I was born in 1988, eight years after Zimbabwe’s independence from British colonial rule. I am thus considered a “Born Free” — meaning one born after the liberation war. For a long time, particularly over the last two decades and the fraught turmoil we have endured as Zimbabweans, the term has been used to denigrate those of us who were born into freedom from colonial rule and did not experience the struggles of the liberation war.
Robert Mugabe, for me, has always been a figure of ambivalence. This is because many people from Matabeleland, where I come from, have always had a great loathing for him. As a child, I was never able to fully understand why.
It was only when I began working on my novel House of Stone, which has been my way of trying to understand and grapple with the many faces of Zimbabwe’s past, that I came face to face with one of these faces, Gukurahundi, the genocide in Matabeleland and Midlands that occurred in the 1980s, shortly after independence. Gukurahundi was something I grew up knowing about, for it is spoken about among the people of Matabeleland with great pain and in fearful whispers; it’s taboo in Zimbabwe to remember the genocide, and those who remember these “criminal memories” are constantly punished.
It is for this reason that the genocide was something I knew about but did not know. This ambivalence about working through our pasts as well as our presents is something I grew up with; it’s the tentativeness born from having to live in a state of physical or psychological violence. This ambivalence was amplified in 2001 when I was in my teens and when our socio-politico-economic meltdown started – when things became so unbearable for my family, as they did for millions of Zimbabwean families, so much so that we had to leave for South Africa in search of a better life in 2009.
This culture of erasing whole peoples and their experiences from the geographical, communal and imaginative space that is Zimbabwe is not unique to the past two decades; it’s an indelible part of our Zimbabwean history, as Gukurahundi exemplifies.
Ambivalence was a necessary condition for us to go about living, loving, celebrating, mourning and dreaming amidst the constant stress of the empty supermarkets, the never-ending scuffles in the queues for food and money, and the abuse lambasted at us by Mugabe and his advocates on state media. Politicians and army generals would pop up on state television during election time declaring that there would be war if the populace dared to vote for the opposition party, MDC, and that Zimbabweans who did not support Zanu (PF) and its doctrines were traitors and sell-outs who deserved to be expelled, ideologically, communally and most terrifying of all, violently, from the Zimbabwean imagination. This culture of erasing whole peoples and their experiences from the geographical, communal and imaginative space that is Zimbabwe is not unique to the past two decades; it’s an indelible part of our Zimbabwean history, as Gukurahundi exemplifies.
Many of my family members found Gukurahundi too difficult to talk about when I asked them as part of my research for House of Stone, as it brought up so much pain. This pain is not just a pain about what is past—for the past is never about the past, but is about the future and dealt with in relation to the present. It’s very much a pain that endures in the present, since those who went through Gukurahundi are not acknowledged by our communities and our country, meaning they are not able to freely mourn their dead, exhume mass graves, perform rites, build shrines, work through their trauma, and come together in remembrance and healing – things that are done for other periods in our country’s history where great suffering and loss was endured, such as the liberation war.
In her introduction to the book Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe on the Catholic Commission Report on the genocide — the said report which euphemistically described the genocide as “disturbances in Matabeleland and Midlands”— writer and human rights activist Elinor Sisulu writes:
“The Shona expression ‘Gukurahundi’, meaning ‘the first rain that washes away the chaff of the last harvest before the spring rains’, used to have pleasant connotations…In the 1980s the term Gukurahundi assumed an entirely new meaning when the North Korean-trained 5 Brigade murdered thousands of people in the Zimbabwean province of Matabeleland and parts of Midlands. Both the 5 Brigade and the period of mayhem and murder they caused were called Gukurahundi, which is why, since then, the word Gukurahundi invokes nothing but negative emotions among Zimbabweans, ranging from indifference, shame, denial, terror, bitter anger and deep trauma, depending on whether one is a victim, perpetrator or one of the millions of citizens who remained silent.”
My research for House of Stone showed me that Gukurahundi was not just “something terrible that happened” and gave me an opportunity to confront the experiences and testimonies of the victims who endured it. The Catholic Church Commission Report has the most comprehensive of these testimonies, including reports about the goings on at places such as Bhalagwe Concentration Camp, which was near Antelope Mine in the Kezi district of Matabeleland South. Here, horror is told of sharp objects being forced up women’s genitals, of civilians being forced to have sexual relations with donkeys and beaten up if they refused. Other reports relate water torture, which included drenching the victim’s head in a bucket of water, and then the perpertrator jumping on the victim’s stomach until he vomited blood.
