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NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Hope and fear in Zimbabwe

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NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Hope and fear in Zimbabwe
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The immigration official at Harare’s Robert Mugabe International Airport looked up after examining my passport, his face expressionless.

“Why have you come to Zimbabwe?”

“To celebrate,” I replied.

“What will you be celebrating?”

“Zimbabwe’s liberation,” I said, holding my breath. Journalists without visas have not been welcome in Zimbabwe for most of Robert Mugabe’s autocratic reign.

I need not have worried.

Joined by his colleagues, he burst into laughter, stamped my passport, and waved me through.

At one level at least, Zimbabwe has changed for the better. Despair has been replaced by hope. Views are expressed freely and openly. Optimism hangs in the air, albeit tempered by caution. Nonetheless, the optimism is tangible – almost as tangible as the musty smell of the parched earth as it soaks up the first of the country’s summer rains.

But less than a month since the country’s generals orchestrated the removal of the ageing dictator without the bloodshed and looting associated with coups the world over, concerns and doubts are creeping in.

Will the wave of goodwill be squandered by the new regime? Will the optimism turn to cynicism and plans for a fresh start become no more than an illusion? Are we seeing, not the emergence of democracy, but the modernisation of a one-party state, the overdue infusion of life into a sclerotic regime led by a despotic old man, increasingly under the influence of an ambitious wife?

At one level at least, Zimbabwe has changed for the better. Despair has been replaced by hope.

Or is the change in mood in itself an assurance that the process of reform will get underway? Is the change in mood of sufficient intensity to prevent back-sliding?

On a previous visit to Zimbabwe, the land that nurtured me until I was twenty, and on which I have reported for nearly 40 years, my time had been soured by tension and fear generated by authoritarian regimes, whether white or black.

Would the mood of a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe be sustained, and would it be radically different?

I set off from London to see and to feel for myself.

***

Together with a photographer colleague, we spent the next week travelling across the country, talking to anyone who was prepared to talk to us: mission priests, teachers, roadside vendors, taxi drivers, civil rights lawyers, political activists, hotel stewards, opposition leaders, students and university lecturers.

The journey would take us to the eastern border town of Mutare, picturesque but run-down, nestling in the green hills of the Nyanga mountain range, and on to Catholic mission stations a three-hour drive north of the city, on the border with Mozambique.

I had first visited these missions in 1975, at the peak of Rhodesia’s guerrilla war. Four years later, Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe. The conflict ended at the Lancaster House conference in London, but not before hundreds of children from the mission schools had sacrificed their careers and crossed the border to join Robert Mugabe’s guerrilla army.

Back to Harare, and on to the town of Chinoyi, north of the capital, driving through the countryside that had been home to many of the 4,500 white farmers forcibly evicted from their land by government-backed mobs.

Finally, a 40-minute flight to the southern city of Bulawayo, stronghold of the opposition Zapu party and capital of the province of Matabeleland, scene of one of the darkest events in the country’s history – the massacre, known as gukurundi, of some 20,000 civilians.

In different ways, the journeys touched on many of the issues confronting the new president Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Will the government agree to a commission of inquiry into the massacre?

How would it handle compensation for white farmers?

Would the composition of the new cabinet reflect the new Zimbabwe?

And would the 75-year old president, nicknamed the Crocodile, who had loyally served Robert Mugabe for the last 40 years, repent his past and turn over a new leaf?

Not only was the land reform conducted violently, many of the grabbed farms were allocated to cronies of Mugabe, including the army generals who would later remove him.

In his inauguration address, no one was surprised when Mr. Mnangagwa ruled out a return of land to the farmers:

“Dispossession of our ancestral land was the fundamental reason for waging the liberation struggle. It would be a betrayal of the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives…if we reverse the gains we have made in reclaiming our land.”

He failed, however, to address the central concern of commentators who sympathised with the principle of land reform, but who were critical of its implementation. Not only was the land reform conducted violently, many of the grabbed farms were allocated to cronies of Mugabe, including the army generals who would later remove him.

Mr. Mnangagwa did make one concession:

“My government is committed to compensating the farmers from whom the land was taken.”

But the farmers will not be holding their breath.

“The government has not the funds to cover even modest compensation.”

Of far greater concern is the tragedy of Matabeleland. We spoke to David Coltart, a Bulawayo-based human rights lawyer, and a former senator widely admired for his work as education minister in the government of national unity.

He has no doubt about Mr. Mnangagwa’s complicity in the slaughter of civilians in the early 1980s. At the time, he was head of the country’s Central Intelligence Organisation, and had access to the membership records of Zapu. The impact of the information was devastating. Party officials were singled out, interrogated and summarily executed, effectively destroying Zapu, says Coltart, who has detailed this infamous campaign in his book, The Struggle Continues: 50 years of tyranny in Zimbabwe.

The only way this boil can be lanced, say survivors, is for Mr. Mnangagwa to admit his role in the slaughter and to apologise. He must also agree to a public inquiry, and to providing compensation in the form of schools, clinics, boreholes and other community services.

A senior Zapu official was doubtful that such steps would ever be taken. The alternative, he warned, was an embittered, resentful people who account for one in five of Zimbabwe’s population.

One obstacle to such an inquiry is the loyalty of the new regime to the former president, who, after all, bears overall responsibility for the slaughter – just as he does for the state of the country today.

