongering, all of which lie at the root of election violence, “peace” reigns supreme. It also remains juxtaposed to credible elections, and any critical questioning of flaws in the process is vilified as “anti-peace.” But what kind of peace is this if open and honest conversations about problems in the process are thought to have the power to provoke violence? Shouldn’t we be asking for a deeper, more meaningful peace?

True peace is more than the mere absence of violence. Substantive, long-term peace is based on an open and honest discussion and policy reforms that attempt to rectify the deep historical injustices that continue to feed suspicion and lead to mistrust of political leaders. Substantive peace creates the foundation for a credible election, because that peace is built on strong, publicly accountable government institutions and on public faith in the legitimacy the electoral process. Isn’t this the kind of peace that Kenyans should demand?

Election violence in Kenya is also based on distrust of the technical administration of elections. Substantive peace, then, is also based on a well-functioning and publicly legitimate electoral process. Turning a blind eye to problems in electoral processes lowers the standard for the administration of elections and – in the long run – for democracy as well.

So what is a credible election? These days, those on the ground in Kenya are forging ahead in the quest for a set of locally owned, minimum standards for free, fair and credible elections. This is a contentious and complex process; electoral cycles are made up of multiple, interdependent activities and errors in any one phase can have dangerous domino effects throughout the rest of the process. The legitimacy of the final results can thus be marred several months ahead of election day. Indeed, this is why the search for a definition of or for a set of indicators of a credible election has been so difficult, despite a plethora of proposals and datasets.

In Kenya, however, a section of civil society is pushing for progress in this regard. Using the unresolved questions of past elections as a basis for a platform of change, this group of actors is starting to define what specific administrative indicators of credible elections might include. The hope is that these standards can eventually gain widespread acceptance in the country and demonstrate to the elites what it is that people expect as the bare minimum for credible elections. This set of standards may form the basis for substantive reform and genuine implementation of existing laws; evidence that authorities are working with these goal posts could go a long way in calming fears, mitigating suspicion and – one day – giving people faith that democratic dialogue and discussion serve as strong safeguards of their interests.

Confidence in past registration processes was severely depressed by the presence of multiple registers – each with different totals – as well as the use of thousands of hand-written lists of registered voters (despite the presence of a biometric list), and significant regional disparities, many of which overlapped with party strongholds. The current register is plagued by a host of serious irregularities, including the inclusion of more than one million dead voters and hundreds of thousands of incomplete and/or duplicate entries.

There are a broad range of technical indicators, many of which are still under discussion. With election day one month away, however, the following list represents a snapshot of some of the most critical priorities for the current election cycle:

 

  • One (and only one) biometric voters’ register, based on verifiable data that is continuously used to update the list and is able to identify all voters who have cast ballots across the country in real time. Confidence in past registration processes was severely depressed by the presence of multiple registers – each with different totals – as well as the use of thousands of hand-written lists of registered voters (despite the presence of a biometric list), and significant regional disparities, many of which overlapped with party strongholds. The current register is plagued by a host of serious irregularities, including the inclusion of more than one million dead voters and hundreds of thousands of incomplete and/or duplicate entries. These problems are compounded by a flawed registration process, which includes issues such as the appearance of voters who had never registered, the disappearance of voters who had registered and voted in previous elections, malfunctioning or nonfunctional biometric registration kits, and instances of voters who had been transferred without their permission.
  • Reliable biometric voter identification on election day, evidenced by the sole use of the biometric register to recognise eligible voters. If money is being spent on biometric technology, there should be no need for a manual identification processes.
  • Correctly completed polling station tally forms, characterised by the proper resolution of figures and the inclusion of all relevant information, including the total number of votes cast and total voter turnout. This is one of the only ways to safeguard the one (wo)man-one vote principle. This goes hand in hand with zero tolerance for polling station results that show the total number of votes cast being larger than the total number of registered voters.
  • A publicly tested and secure electronic results transmission system that replaces the need to transport hard copies of polling station results forms from all over the country to a central location. This system should include a mechanism through which the public can follow results as they are counted and tallied at various levels.

In the long run, standards of credible Kenyan elections should also include – at the very least – strict timelines that prohibit changes to the election law less than one year before election day, adherence to integrity standards for leaders, enforcement of gender parity laws, robust and meaningful voter education, and the regulation of campaign finance.

These indicators do not yet touch the larger, heavier political issues that have yet to be resolved; they are only one part of a broad set of conditions that will eventually define credible elections. This is, however, an important starting point. In the long run, standards of credible Kenyan elections should also include – at the very least – strict timelines that prohibit changes to the election law less than one year before election day, adherence to integrity standards for leaders, enforcement of gender parity laws, robust and meaningful voter education, and the regulation of campaign finance. For now, though, let’s hope this is only the beginning of a renewed journey, one that will culminate in a more lasting and authentic peace.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

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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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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 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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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’
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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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