The atrocities committed during Gukurahundi, then, were not just against the people of Matabeleland; they were also against Shona as a language and as a culture, against the humanistic values and precepts that this language and culture carries, and thus, against the Shona people as well.
In the villages, civilians were made to dig graves, and then forced to watch as their loved ones were ordered into these graves and shot; they were then forced to cover the mass graves, and then dance on top of these graves while singing praises to Mugabe. It has been very confusing for these victims because although the genocide was not an ethnic one (civilians from Mashonaland did not come to Matabeleland and commit these acts on the civilians there); the specially trained 5 Brigade that committed these atrocities were mostly Shona speaking, and would force the mostly Ndebele civilians to chant praises to Mugabe in Shona while dancing on the graves of their loved ones.
Thus, language was abused as a tool of terror, and has caused great trauma to the victims. The atrocities committed during Gukurahundi, then, were not just against the people of Matabeleland; they were also against Shona as a language and as a culture, against the humanistic values and precepts that this language and culture carries, and thus, against the Shona people as well. Many Zimbabweans don’t seem to know or understand exactly what happened during Gukurahundi, and why this period looms large for its victims and their communities. Hence the importance of working through our histories. (More on the findings by the Catholic Commission Report here.)
Having to read, watch and listen to these testimonies caused me to break down. I wept for our people, for their humanity, for their dehumanisation, and for the silence that continues to surround what they went through. Yet, witnessing and re-experiencing was a necessary step, is a necessary step, towards empathy, towards being able to see others.
The culture of violence around Gukurahundi in our country encourages a looking around but not a looking at the victims who experienced it and who live with its scars. Many discussions about the genocide tend to weaponise the victims; as tools and symbols for justice, for instance. Though justice is necessary, weaponising the victims in this way — as symbols caught in this dehumanising glare, without fleshing them out as human beings whose humanity we seek to recover and honour — has the ironic effect of de-centring them, so that we are unable to see them and thus witness with them, which is the first step towards building empathy, and prioritising them and their healing.
Perhaps, with this landmark removal of Grandfather after thirty-seven years from the office of President, we can begin to look our histories in the face and work through them.
Perhaps, with this landmark removal of Grandfather after thirty-seven years from the office of President, we can begin to look our histories in the face and work through them. This is something we ought to do for our own sakes, as a matter of moving into a future that honours our humanity, as Africans, and makes sure the cycle of violence that has been unacknowledged in our country right from its inception does not keep repeating itself.
Many eulogies, odes and critiques have been written about Grandfather since the army’s soft coup, the protest marches, and his resignation. In many of them, Grandfather has been the towering centre. Even in the bitter criticisms about him, he remains, ironically, the main visible figure in the glare of the indicting spotlight. Furthermore, the Mugabe who is alternately deified or indicted is not Mugabe the person; he is objectified to represent the land reform programme, for instance, or Zimbabwe’s excellent education system, or Gukurahundi, or the liberation war, or our recent desperate decades of destruction.
I think of these abstractions of Mugabe as a manifestation, in our languages and our psyches, of the authoritarian culture we have lived with for the past thirty-seven years. It has led not just to physical and political violence, but has also affected us psychologically and culturally, leading to a narrowing of our imaginings and thus our vocabulary. In all of this, Mugabe the person, Mugabe as a person, is lost, and in it, we, as people, as well as our humanity, are lost, too.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that in order for us to recoup our humanity, we need to recoup Grandfather’s humanity, too? In humanising him, we are removing him from the deified aura he has sought to build around himself and that others have helped to build around him, which has affected how we experience reality, rendering us imprisoned in his glare and thus unable to look at and see one another. This deification has also influenced the kinds of values we have come to prioritise in our country, such as “cleverness,” which we tend to use to describe acts of corrupt wheeling and dealing.
In humanising him, we also humanise ourselves.
It would be so very easy to dehumanise Grandfather; the impulse is there. I loathe him for what his governance put us through, for what he has come to represent for us. I lost loved ones in the last two decades who didn’t have to die – aunts, uncles, and cousins, some only children. I hate that this kind of loss became normalised; our cemeteries overflow with graves, many of them child-sized.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that in order for us to recoup our humanity, we need to recoup Grandfather’s humanity, too? In humanising him, we are removing him from the deified aura he has sought to build around himself and that others have helped to build around him, which has affected how we experience reality, rendering us imprisoned in his glare and thus unable to look at and see one another.