Far from condemning the man, his successor has gone out of his way to praise him:

“He remains a father, mentor, comrade in arms and my leader…History will grant him his proper place and accord him his deserved stature as one of the founders and leaders of our nation…I have no doubt that over time we will appreciate the solid foundation laid by my predecessor.”

Needless to say, this view is not shared by most Zimbabweans. Eddie Cross, a Bulawayo member of parliament, has calculated the cost of Robert Mugabe’s plundering of state resources. Cross reckons that Mugabe embezzled around $80 billion during his 37 years in office, which culminated in the theft of $21 billion in diamonds from the alluvial deposits in Marange – equal to 8 times Zimbabwe’s national debt.

Cross reckons that Mugabe embezzled around $80 billion during his 37 years in office, which culminated in the theft of $21 billion in diamonds from the alluvial deposits in Marange – equal to 8 times Zimbabwe’s national debt.

The human cost of Mugabe’s reign is harder to calculate, but Cross blames him for the premature deaths of 3 million Zimbabweans as life expectancy crashed from over 60 years in 1980 to 35 years during his reign. And added to this grim toll are at least a million Zimbabweans who fled the country in search of work or to avoid repression.

***

We were in Bulawayo when the names of the new cabinet members were announced, which was seen as the first sign of the president’s intentions.

Hopes that it would include new blood and fresh talent were dashed. With an average age of the mid-fifties, only one woman, and four ministers with army backgrounds, the cabinet appeared business as usual.

It should have come as no surprise. An editorial in the state-controlled daily newspaper, the Herald, had earlier given advocates of a cabinet of talent short shrift.

“Zanu-PF has a clear mandate,” read the headline.

“Why have a government of national unity…when Zanu-PF has a clear mandate?” the paper asked.

“The challenge is to reconcile the interests of the revolution with those of the people who went into the streets…those who have struggled for years to put Zanu-PF in the dustbin of history”.

The message was unmistakable: The ruling party has no intention of surrendering its grip on power.

“The honeymoon with Mnangagwa is over,” declared Cross after the announcement of the cabinet.

“He has made a major tactical error and both the country and the international community are going to adopt a wait and see attitude, which is really what he does not need. He has been unable to throw off the mantle of Zanu-PF and the military junta…Can he carry (the party) over the finish line just 8 months away in the form of an election?”

A more accurate metaphor, however, may be to see the relationship between Zimbabwe and the donors not as a short honeymoon, but as a shotgun marriage.

Neither the government of Zimbabwe nor the international and bilateral donors are comfortable in the relationship now being forged.  The former will resent the conditions attached to urgently needed financial support; the latter will surely feel uncomfortable with having to deal with such an insalubrious group of ministers.

Only China will have no qualms; well ahead of the field as it provided substantial emergency funding.

The outcome is uncertain.

Is a process of genuine reform under way or are we witnessing the salvaging of Zanu-PF, which is being rescued by Western donors from a crisis of its own making, yet which is unrepentant and arrogant and intolerant of dissent? The opposition in disarray and the press and social media are monitored.

In the meantime, Zimbabweans and donors alike are waiting for a concrete gesture from the president that allows them to believe that the crocodile can change his nature.

Zimbabwe has a culture of deference to authority and veneration of age. What else explains the full-page advertisements in the country’s newspapers extoling the virtues of their new leader, whose brutal past is well known, and who must surely share the responsibility for the sorry state of Zimbabwe today?

Many Zimbabweans express pride at the bloodless nature of the coup. Only in Zimbabwe, they say, could there have been such a peaceful transformation from dictatorship to a celebration that brought hundreds of thousands of joyful dancing citizens onto the streets, embracing soldiers as they celebrated.

But there are two sides to this coin.

Zimbabwe has a culture of deference to authority and veneration of age. What else explains the full-page advertisements in the country’s newspapers extoling the virtues of their new leader, whose brutal past is well known, and who must surely share the responsibility for the sorry state of Zimbabwe today?

“We pledge our unwavering support and absolute dedication…your wise counsel and visionary leadership … your astute quality,” read one especially obsequious endorsement. Not since the days of Ian Smith, the former prime minister who was hero-worshipped by white Rhodesians, has there been such a fawning welcome to the man in office.

Meanwhile, images and scenes from the journey recur like flashbacks:
workers painting road signs in the farming town of Rusape on a Sunday; grass growing in Mutare’s main street; the colonnaded, wood paneled, century-old Bulawayo Club; women selling mushrooms by the roadside in the Nyanga national park; the polite treatment at a roadblock north of Mutare; guti (mist) clearing as the sun rose over the resort of Troutbec.

But the most vivid and most memorable image is the one of the students at the mission where we spent a night.  Confident youngsters, smartly turned out, free from the horror of war that had destroyed the lives of an earlier generation, expressing a determination to succeed in their chosen professions.

Today a cabal of old men run Zimbabwe. If they have the good sense not to cling to power, the country’s future is in safe hands.

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Mr Holman was brought up in Zimbabwe. He was Africa editor of the Financial Times from 1984 until 2002; between 1977 and 1984 he was the Financial Times’ Africa correspondent, based in Lusaka, Zambia.

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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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
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Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.

The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.

The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.

The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He or she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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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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