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CITIZEN OR SUBJECT? The struggle between Kenya’s better self and its corrupted version

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In his op-ed for the Washington Post, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed “every confidence that the impasse in Kenya would be resolved by the new vote.” Which is strange given that the current impasse is precisely about the new vote, the fresh election ordered by the Supreme Court after it annulled the August presidential election in which Kenyatta had been declared the winner.

As Kenyatta stated, that historic decision by the Supreme Court came as a shock to everyone – just not for the reasons he espouses. It wasn’t because international observers had hastily declared the polls free and fair (and equally hastily tried to walk that back following the nullification). Anyone who followed the publicly televised proceedings would have been treated to the spectacle of the country’s electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, disowning the results it had streamed on TV screens during the tallying of the votes. If the president had read the full Supreme Court majority judgment, he would have heard tales of differing forms used to declare the outcome (“If they were forgeries, who introduced them into the system? If they were genuine, why were they different from the others?” asked the judges) and of the IEBC defying the court’s order to have its servers audited and acting as though the constitution and election law didn’t exist.

That sufficient grounds existed to question the veracity of the results announced by the IEBC is not seriously contested. The real reason for the surprise at the reversal was that no one expected that the power of Kenya’s “owners” would be seriously questioned.

Kenya ina wenyewe or Kenya has its owners – the wenyenchi – is a common refrain throughout the country. What it refers to is the fact that the country is set up to work for very few individuals at the very top. This is a legacy of the country’s colonial past, and the fact that President Kenyatta’s predecessors, including his father, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, failed to reform the colonial state they inherited from the British.

That sufficient grounds existed to question the veracity of the results announced by the IEBC is not seriously contested. The real reason for the surprise at the reversal was that no one expected that the power of Kenya’s “owners” would be seriously questioned.

Yet the struggles to change that state were at the core of the independence struggle, and those debates were not just carried out in London, where Kenya’s independence constitution was negotiated; even the Mau Mau created a Parliament in the bush and debated the shape a free country should take. It is not, as President Kenyatta asserted on the eve of the new vote on 26 October, that “our forefathers fought and died for the right of the African to vote” in a political and economic system defined by the colonialists.

Sadly, these efforts were all betrayed. In 1992, the current Attorney-General, Githu Muigai, described how this betrayal came about:

“The colonial order had been one monolithic edifice of power that did not rely on any set of rules for legitimisation. When the independence constitution was put into place it was completely at variance with the authoritarian administrative structures that were still kept in place by the entire corpus of public law. Part of the initial amendments therefore involved an attempt – albeit misguided – to harmonise the operations of a democratic constitution with an undemocratic and authoritarian administrative structure. Unhappily instead of the latter being amended to fit the former, the former was altered to fit the latter with the result that the constitution was effectively downgraded.”

In effect, the colonial state, and its logic of extracting resources from the many to enrich a few wenyenchi – the political elite that replaced the British colonials at the apex of Kenya’s political arrangement – prevailed. The renewed push for a new constitution in the 1990s, which culminated in the promulgation of the 2010 document, was another attempt to reconfigure the state. However, like its independence counterpart, the current constitution continues to face opposition from Kenya’s “owners” who were content to allow a semblance of democracy as long as it did not fundamentally challenge their place at the top. Democracy was never meant to be real, but the September 1 annulment of the presidential election changed all that.

“I did not agree with that decision. But I accepted it,” wrote Kenyatta. He was being disingenuous. The decision shook him – and his fellow “owners” – to the core. What followed was an emotional and frenzied attack on the courts led by the president himself. He branded the judges “wakora” or bandits and said that the judgment was a “judicial coup” that he promised to “revisit”. Soon his supporters, led by David Murathe, the Vice-Chairperson of his Jubilee Party, were openly extolling the virtues of dictatorship.

In the meantime, the president did not just “immediately return to campaigning, taking the case for a renewal of my mandate to the people of Kenya once again”, as he claimed. In Parliament, his allies were busy changing electoral laws to essentially make it impossible for another presidential election to ever be annulled and to regularise the illegal acts of the IEBC. Even more worrying, this fit into a wider trend where democratic rights and freedoms were being progressively curtailed.