Why do I keep emphasising humanity, Grandfather’s humanity and our humanity as Africans? Because African lives, right from the time of colonisation, have always been rendered “unimportant” and thus fit for being sacrificed for “the greater good.” African lives have always been deemed fit to wait a little longer for the recognition of their humanity; for the sake of “unity” or “progress,” we shove aside the protests of the suffering and the dissenting. This is manifested in the way in which they, African lives, remain a clump of shadows in our discussions about our societies, never meant to disturb any glare that we wish to shine on those in power, be it celebratory or accusatory. In this sense, African lives become weaponised, and thus sacrificial, for other wars we claim to fight in their name and for their well-being; wars against Western imperialism, for example.
In this sense, Mugabe – the misnomer we continue to use to describe wholesale pasts and futures – has the unwitting effect of perpetuating authoritarian culture and its intolerance for contradictions and the existence of multiple realities and truths. This misnomer also erases us from the human glare. By using it to describe wholesale pasts and periods, we render ourselves as existing because of and thanks to Mugabe the abstraction.
Our mythologising of these abstractions, then, sets up our de-humanisation— we become enthralled with the myth, and in tying our narratives about ourselves to it, in banking our humanity on the myth’s existence and endurance, we shackle ourselves to upholding it at any cost, including the cost of denying and brushing aside the experiences of, and thus de-humanising, those in our communities who have horrific experiences and memories that shatter this myth. Like the victims and survivors of Gukurahundi.
Ironically, it’s in Mugabe’s humanisation, and not de-humanisation (we do not seek to de-mythologise him as a matter of stripping him of his humanity, which is as much a stripping of our own humanity as is the act of deifying him), that we realise our own humanisation, too. In the spirit of working with what one has, we can use the weapons that authoritarian culture has used to build itself over the last thirty-seven years to free ourselves from it.
All of this was facilitated and justified ideologically by the land reform programme, known as The Third Chimurenga, which I think of as the hijacking of real and true grievances for nefarious purposes.
We ought not to, for instance, if we are to recognise our humanity, talk about the honeymoon years of Zimbabwe’s independence, its education policies and prosperity for its citizens, without talking about and witnessing the victims and survivors of the Gukurahundi genocide. In the same way, we can’t talk about the land reform programme, which as a concept and a process was necessary (land was always at the centre of the liberation struggle) without talking about everything else that was done to the people of Zimbabwe over the past two decades in its name: beatings; Operation Murambatsvina; facilitation of corruption; repression of freedom of speech and civic participation and gatherings; rigging of elections and withholding of election results; abduction of activists such as Jestina Mukoko and disappearance of activists such as Itai Dzamara; conflating patriotism with supporting Zanu (PF); considering Zimbabweans who do not agree with Zanu (PF)’s doctrines as “non-Zimbabweans” and “un-Zimbabwean”; and criminalising the discussion of our pasts, both pre- and post-independence.
All of this was facilitated and justified ideologically by the land reform programme, known as The Third Chimurenga, which I think of as the hijacking of real and true grievances for nefarious purposes. It is true that corruption and genocide are used by Western governments to blackmail non-Western leaders to conform to the unfair way the world is run. It is also true that corruption and genocide are used by non-Western leaders to coerce their populations into accepting the ways they run them. In all of this, one thing endures: African lives remain abstract in the imaginations of colonial and post-colonial societies, and are considered easy or somehow justifiable collateral, readily cast aside, unwitnessed, and swept under carpets so as to pave the way for authoritarian re-imaginings and the deifying of those in power.
A democratisation or opening up of our societies also entails a democratisation and opening up of our language and our imaginings. Instead of using “Mugabe” or even “Mnangagwa” as short-cut terms for both our dreams and nightmares (as metaphors they are inaccurate because they erase or hide other individuals and groups who have contributed to these dreams and nightmares), we may do well to try to be concrete, and in this way expansive, in our vocabulary. These misnomers carry so many histories; we use them to capture the vast events we seek to evoke, yet they end up contradicting these events. Words matter; how we use them matters.
In re-couping our humanity, I’m imagining a kind of practice that offers a third way for African lives. A way that centres them and honours them as real and concrete. A way that says: African Lives Matter. Ubuntu—I Am, You Are, We Are.
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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.
Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.
The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.
The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.
The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He/she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.
KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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