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Race, Land and Memory in Zimbabwe

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I was twelve years old when the first invasions of white-owned farms by Zimbabwe’s war veterans were announced on television. The year was 2000. What followed, a decade in which we experienced the spiralling of the Zim dollar and the subsequent food shortages, electricity and water rationing, as well as political violence, was a kind of nightmare that forced us to grapple with our history.

History has been repeatedly evoked, at times eloquently, at times brutally, in Zimbabwe over the past one-and-a-half decades or so, as a means of justifying, among other policies, the country’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme. We, its people, have been caught in a recurring, closed loop in which we are coerced into living in a heavily edited and glorified past as an answer to, or more accurately, diversion from, the current miserable socio-politico-economic state. At the same time, international intervention in the “Zimbabwean problem” has become, in historic fashion, an exercise in amnesia, where countries such as Britain, while glossing over their colonial involvement in the country, partake in an obscene form of Western voyeurism on the suffering of Zimbabweans.

Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme, which was spearheaded by the country’s war veterans in the year 2000 when war veterans invaded white-owned farms – an action that was soon after endorsed by the government – justifies itself through history. But what history? And what justifications are being made?

Indeed, the question of land in Zimbabwe is inexorably tied to the country’s history. It’s both a historical and a philosophical question; the local people were violently kicked off their land by Cecil John Rhodes and his British South Africa Company in the 1890s, who took control of the land on behalf of the British Crown. In doing so, the white settlers upset the local peoples’ relationship to the land, introducing modern capitalism and the concept of land as a commodity. A brief history of Zimbabwe and its land can be found here.

Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme, which was spearheaded by the country’s war veterans in the year 2000 when war veterans invaded white-owned farms – an action that was soon after endorsed by the government – justifies itself through history. But what history? And what justifications are being made? The historian Terrence Ranger, in his essay, “The Uses and Abuses of History in Zimbabwe,” diagnoses the current history that is propagated by the Zimbabwean government as “patriotic history,” a type of history which

“emphasises the division of the nation not only into races but also into ‘patriots’ and ‘sell-outs’ among its African population…’patriotic history’ has replaced the idea of Socialism by that of “authenticity”…it offers a highly selective and streamlined version of the anti-colonial struggle. It is a doctrine of ‘permanent revolution’ leaping from Chimurenga to Chimurenga…It is a doctrine of violence because it sees itself as a doctrine of revolution” (2005:8).

Ranger’s description of the term “patriotic history” as being a “doctrine of violence” that is directly correlated to a “doctrine of revolution” has a direct link to the Fanonian view on decolonisation. As Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, decolonisation is a violent, revolutionary phenomenon that seeks to get beneath the surface racial relations within a colonial society; it seeks to “change the order of the world,” to disrupt a business-as-usual attitude, and to get at the social relations which enable racial fetish and its ties to land ownership in countries such as Zimbabwe.

The imbuing of Mugabe with “ancestral wisdom” is a powerful and effective tool. For one, it has elevated Mugabe to some god-like status, thwarting attempts at any meaningful critique of his failings and branding all such critique as “Western-motivated,” as if the people of Zimbabwe could not possibly think for themselves.

But how, exactly, does this “patriotic history” work in Zimbabwe? President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party ZANU(PF) propagates this type of history by relocating the country’s pre-colonial values and rituals and transposing them to the present as a mythical “deep ancestral memory.” Here we have a game of smoke-and-mirrors, in which the past is made malleable, but unquestionable, for to question a “sacred” past is to render oneself a “traitor.” An article in the Zimbabwean Sunday Mail (2003) by historian Professor Tafataona Mahoso reads:

“Mugabe is now every African who is opposed to the British and North American plunder and exploitation…So, old Mugabe here is not the person of Robert Mugabe. Rather it is that powerful, elemental African memory going back to the first Nehanda and even to the ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians who are now reclaiming Africa in history as the cradle of humankind.”

The imbuing of Mugabe with “ancestral wisdom” is a powerful and effective tool. For one, it has elevated Mugabe to some god-like status, thwarting attempts at any meaningful critique of his failings and branding all such critique as “Western-motivated,” as if the people of Zimbabwe could not possibly think for themselves. More importantly, it allows for state-aligned intellectuals (the kind Edward Said cautions against in his essay “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals”), such as Professor Tafataona Mahoso, to say, without irony, that the “spirit of Cecil John Rhodes” has appeared “in the most aggressive, photogenic, restless and boyish body of British Prime Minister Tony Blair” (Sunday Mail, 25 February 2003).

The utilisation of pre-colonial history does the work of evoking in the citizenry memories of the past and linking them to what is happening in the present—Rhodes the colonialist has reappeared in the form of Tony Blair the imperialist—while speaking in an intimate local linguistic form (that of local traditions and ancestral spirits). The evoking of Rhodes and his deliberate linkage to Tony Blair also brings to mind the violent means by which the white-supremacist state of Rhodesia had to be removed, and the lives that were lost by the country’s war heroes. In linking that violence to the post-2000 violent struggle to wrest the farms from white farmers, an ideological parallel and justification is evoked; in line with Fanon, the ethos of struggle for the colonised can be but that of violence as a tool of emancipation. Just as violence is the oppressor’s tool, along with other sophisticated forms of economic and cultural persuasion.