A report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claims that up to 67 people in opposition strongholds may have been killed by the police in the period following the August 8 election. Avenues for popular political participation – from the media to civil society to street protests – are being closed. As Kavuwa Musyoka describes this state of affiars in Julia Steers’ article on police killings in Nairobi’s informal settlements, “It is democracy for the have-its. The have-nots do not have democracy. In the slums, democracy is not ours.”

The insistence on holding this election thus had little to do with, as Kenyatta suggested, resolving the political impasse. Neither was the election about Kenyatta’s main rival, Raila Odinga, whose “devotion to … democracy” can be questioned given his past willingness to align with despots and defend kleptocrats when it suited him. It was rather about putting down the democratic revolt that the Supreme Court threatened in September and ensuring that the owners stay in charge.

Even judges may not feel safe. Following an attack on her bodyguard, the Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu was unable to attend the scheduled hearing on the eve of the election of an urgent case at the Supreme Court seeking to have the 26 October election postponed, a possibility that Kenyatta had flatly rejected. Her absence, along with that of four other judges (two so far without explanation and another claiming she couldn’t get a flight to Nairobi), meant the case could not be heard as the two available justices could not constitute a quorum.

It was in this context that the fresh election was being held. It was not entirely true, as the president asserted, that the international community had “declared support for the upcoming election”. Prior to the election, Western diplomats warned that “inflammatory rhetoric and attacks on the election commission made it more difficult to hold a legitimate poll”. Before that, the IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati had declared that all his efforts to reform the commission had been frustrated and that he could not guarantee a free fair and credible poll. However, by the time he was announcing the election results on Monday this week, his tone had changed considerably. He declared that having received assurances of security and restraint from the police and the president, he had changed his mind about the IEBC’s ability to carry out a free and fair election.

Around the world, elections do little to resolve political problems. From Afghanistan to Egypt and even in established democracies like the US and the UK, they tend to polarise public opinion rather than bring people together. The insistence on holding this election thus had little to do with, as Kenyatta suggested, resolving the political impasse. Neither was the election about Kenyatta’s main rival, Raila Odinga, whose “devotion to … democracy” can be questioned given his past willingness to align with despots and defend kleptocrats when it suited him. It was rather about putting down the democratic revolt that the Supreme Court threatened in September and ensuring that the owners stay in charge.

The gambit appears to have backfired. With Odinga refusing to participate in the election and calling for a boycott, Kenyatta’s win was a foregone conclusion. However, the legitimacy of his victory was pegged on the voter turnout, which explains the shenanigans the IEBC has gone to seemingly massage the figures. Once again, as happened in August, the IEBC is running away from the data generated by its own voter identification and results transmission kits – known as KIEMS (Kenya Integrated Election Management System) kits – which were meant to periodically give turnout figures throughout the day as voting happened. Aside from convoluted explanations for why it wouldn’t be releasing the data from KIEMS, the elections body has also offered differing numbers, with Chebukati at one point offering what he would later call a “best estimate” of 48 per cent voter turnout, before paring that back to just over 6.5 million voters, or 33% with 91% of constituencies reporting. The lower figure tallies with media reports of depressed turnout throughout voting day, including in Kenyatta’s strongholds.

A high turnout would have seen Kenyatta claim some measure of popular endorsement for his efforts to roll back the constitutional order. The opposite indicates serious misgivings about how the election was conducted even in his electoral backyard. Along with a poll showing most Kenyans, including half of those in Kenyatta’s strongholds, approved of the decision to annul the August election, this suggests that across the political divide, Kenyans prefer credible processes to fixed outcomes. And even though he claims vindication, the low turnout was not so much an endorsement of Odinga but rather a repudiation of the wenyenchi’s schemes to frustrate the constitution.

A high turnout would have seen Kenyatta claim some measure of popular endorsement for his efforts to roll back the constitutional order. The opposite indicates serious misgivings about how the election was conducted even in his electoral backyard. Along with a poll showing most Kenyans, including half of those in Kenyatta’s strongholds, approved of the decision to annul the August election, this suggests that across the political divide, Kenyans prefer credible processes to fixed outcomes. And even though he claims vindication, the low turnout was not so much an endorsement of Odinga but rather a repudiation of the wenyenchi’s schemes to frustrate the constitution.