But how does this transposed pre-colonial history that is imbued with ancestral values and is embodied in the form of individual persons operate within 21st century Zimbabwe? Could it be argued, for instance, that it seeks to contribute to a revolutionary impetus by imagining different forms of societal organisation? To consider this, one must note that the social relations in Zimbabwe post-2000 are different from how they were in the 1970s just before the country’s independence in 1980.

In the 1970s, the struggle for independence was fought using guerrilla tactics and aggressive rhetorical modes of persuasion in the form of imploring speeches made by the guerrilla parties’ nationalist leaders, thus garnering local support as well as international political, economic and military support from countries such as the USSR that had their own Cold War agendas with Western Europe and the USA. In the 2000s, the country’s ruling party ZANU(PF) was no longer a guerrilla party, but was and still is the dominant party in the country in full control of Zimbabwe’s judiciary, finances, army and state bodies. Yet, it has positioned itself rhetorically as a guerrilla party—in this way “justifying” its use of violence as a method of decolonisation while concurrently abusing the state’s civic bodies as a means of oppression of its citizenry—still in the trenches fighting to free the Zimbabwean people from Western dominance (the invasions of white-owned farms starting in the year 2000 were named the Third Chimurenga —the Third Liberation Struggle—evoking the First Chimurenga in the 1890s and the Second Chimurenga under the nationalist parties during the 1970s).

As Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, this transposed history is nothing more than the tactic of a ruling elite that, “unable to open the future (for its people) or of flinging them onto the path of national reconstruction, that is to say, their own reconstruction,” keeps them in perpetual remembrance of a heavily edited, dreamy past as a means of preventing them from reckoning with their present circumstances.

Hence, this revived ancestral memory becomes a corruption of the past as means not to genuinely transform the present, but to manipulate it at the expense of the citizenry. Its main purpose is to facilitate ideological arguments and to solemnise rituals, with no intention of a genuine follow-through that can offer a real structural change for the citizenry. As Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, this transposed history is nothing more than the tactic of a ruling elite that, “unable to open the future (for its people) or of flinging them onto the path of national reconstruction, that is to say, their own reconstruction,” keeps them in perpetual remembrance of a heavily edited, dreamy past as a means of preventing them from reckoning with their present circumstances.

Nevertheless, knowledge in and of itself can be a multi-purpose tool, and who is using it and to what ends can become more important than its intended purpose. Thus, can this ancestral memory and the working up of the citizenry by the ruling elite be utilised in ways other than what the ruling elite have intended? Can it benefit those who wish to bring to fruition in the periphery their societal ideas of being and self? This depends, in large part, on how those who participate in revolutionary activity view and understand themselves.

Thus the question: what role does land play as a revolutionary symbol to be reclaimed? In former colonised spaces, the racial fetish of colonialism cannot be separated from the commodity fetish of capitalism; both go hand in hand. The white man, by virtue of the colour of his skin, was historically advantaged during colonial times. Concurrently, the emergence of modern capitalism in Europe, which was exported to the periphery, enabled Europe to siphon the periphery’s natural as well as human resources to enrich both itself and the white minority that lived in and governed the colonies.

During colonial times, the Rhodesian government subsidised its white farming population, giving it not only favourable market prices, but banning black peasant farmers from selling their own produce at the same favourable rates. Furthermore, the white population was given the best arable land in Rhodesia, while blacks were cramped in and made to farm on poor land. As such, race and capitalism are historically inextricable. Hence, the attempt to leave the fate of a historically disenfranchised, formerly colonised people to “the market,” and to deride attempts by post-colonial forms of political organisation to economically and politically subsidise their populations is an ironic instance of feigned memory loss. Or is it an extreme case of reification by proponents of liberal capitalism and the free-market enterprise?

In former colonised spaces, the racial fetish of colonialism cannot be separated from the commodity fetish of capitalism; both go hand in hand. The white man, by virtue of the colour of his skin, was historically advantaged during colonial times. Concurrently, the emergence of modern capitalism in Europe, which was exported to the periphery, enabled Europe to siphon the periphery’s natural as well as human resources to enrich both itself and the white minority that lived in and governed the colonies.

Linked to the question of land in Zimbabwe is also that of the complex, dialectical identity of many white Zimbabweans. A brilliant case study of the conflicting ideas of self harboured by many members of the country’s white farming community, illustrating, among other things, the poor race relations in the country and how many white Zimbabweans haven’t worked through, or been afforded the spaces to safely work through, their colonial history, is the book The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Farmer’s Voices from Zimbabwe by Rory Pilossof. The white Zimbabwean exhibits residues of the white settler community “which calls itself ‘liberal’,” to quote Fanon, and yet “demands nothing more nor less than twofold citizenship” while “setting themselves apart in an abstract manner.” Indeed, white Zimbabweans and their offspring have in the past held dual citizenship, of both Britain and Zimbabwe; this privilege of dual citizenship was never extended to black Zimbabweans.