So where does Kenya go from here? Kenyatta has said he is now willing to talk to Raila Odinga, though no one is sure what about. However, Kenyans should be wary of leaving the country’s future to the two leaders. Kenya’s political factions have historically not been interested in free and fair polls, but rather in retaining their ability to manipulate results while denying the same to their opponents.

Similarly, the issues that need to be addressed must go beyond the narrow political interests in carrying out a more legitimate election. Kenya’s historical experience with politicians negotiating electoral reform teaches that politicians are not fundamentally interested in the people’s right to choose their leaders, but in the politicians’ ability to hold onto power. The inevitable horse-trading leads to minimal reforms and shortchanging of the electorate.

A good example of this was the effort to reform the IEBC last year where, off the bat, the politicians agreed they would not change the constitution to give the Supreme Court more time to comprehensively deal with legal challenges to the outcome of the presidential election, currently limited to 14 days. This despite the fact that following the 2013 challenge to Kenyatta’s election, the then Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, had said that the court needed more time. The court ended up throwing the meat out of Odinga’s case citing limited time, and declared the 2013 election free and fair. More worryingly, another Supreme Court judge would later admit that the court might have come to a different conclusion if it had been given more time.

Similarly, in the run-up to the 1997 polls, and following huge pressure for reform driven by civil society, parliamentary politicians ganged up to steal activists’ thunder by agreeing to a set of minimum reforms that not only did away with many of the critical demands but which were also never entrenched in law. A decade later, President Mwai Kibaki’s repudiation of the “gentleman’s agreement” that had allowed opposition politicians a say in the appointment of electoral commissioners fatally undermined the credibility of the 2007 elections and set the stage for the violence that followed, which killed over 1,300 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

Kenya cannot afford to leave its politics to the whims of its politicians. Any talks should be conducted within the context of a wider national dialogue that involves a wider cross-section of society, including representatives of civil society, workers as well as religious and business leaders. Similarly, the issues to be addressed must go beyond the narrow interests of political parties. The agenda must include the people’s “irreducible minimums”: comprehensive audit and reform of the electoral system; constitutional changes to shore up the independence of the judiciary and other constitutional bodies; reform of the police; compliance with all the provisions of the constitution, including the requirement that no gender should have more than two-thirds representation in any appointive or electoral bodies; and implementation of the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which has been gathering dust in Parliament for the last three years, so that Kenya can finally begin the hard work of righting the wrongs of the past.

Kenya cannot afford to leave its politics to the whims of its politicians. Any talks should be conducted within the context of a wider national dialogue that involves a wider cross-section of society, including representatives of civil society, workers as well as religious and business leaders.

Inadvertently, President Kenyatta has provided Kenyans an opportunity to consolidate their nation’s future and begin to develop a genuine democracy – one that works for all its people and not just a few. It is an opportunity that must not be wasted.

However, dangers remain. The ruling elite will not easily give up its privileged position, which is undergirded by the state. The colonial regime was not legitimised by popular will but by a combination of brute force, co-option of ethnic elites and dividing the people along ethnic lines. The continuing brutal crackdown on protests and the use of tribal militia in tit-for-tat attacks shows that the country’s owners’ appetite for both state-sponsored and privately contracted violence is undimmed. Further, the many defections of opposition politicians, as well as the fanning of ethnic animosity, show that these owners have not lost their capacity to co-opt and to practise the politics of divide and rule.

The reform of the state is by no means inevitable; it will be forcefully resisted. “Kenya’s internal conflict is instead between its better self, the liberal, open, law-abiding country so often apparent, and a more retrograde, corrupted version” writes Andreas Katsouris, a Canadian political consultant who was working on Odinga’s August campaign before he was abducted and deported by Kenyan authorities. It is now a struggle in which the Kenyan people have clearly shown which side they are on.

By Patrick Gathara
Mr Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

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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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