As such, the impetus by the country’s black citizenry to reclaim land ought to be understood within this historical framework, which continues to affect contemporary relations. This does not mean that such an impetus is pure and not prone to manipulation and corruption, as is evidenced by Zimbabwe’s ruling elite and the corrupt systems under which the country operates today. However, it is important to recognise it as a logical impetus for formerly colonised peoples who are attempting to realise their ideas of self and being in a concrete reality. This ability to realise ideas of self and being rests on the material, on the power to self-direct resources into one’s community. Without material resources, ideas of self and community cannot become concrete or a reality. As such, the self-realisation of the peoples at the periphery cannot happen without their having access to material resources, which Africa has in abundance. Land becomes a crucial material as well as ideological symbol.

But how do the people ensure responsibility from a rogue government that is unable to move them into the future but that utilises the past as a means of keeping them in check? This is the question. The Zimbabwean state and its abuse of history as a means of self-preservation, even at the expense of the citizenry, is a case in point.

In terms of land as a metaphysical and philosophical entity, it’s interesting to note that the restructuring of land by the colonial settlers in the late 19th century was not in line with the ways in which value was allotted by the local people at that time. To quote Lawrence Tshuma in A Matter of (In)justice: Law, State and the Agrarian Question in Zimbabwe:

“an assumption, deriving from English jurisprudence, was that King Lobhengula as sovereign had proprietary title in all the unalloted land in his kingdom. As land was not a commodity among the pre-colonial people of Zimbabwe, Lobhengula enjoyed neither ultimate nor proprietary title akin to that which had emerged during the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England” (1997:14-15).

 As such, reclamation of land as a symbol of decolonisation and emancipation needs to go beyond simply replacing white owners with black owners. A “new species of man” is desired, as Fanon states. Because of the implicit ties between the racial fetish and the commodity fetish, and thus capitalism, a carefully planned and well thought out land reform programme can also be seen as an invitation to the peoples at the periphery to experiment with different forms of societal organisation. Otherwise, the kind of relations that have been going on under the racial fetish carry on, only with a different form of fetish in place that entails both the fetishised and those doing the fetishising having the same skin colour. In Zimbabwe, much of the redistribution of land has been centred on “loyalty” to the ruling party. The land reacquired via the Fast Track Land Reform Programme is mostly under the trusteeship of the government, a government that has divided its citizens into “patriots” and “sell-outs” and that reserves the right to decide who is a “true Zimbabwean” so that these individuals can be rewarded accordingly.

The land reacquired via the Fast Track Land Reform Programme is mostly under the trusteeship of the government, a government that has divided its citizens into “patriots” and “sell-outs” and that reserves the right to decide who is a “true Zimbabwean” so that these individuals can be rewarded accordingly.

At the same time, one must note that it’s difficult for the peoples at the periphery to experiment with their own forms of societal organisation. There are pressures to become part of a unified world, via globalisation. And yet, globalisation, the notion of a unified world with the West at the centre still, is the continuation and consolidation of an oppressive structure in which the majority of the black and brown peoples of the world still retain their “peripheral” stature. As such, attempts by the periphery to realise itself and experiment with social modes that may grant it some level of autonomy from the centre are always thwarted by the centre, be it via political, economic or military means. The Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel, in his edifying treatise, Philosophy of Liberation, puts it thus:

“…imperialism cannot afford to lose the political control it exercises over peripheral countries, because it would lose markets that yield enormous profits. That is why popular liberation, the seizure of power by popular groups, threatens the very survival of the entire system of the centre, of capitalist social formation” (1985:76).

Now that Africa is the last frontier of economic expansion, in order to breed the consumer-crazed sheep of tomorrow (or today already) there is the “Africa Rising” narrative (rising on a Western narrative and on Western sensibilities and terms)—the “African” is finally a human being, but to qualify as such one must be a special kind of African, the middle and ruling class kind, who has been coopted into capitalism’s project and is able to participate as a profit maker on capitalism’s ledger. Meanwhile, those rands and shillings are ultimately going back as profits to the headquarters of the multinationals to once again enrich the centre, the Western spheres, leaving petty change at the periphery.

Can this be said to be a genuine step forward in the periphery that brings it closer to edifying its own existence and realising its own societal ideas of being and self? Clearly not. What then are the conditions that are necessary for decolonisation in Africa, and in countries such as Zimbabwe where land plays such a central role to this process? What role can land play in this successful decolonisation? How do we ensure that decolonisation is not hijacked and coopted by corrupt state mechanisations? How do we utilise our history to catapult us into a just and equitable future?

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Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a Zimbabwean writer and author of the recently published book House of Stone

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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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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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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